BOSTON – The Eastern Conference Finals was billed as the classic matchup of a stacked, explosive offensive machine against a bruising, unrelenting defensive unit. It was a strength vs. strength showdown, and it was sure to be an entertaining thrill ride from beginning to end.
It was also expected the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins would get tangled up in a lengthy playoff series before one team would come out on top, but nothing turned out to be very predictable in their playoff series. Defense clamped down on offense in a big way, and the Bruins players executed Claude Julien’s defensive system to perfection while grinding down the Penguins collection of All-Star talent.
In the end it was a four game sweep for the Bruins, who dispatched the Eastern Conference’s best team in tidy, economic fashion with a 1-0 shutout win in Game 4 at TD Garden on Friday night. The Penguins, who led the regular season and playoffs in scoring headed into the series, managed to scratch out two goals in 275 minutes worth of ice over four games.
The Bruins held Pittsburgh’s group of superstars, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Kris Letang and James Neal, to zero points and a minus-22 in a defensive contain job that nobody has seen succeed against the Crosby and Malkin duo since they entered the league. It appeared oftentimes that the Bruins were swarming the two Penguins superstars with their entire defense, and simply daring others to step up and beat them.
Ultimately the Penguins never did, and it takes a team-wide effort to pull off something of that magnitude.
The suffocating Bruins defense turned a Penguins team that had been compared to the 1980's Edmonton Oilers teams in terms of firepower and averaging 4.27 goals per game, and made them the fifth team in NHL history to score two goals or less in a best-of-seven series. The Pens now join the 2003 Montreal Canadiens, 2002 Philadelphia Flyers, 1952 Montreal Canadiens and 1935 Boston Bruins in an offensively constipated bunch at the wrong time of the year.
“Lets not kid ourselves, the Penguins have a great offense and an unbelievable team,” said Zdeno Chara. “They probably deserved better, but we were just playing to our game plan and exploiting what we do really well. We just limited what they were trying to do. We just wanted to play tight defensively with the five guys on the ice, and not open up too much or give them too much room.
“It’s huge to have people that are able to match, play a lot of minutes, play well defensively and contribute offensively.”
In the end it was Claude Julien’s defensive system, superb goaltending from Tuukka Rask and the two best defensive players in the game, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, who were able to frustrate and eventually obliterate a Penguins team that was preordained for great things this season. Chara was on the ice for roughly 85 percent of Malkin’s shift throughout the series, and held the Russian superstar without a point despite some close calls in the series.
Bergeron kept Sidney Crosby in check at every point, defeating him in the face-off circle and frustrating him to the point that the NHL’s best player had the worst playoff series of his career. The Bruins penalty kill unit that led the NHL in efficiency from nearly wire-to-wire held the Penguins PP without a goal in 15 tries during the series, and killed off Pittsburgh’s most likely avenue to do offensive damage against a superior even strength team in Boston.
As we’ve seen so many times during the postseason in so many different pro sports, the cliché of a good, powerful defense trumping an explosive, finesse offense nearly always holds true. The Bruins held the Penguins to under 30 shots on goal in three of the four games in the series including the Game 4 clincher, and Rask was there to stop all but two of the 135 shots he faced from the Penguins.
“I think it’s one of those clichés. It’s always ‘defense-first’ and ‘defense wins championships’, but I really believe in that,” said Bergeron. “We really stuck to the game plan throughout these four games. I mean, we’ve done it for the whole playoffs, but for these four games especially.
“It wasn’t just about one guy doing the job, though. It was about five guys on the ice, or six guys with Tuukka. It really does pay off when everybody is sticking to the system.”
As much as it was about defense vs. offense, however, it was also about a true hockey team in Boston taking down an assembled collection of All-Star players with the Penguins. The Bruins were carefully constructed by general manager Peter Chiarelli over the last six years, and that is obvious when noting the Black and Gold have more playoff wins than any other NHL team during the last four seasons.
The B’s are careful to cultivate a dressing room culture where there are no superstars, and where a player like Gregory Campbell is exalted as the leader by example ready to pay an ultimate price for a Stanley Cup championship. No one individual is greater than the sum of Boston’s parts, and that’s a powerful thing in the playoffs going up against a collection of superstar players thrown together surrounding elite talents like Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
“I think before the series was started people probably didn’t believe it, but we believed we could beat them,” said Chara. “It’s a team game. All five guys need to be committed, especially when their big guys are on the ice. It’s what it is all about when you have every player on the same page, and committed to do whatever it takes.
“We had pretty much the same team as the year we won, and a lot of guys didn’t need to be reminded that every little thing can make a difference in moving forward. When you have everybody from a 41-year-old to an 18-year-old committed to blocking shots and playing physical, back-checking and so on, [the commitment] is pretty clear.” When it was obvious the Bruins had stepped up the physical intensity and illustrated they were willing to pay the physical price to win playoff games, the Penguins amazingly backed off. Aside from the Game 3 double overtime thriller, there were very few instances of the Penguins fighting to get close to the net or making life uncomfortable for Rask in his crease. After reasonably easy times against the New York Islanders and the Ottawa Senators in the first two rounds, Malkin, Crosby and Co. wanted nothing to do with a Bruins team when it came to the areas of real toughness.
Sure the Penguins superstars were willing to make a big, showy production of how frustrated they were at the end of Game 1 with Crosby slashing Chara, and Malkin dropping the gloves with Bergeron in a choice that still boggles the mind for a reason behind it. But neither player ever showed real playoff toughness by blocking shots, taking big hits to make big offensive plays or simply putting themselves in harms way to make sure a play was finished around the net.
That was one of the real stories of the series underneath the numbers and the shocking conclusion in just four games: it was alarmingly easy to discourage the Harlem Globetrotters of the NHL with a little physicality and a whole lot of toughness, and it’s the biggest reason Boston is advancing to the Cup Finals while the superstar Penguins have a lot of explaining to do.
Chara and Bergeron won the playoff matchup with Malkin and Crosby, and the well-balanced hockey TEAM took out the high-flying collection of TALENT. As hockey lessons go, they don’t get much more simple or clear to see than the one Boston just got finished handing out to Pittsburgh in four clear and easy-to-understand lessons on the ice.