In the spring of 2010, when Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane beat Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton in Philadelphia, he launched his gloves into the air in celebration at just about the same moment the hockey world realized Kane had just won the Chicago Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup since 1961. In that moment, most observers anticipated it wouldn't be long until Kane and the Hawks would get a chance at another one.
Sure, there was some salary to shed from that team, but with young stars like Kane, Jonathan Toews and a Norris Trophy-worthy defenseman in Duncan Keith anchoring the blueline, there was a core in place that gave this team a look of one that would compete for a while.
One year later, the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins didn't have quite the same feel. Their Cup run wasn't so much the coming of age of a young, talented core as much as it was a veteran goalie in Tim Thomas who willed this team to wins, while guys like Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron took turns providing timely offense. Factor in the impact of a veteran like Mark Recchi, who announced his retirement while the Stanley Cup was being passed around him, and it was hard to gauge exactly when these Bruins would get another crack at it.
Well, here they both are.
They're both back, and one of these two teams will become the first NHL team to win a second Stanley Cup since the 2005 lockout.
It's all but impossible to repeat in the salary-cap era, and, with the parity in today's NHL, there's no such thing as a dynasty. But the next seven games will go a long way in determining which of these teams takes the lead in being the best franchise of this post-lockout era. Two championships in three seasons for the Bruins or two in four for the Blackhawks. Either way, it's an impressive accomplishment when the separation between teams is so tight. Here are five keys to making one of those realities happen:
1. Slam the brakes on the other team's momentum
Being on the brink of elimination seemed to wake up the Blackhawks. Since falling to the Detroit Red Wings 3-1, Chicago has won seven of eight games. There might or might not be such a thing as momentum from one game to the next, but there's no doubt the Blackhawks are now playing with increased focus and confidence compared to the start of the playoffs.
The Bruins are going even better.
"Boston is like an 18-wheeler out of control with no brakes," one longtime NHL scout said. "They're rolling. They're confident. Everything they're touching is working."
Multiple people mentioned Milan Lucic's drop pass between his legs that set up a Krejci goal in Game 2 against the Penguins as the ultimate example of a Bruins team playing with confidence. Chicago needs to send some doubt into the Bruins psyche early.
"To me, they've got a swag going," an Eastern Conference coach said of the Bruins. "There's something to be said about what they did against Toronto. Now, it's like they walk in and, 'nobody's beating us.' That's an edge."
2. Keep the stars off the scoresheet
The Bruins not only swept the Penguins, they did the unthinkable. They did it without allowing Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to register a single point. It doesn't get any easier for the Bruins, who now shift their focus to Toews and Kane. The duo has been contained at times during these playoffs, but Kane is starting to heat up, as evidenced by his hat trick in the clincher against the Kings.
"[The] best way to slow down Kane and Toews [is] get above them in the neutral zone," Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary wrote in a text on Saturday. "Take away their time and space."
Cleary spent a lot of time in the neutral zone hammering away at Toews and was a key part of Detroit nearly pulling off an upset. The Bruins' outstanding line of Horton, Krejci and Milan Lucic will likely see a lot of defensemen Keith and Brent Seabrook, a duo that helped contain Anze Kopitar for most of the Western Conference finals. It will be the biggest challenge yet for Boston's top forwards.
3. Don't depend on the power play for goal-scoring
The Blackhawks have the best penalty kill in the playoffs, entering Saturday's game at 96.4 percent. Chicago didn't allow a power-play goal until the ninth game of its postseason. They've done it because two talented forwards -- Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik -- have embraced their role on the Blackhawks' PK and have continued a strong regular season on the PK right into the playoffs. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson anchors the Blackhawks PK defensively and is also having a strong postseason. The Bruins had one of the five best penalty kills all season long and know how to get it done in the playoffs, as they showed against the Penguins. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero assembled a power play that should have been one for the ages, and the Bruins PK was a perfect 15-for-15 in the Eastern Conference finals. The Stanley Cup will likely be won at even strength, and these two are the two best at even strength in the playoffs.
4. Get physical
The Penguins made the mistake early on in the Eastern Conference finals of trying to match the Bruins' toughness rather than using their high-end skill to beat Boston. But there's a difference between toughness and playing physical. With guys like Seabrook, Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw, the Blackhawks can attempt to wear down the Bruins physically without playing undisciplined like the Penguins were at times.
"Chicago has been physical. Does it mean they're running around and Patrick Kane is trying to fight? No, I don't think they're going to get caught up in that," one NHL source said. "But Chicago's physical players can get around better than Pittsburgh's."
And it goes without saying that guys like Lucic and Zdeno Chara will be a physical presence from the start for the Bruins.
5. Have a new contributor emerge
You don't make it to the Stanley Cup finals without standout individual performances, and both teams have gotten them. Krejci is making a Conn Smythe bid and Tuukka Rask put on a goaltending clinic against the Penguins. For the Blackhawks, Bickell is adding money to his next contract with every big playoff goal he scores, while Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have consistently been Chicago's most productive offensive players. But there's still more to give from both teams.
Brandon Saad is still looking for his first goal of the postseason, and he's a talented young player capable of making an impact. Dave Bolland is a playoff veteran who, when healthy, can change a series with his mix of defense and antagonism. For the Bruins, there's room for improvement from Tyler Seguin, who has just four points in the postseason. Veteran Jaromir Jagr is still looking for his first playoff goal with the Bruins, although he's got three points in his past three playoff games.
"He's obviously frustrate[d]. He hasn't scored, but he's a playmaker. He's a great passer," one scout said of Jagr. "I've never seen Jagr work harder than he has in these playoffs -- in terms of body positioning on the forecheck and back pressure through the neutral zone. He wants to win a Cup, I think he's really in that mode of, 'I'll do whatever I have to do.'"