For the second time in four years, the Chicago Blackhawks will have the opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup in a Game 6 on the road. To reach the brink of glory, the Blackhawks had to endure a furious third period onslaught from a wounded Bruins team that lashed out with all of its strength. Following a chaotic 11-goal Game 4 in Boston, goaltenders Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask reclaimed the spotlight with a pair of strong performances. The much-maligned Crawford was not perfect with his oft-exploited glove, but his 23-saves emphatically declared that he is a championship caliber netminder. While Crawford restrained the Bruins offense, Patrick Kane put home two goals and Dave Bolland capped off proceedings with an empty netter, putting the Bruins in a corner.
The Bruins looked hungry early in the first, racking up the majority of the early chances. The Bruins learned the hard way that quality means more than quantity. Though Tuukka Rask turned away a few brilliant shots, including a one-timer by Patrick Sharp that seemed certain to bulge the net, the Blackhawks struck first.
With 2:23 remaining in the opening period, a Johnny Oduya shot from close range shattered Dennis Seidenberg‘s stick, serving Patrick Kane with a wobbling puck just outside the goal-post. Kane deftly tucked the biscuit inside the iron as Tuukka Rask tried desperately to recover. Some might call it a lucky goal, relying heavily on Seidenberg’s brittle twig, but Kane’s presence in the right place at the right time was worthy of the lead.
At the end of the period, Boston was gutted by a surprise injury to star center Patrice Bergeron. Boston’s best all-around skater looked uncomfortable after battling for a puck along the end-boards, and though he left the ice under his own power and returned briefly, the Bruins’ Mr. Clutch was absent for the second and third periods. Bergeron eventually left the game in ambulance and his status remains unclear. If he is unavailable for Game 6, it could be a death knell for the Bruins, as his three-zone play, faceoff dominance and timely scoring have been pivotal for Boston throughout the postseason.
The 2012 Selke Trophy winner was replaced on Boston’s second line by Carl Soderberg. The late season acquisition led the Swedish Elitserien in goals this year, but Game 5 was just his seventh career NHL game and his first ever in the postseason. Despite his inexperience the offensively gifted Swede looked surprisingly strong, after joining the lineup in place of Kaspars Daugavins. He showed an ability to win battles for the puck and he managed to keep Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr threatening despite the loss of their star pivot-man.
Despite Soderberg’s strong game, the Bruins did miss Bergeron, and their deficit was doubled five minutes into the second. The Blackhawks red-hot top line picked up the goal with a high-speed attack. Brian Bickell followed his own rebound behind the net on the break, and he found Patrick Kane driving the net. Kane came on to the puck practically on top of Tuukka Rask and managed to elevate it for his second goal of the game.
Kane would spend the remainder of the game trying to complete the hat trick, but he had to do so mostly without the help of center Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks captain, who succeeded Patrice Bergeron as this year’s Selke recipient, was bashed around throughout the game, and he spent the entire third period on the bench.
With the league’s two-best defensive forwards out of action, the third period opened up, with the Bruins earning the better chances. A killer start to the period from Claude Julien‘s club featured a pair of great looks for Nathan Horton, and a goal seemed imminent. That goal came 3:40 into the period off the stick of Zdeno Chara.
David Krejci fed the Bruins’ giant captain from behind the net, and Chara provided a trademark laser beam into the top right corner of the net. It was yet another Chicago concession on Corey Crawford’s glove side, but he had no hope of getting in front of the perfectly placed blast. Chara’s third goal of the postseason would be the only blemish on Crawford’s excellent outing.
The Bruins kept pressing throughout the period, occasionally leaving themselves vulnerable on the back end. Despite the breakdowns, Tuukka Rask’s 12 third period saves kept the Bruins in it down to the wire. In the final minutes, Boston’s best chance came from Jaromir Jagr who redirected a juicy rebound towards goal, but the seemingly cursed 41-year old missed the open net. With 58 shots on goal in the postseason, Jagr has still yet to score, but he came ever so close in Game 5.
As Jagr and company failed to light the lamp, the Blackhawks took advantage of some lax officiating to close out the game. In the final half-minute Michael Frolik clearly tripped Boston defenseman Torey Krug, who was attempting to keep the puck in the Chicago zone. As the whistle remained silent, Dave Bolland skated the puck into the neutral zone and pitched it into Boston’s vacant net from the red line to set the final score at 3-1.
It was another razor-edged struggle, in a series that deserves a full seven games. It seems tragic now that Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews, the proverbial hearts of their respective teams, might be sidelined for the grand finale. If just one of the two skates in Game 6, it could prove to be the difference in the game if not the series.
Injuries are no rare occurrence in postseason hockey, and both Claude Julien and Joel Quenneville have enough experience plugging holes in their lineups to suggest that neither team intends to slow down.
For now the Blackhawks have the edge with their 3-2 series lead, but headed back to Boston they find themselves on the Hillary Step of hockey’s Mount Everest. Though they have nearly reached the summit, the most difficult part of the climb remains.
Two years ago the Boston Bruins found themselves down 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Finals, before tying the series at home and winning it all in Vancouver. As they may be for the remainder of this series, the 2011 Bruins were without the services of a clutch top-six forward. With Patrice Bergeron now playing the role of 2011’s Nathan Horton, the Bruins will hope to repeat the past.
The winner of Game 6 has gone on to hoist the Cup every year since 2008, so the stakes could hardly be higher for Tuesday’s battle in Beantown, and hockey fans everywhere will hope for a worthy end to what has so far been a classic series.