BOSTON -- Before the Stanley Cup Finals began, the Bruins-Blackhawks showdown was thought to be one of the most evenly matched in recent memory.
Chicago is a well-rounded team, capable offensively as well as defensively, and has an excellent goaltender in Corey Crawford. Boston is equally strong, perhaps a bit underrated offensively, with a firm identity as being physical and having a gritty, team-system defense with strong goaltending of its own from Tuukka Rask.
But after the teams split the first two games in Chicago, the Bruins made a big statement in Game 3 Monday night. Their defense, the NHL’s best so far in the playoffs, suffocated the life out of the Blackhawks, doing a marvelous job of clearing Chicago players out of the slot area while forcing the Hawks to settle for perimeter chances. Rask got the headlines with another shutout, his third of the postseason, but Boston's 2-0 victory showed where the B's may have the edge in this series.
They're a defense-first group that’s 100 percent dedicated to stopping the other team’s offense, and that full dedication is obvious across the board.
“I think it's the energy in their game and the effort," said coach Claude Julien. "You see our guys, and they're back‑checking and having layers. So when somebody makes a mistake, you have somebody else covering up. We're blocking a lot of shots. The commitment is totally there."
Boston’s entire group of forward are back-checking with speed and full effort. The Bruins blocked 17 shots to a measly seven from the Blackhawks, and the physically imposing Boston defense is frustrating Chicago at every turn.
“Throughout a whole season, it's not easy to have that full commitment," said Julien. "But I think when you get to this stage, players start feeling it. They go above and beyond. That's what you're seeing from our team right now.”
It became a bit of an easier job for Boston’s shutdown defensive crew when the Blackhawks lost Marian Hossa for Game 3 because of to an undisclosed injury. But Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Dennis Seidenberg still had to go out and harass Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
And they did, improving on impressive body of defensive work during the playoffs.
Boston probably had its biggest defensive issues in the first round against Toronto, allowing Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul to combine for nine goals in seven games. But the Bruins have tightened things up considerably since then.
In the second round, Rangers sniper Rick Nash managed just a single goal in five games. Both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were completely shut in a four-game Boston sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals that both players still seem to mystified about.
Now the Bruins are launching the same gang-tackle defensive mantra against Toews and Kane, who have combined for only single assist in the first three games.
“It’s about trusting the system and making sure we have layers and we communicate on the ice,” said Patrice Bergeron. “I think we definitely [have] to do that even more against [the Blackhawks]. They have so much talent and great transition. There’s some room to get better, but obviously we’ve got to feed off that system and do it to the 'T’."
The Bruins got second-period goals from Daniel Paille and Bergeron, and, once they had the lead, that gave them the ability to roll out the blueprint that worked to perfection against the Penguins. Insert the names “Kane” and "Toews" for “Crosby” and “Malkin”, and -- to quote a great philosopher -- it's deja vu all over again.
“I think these last two teams ‑ Chicago and Pittsburgh ‑ are very alike as far as respecting the offense,” said Julien. “They've got a lot of depth. They've got a lot of guys that can score from the first line to the fourth line.
“I thought we had that same approach against Pittsburgh. So the only thing was, we didn't know [the Blackhawks] as well because we hadn't played them (in the regular season). But, you know, I don't think there's a big, big change in our game plan . . . "
And it's worked like a charm so far.