The Boston Bruins are the best team in the Eastern Conference and possibly the best team in the NHL. They are in the top seven or better in just about every conceivable statistical category: goal differential (1st), goals per game (3rd), goals against (2nd), five-on-five scoring (1st), power play (3rd), penalty kill (7th), shots on goal (5th), ROW (1st), faceoff percentage (6th), Corsi Close (3rd), and Fenwick Close (4th). They are 12th in shots against, but only .3 away from a top ten ranking. Boston could beat any team in the Western Conference in a series, and likely plays the strongest all-around game over the 200-foot sheet of ice.
But this squad is not as dominant as the Bobby-Orr-era Bruins. And history remembers a cruel fate unfolding for that presumed unbeatable team in the 1971 Quarterfinals. This season’s Bruins are not necessarily ripe for an upset, but there are ways to beat them, which Detroit illustrated in their 3-2 victory against Boston last night.
Here is a five-step guide to defeating Boston.
1. Survive the haymakers (and do not get too cute with the puck).
For every opponent who plays Boston, there is going to be a time in the game when the B’s hem their opponent in their end and get a slew of scoring chances. Their forecheck is too good, and the spacing between their forwards and defensemen is among the best in the NHL. Even teams that are able to lessen that pressurized own-zone action will face a deadly layered rush that seems to reset seamlessly when the puck does leave the zone.
On average, the Bruins outshoot teams by nearly three shots a game; a tacit acknowledgment that the offensive surge is coming at some point in the game is important, and when it occurs, it is all about surviving. What Montreal does best against Boston is to stay close. They hang around, and hang around, and even though sometimes they are getting outshot and badly out-chanced, they keep it close. In the one contest where Montreal lost to Boston this season, the floodgates opened during a Bruins’ second-period surge and the game was over.
This section melds into the third step, which is that a worthy opponent needs superb goaltending. However, it is also essential for this opponent to make it easier on their goaltender, so it is important that they don’t get too cute with the puck. Trying to slither through the Bruins’ defense is a death wish because they utilize active sticks. While Boston counterattacks expertly, it is the lesser of two evils to rid the puck of the zone.
In last night’s game, Red Wings’ defenseman Brendan Smith tried to finesse his way around the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron and it almost resulted in Detroit giving up a goal. Sometimes the best play is just to get the puck out of harm’s way.
2. Take advantage of chances when they present themselves.
The Bruins are going to deploy their best shutdown pair of Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton on their opponents’ best forwards, who in turn must take advantage of opportunities and utilize depth scoring. Last night, Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist was silent for most of the night, but got the puck on his stick after a Bruins’ turnover and attacked Chara when he was positioned on the off-side.
The Bruins collectively are like Drew Doughty with their passing. They are so good at carrying possession and finding the seams that sometimes they cough the puck up because they always have confidence they will succeed. Their confidence breeds riskier plays. When Boston turns the puck over, it leaves them susceptible on the counter. The Bruins are exceptional at playing both sides of the rink, so their forwards will come hard with the back pressure. But a good opponent will work the puck into prime real estate and fire away, and since the Bruins have nonpareil goaltending in Tuukka Rask, a rebound opportunity might be the best opportunity if it presents itself.
Because of how dominant the Chara-Hamilton pairing is, opponents need to expose and exploit Boston’s next four defenders. Dennis Seidenberg’s injury has forced Boston to dress some very green blue liners, and while the neophytes have played well, the playoffs are a different animal. Opponents’ complementary players who are not being blanketed by Boston’s top defensive pairing need to step up.
3. Bruins’ opponents need their goaltenders to steal a game or two.
Boston’s 1971 Quarterfinal series provides an important comparison. That Bruins’ team was seen as unbeatable (their 57 wins that season is the most in franchise history), but Montreal achieved the upset through the magnificence of Ken Dryden. The Montreal skaters obviously played a major role, but without Dryden they would not have won that series. The Bruins’ roster was stacked with some of the NHL’s greatest players ever — in their primes — but their offensive juggernaut ran into a brick wall against Dryden. Dryden stood on his head and was pivotal in a seven-game victory for the Canadiens.
Having their goalie steal at least two wins is just as essential for the rest of the Eastern Conference teams as it was for Montreal in 1971. It is important to have a goaltender who can find another level, like a Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist. Steve Mason being in goal for Philly is a bad omen for any hope the Flyers have against Boston. As for Tampa Bay, no one is sure what the fifth-gear is for Ben Bishop. But unequivocally, the Lightning’s Cup hopes rest on Bishop displaying a Jonathan Quick/Tim Thomas upside if they face Boston.
4. Consistently block Tuukka Rask’s sightline and create lots of traffic.
Scoring on Rask is enormously difficult. When he cannot see the shot or navigate his way through the scramble in front, a team has some hope of scoring (as in Tomas Jurco’s goal against him last night). Unfortunately, the Bruins are very, very good at clearing out bodies and using their physicality to overpower enemy skaters. They are also gifted at timing their disruption of an opponent’s stick when the puck is en route.
Another way to clog the shooting lane is to have the man advantage. Montreal is prolific at aggravating and annoying Boston, and seems to be adept at getting them to take un-Boston-like dumb penalties. Tomas Tatar scored last night just as Detroit’s power play was expiring, and it was accomplished with some tricky lateral misdirection in the high slot. Boston is very good on the penalty kill (approximately 85 percent), but having them down a man at least presents a significantly better chance than when trying to score at even strength.
5. Try to create a fluid transition while halting Boston’s.
Of the five steps, this might be the most wishful. Boston is so, so good at moving the puck out of the zone on their breakout and attacking through the neutral zone and offensive zone in layers. Their puck support is textbook, and they have players who understand the spacing and geometry of the ice so that they can put the puck where only their players can retain it. They are great direct passers, but the oblique area pass allows them to use their speed and tenaciousness to win the one-on-one battles.
There is coherence and symmetry in Boston’s offensive assaults, and their defensemen are prominently involved. Young or old, their defensemen are given long leashes to pursue the puck and lead the rush, and the two-way dedication from all of their forwards allows this to succeed. If Boston’s defensemen are not catalyzing the rush, they present that marksman/sniper threat from the point. Few teams in the NHL, if any, have defensemen with as much power from the blue line on their shots as Boston.
The Bruins’ defensemen can fire away but also be patient in finding the shooting lanes. Other than opponents having synchronization in their five-man units and a similar dedication to two-way hockey and destroying offensive flow, there are not that many ways to stifle Boston’s transition.
The Bruins rarely get pinned in their own zone, so achieving that seems like too lofty a goal, but it is possible to force them into turnovers when leaving their end, or to have neutral zone miscalculations. Opponents want to attack the Bruins on transition like any team — with speed and numbers. Stretching them out when they are temporarily outnumbered is uncomfortable for them –like it is for any team.
Boston is going to be a very tough matchup for any team, but they do make mistakes. A trip to the Cup finals for them is not a fait accompli. Their style of play is perfectly cohesive to the way the NHL has evolved: speed, size, and quasi-positionless skaters. They are the deepest team in the conference, with a very creative coach and front office. Recent innovative thinking led to Boston moving Chara to the front of the net. This has galvanized their power play, with the big defenseman leading the team in PP goals. Still, while the roadmap for beating Boston in a seven-game series looks forbidding, it is not unachievable.