BOSTON – Sometimes it’s difficult to see the big picture as something's happening. That kind of reflection, evaluation and final measurement is reserved for the finish line.
So it is with the Boston Bruins as they sit two wins away from raising the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years.
But something has been increasingly obvious as the playoffs have rolled out, and that’s the simple fact that the Bruins are putting on one of the best goaltending and defensive exhibitions ever seen in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The only Stanley Cup playoff team that can compare with the 1.84 goals allowed per game mark for this year’s Bruins is last year’s Los Angeles Kings (1.5 goals allowed per game), much of that thanks to the play of goaltender Jonathan Quick.
This year the Bruins have completely suffocated some of the best offensive players in the game, and stripped down the NHL’s two best offensive clubs. It’s taken a full commitment from a disciplined group of defensive disciples, and peak performance from the NHL’s best two defensive players in Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron.
“We’re all perfectionists on the ice, and we want to be better,” said Dennis Seidenberg. “Playing good defense is about playing the game the right way, and we’ve been doing that in the playoffs. The forwards are back-checking at every instance, guys are blocking as many shots as they possibly can and everyone is doing their job as well as they possibly can.
“When we do all of those things, we become a very good defense that can be difficult to score against.”
That kind of effort and sacrifice wasn’t always there during the regular season when the Bruins could make some exasperating defensive gaffes, but they have tightened everything up with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Since fighting through heavy legs and clouded minds in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have ripped off 10 wins in the last 12 games.
That doesn’t even count killing off 27 straight power plays – including a perfect 15-for-15 kills against an All-Star laden Pittsburgh Penguins club – at the most important time of year.
Leafs forward Phil Kessel dinged the tired B’s defense for four goals in the first round series, and both James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul did their share of damage against the Boston defense. But since then, the Bruins and Tuukka Rask have taken the stinginess to new levels, and they have humbled the NHL’s biggest names.
The Bruins have faced Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane in their playoff journey, and held those elite superstar players to one goal, four points and a minus-5 rating in a combined 19 games.
Part of that is thanks to a good defensive system and Claude Julien searching out the matchups he favors, like having Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the ice every time Nash, Malkin and Toews hopped over the boards.
But it is also about B's defensive personnel excelling when faced with a big challenge. Andrew Ference returned from injury at the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, and teamed with Johnny Boychuk to give the Bruins a viable second pairing that could battle with forward lines containing Crosby and Kane. Then Julien could come over the top, and also slot Bergeron, the NHL’s best defensive center on that No. 2 priority target (the Crosby and Kane lines in the last two rounds).
Splitting Chara and Bergeron for defensive duties on each of the other teams' best two forward lines has completely nullified them, and forced complementary players to try and beat them. That hasn’t happened in any of the playoff rounds to date, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to happen anytime soon with Chicago teaming Kane and Toews together for Game 4 in desperation mode.
While that kind of move will potentially pile up the firepower onto one line for the Blackhawks, it also allows the Bruins to put their biggest, strongest and most determined defensive players on the ice as well. Seeing Chara or Bergeron on the ice against you during the playoffs usually means offensive bankruptcy, and it’s hard to see things being any different with Chicago.
“Obviously, we’ve got to stick to our system, and that’s really what’s been giving us success,” said Bergeron. “It’s about being first on pucks, but also sticking up to our system, and making sure we play solid defense with the five guys.
“I take a lot of pride in details, and trying to find ways to help my team any way that I can. I think the defensive game is a big part of my game, and I’ve got to find ways to play well in that aspect of the game and then carry that into the offensive zone. Every time I step on the ice it’s about the team. I try to find a way to help the team.”
When the Bruins do have a rare defensive breakdown, Tuukka Rask has been as good as any goaltender to ever don the mark and pads during the playoffs. His current .946 save percentage matches last year’s record .946 save percentage number posted by Quick, and he’s still got a few games to try and push it past .950 while the Bruins defense squeezes and clenches the life out of the Blackhawks.
“It's the energy in the game, and the effort," said Julien. "You see our guys are back‑checking, having layers, so when somebody makes a mistake then you have somebody covering up. We're blocking a lot of shots. The commitment is totally there. Throughout a whole season, it's not easy to have that full commitment. 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.”
Essentially, what everybody is seeing is a great hockey club in the Bruins playing to their fullest potential and showing what they’re capable of when all that’s needed is a handful of wins to once again raise the Cup. There’s a belief that nobody in the NHL can beat the Bruins when they’re playing their combination of stifling defense and underrated offense. Right now, they're proving it.
The bottom line is this: the Bruins are the only team in this season's Stanley Cup playoffs that faced three different teams that averaged more than three goals per game in the playoffs, including the NHL's two top offenses in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and managed to hold them all down. In the case of Pittsburgh they were stymied to the tune of a pitiful two goals over the four game playoff series, and the Bruins are riding a 122-minute shutout streak of the mighty Blackhawks.