By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — When last we left the Boston Bruins, they were skating around the TD Garden with a stunned look on their collective faces.
Moments away from forcing a seventh game in the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins gave up two very memorable goals within 17 seconds of each other that allowed the Chicago Blackhawks to skate around their home ice with the Stanley Cup.
The Bruins haven’t played the Blackhawks since, but they will be in the United Center for a very tasty appetizer on Sunday’s sports menu.
Most of the world will focus on New England at Denver in the AFC championship game and San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC championship game in the hours that follow, but the Bruins and the Blackhawks represent a taste explosion of an appetizer at 11:30 in the morning.
The Blackhawks are second in the Western Conference, but they are coming off a 4-2 victory over Anaheim Friday night. That win provided a lot of relief in the Blackhawks’ lockerroom because the Ducks have been the NHL’s best team – record-wise – this year.
There’s really very little wrong with the Blackhawks other than an inability to close out overtime games and a faulty penalty kill.
They are in good shape as far as the remainder of the regular season is concerned, and they appear to have a strong chance of representing their conference in the Stanley Cup Final again, although Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis will push them hard.
The Bruins are not the same team that challenged the Blackhawks last year. Their record is solid and they have been atop the Atlantic Division most of the season, but this team that has been rooted in defensive fundamentals was recently rocked by an injury to perhaps its most underrated performer.
The Bruins have been led by defenseman Zdeno Chara and center Patrice Bergeron for years. Chara has plenty of support on the blue line from Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, Dougie Hamilton and sharp-shooting Torey Krug.
However, he usually gets most of his support from Dennis Seidenberg. During the regular season, Seidenberg and Chara usually follow each other on the ice and the two often play 45 of the game’s 60 minutes. During the playoffs, Boston head coach Claude Julien often plays them together and they may be the game’s premier shutdown pair. (Although Jonathan Toews took them apart in the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final.)
Seidenberg is no longer available. He tore his ACL when the Bruins returned from their Christmas break and he is done for the season.
Since his injury, the Bruins’ once-superb penalty kill has gone to pot. They have been given up 11 power play goals in the nine games Seidenberg has missed, and they are no longer playing aggressively when down a man.
They were eviscerated by the New York Islanders Dec. 31 when they gave up four power plays goals and the Kings followed Jan 9 with three power play goals. The Islanders and Kings rank 14th and 26th, respectively, on the power play.
The Bruins desperately miss their German Hammer, and if general manager Peter Chiarelli can’t find an adequate replacement, it’s going to be difficult for them to get back to championship-contending form.
The rest of the Bruins team is similar to the one that was here in June. Julien rolls out four lines throughout the game. That often allows their top two lines to be fresher than their opponents’ in the third period.
That was demonstrated in their 4-2 victory at Dallas earlier this week, when Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron scored third period goals that allowed them to win that road game. If all four lines can hold their own for two periods, the Bruins are usually going to have the advantage in the third period.
Most regular-season games pass without much fanfare, because there’s always another game coming up two or three days later.
However, the Blackhawks needed to find out where they stood against the Ducks, and they need to find out where they stand against last year’s finalists.
The Blackhawks passed the first part of the test in impressive fashion. They need to do the same thing in the second part of the exam.