Defense wins championships in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and never has there been a finer example of that than in the Boston Bruins' dominating sweep of the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final.
"They’re solid. They make you earn your chances," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby after his team's season ended with a 1-0 defeat in Game 4 at the TD Garden on Friday night.
"That being said, I don’t feel like they totally shut us down. I feel like we got chances, but (Tuukka) Rask made some big saves. They’re consistent; they don’t give you chances, you have to earn them. We earned them, but unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on them."
Led by the magnificent defense of captain and No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara and a near-perfect performance from star goaltender Tuukka Rask, the Bruins held the league's highest-scoring offense in the playoffs entering this series to just two goals through four games:
Penguins: score 2 goals in series (lowest total in a playoff series in franchise history)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 8, 2013
Here's how the Bruins' defensive dominance ranks among some of the best of all time:
In addition to its inability to generate much offense versus the Bruins, Pittsburgh has joined the 2009 Columbus Blue Jackets as the only teams since 2001 to never lead in a playoff series.
The Penguins led the NHL in goals scored during the regular season and for most of the playoffs, but they were shut out twice in this series. Before Game 1, Pittsburgh hadn't been shut out since Feb. 1, 2012.
Which Penguins star disappointed the most?
One player who was not surprised at the Bruins' performance defensively was Penguins No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang. The Norris Trophy finalist finished the series with zero points and a minus-five rating.
"It’s not a shock," said Letang when asked about being shut out twice. "They play really well defensively, and we didn’t manage to score goals. The goalie played really well. And some of the bounces didn’t go our way. But they’re a good team, and they move on and we’re not. So that’s the end of the story."
The marquee matchup going into this series was the Penguins' super-talented offense against the Bruins' deep blue line and the goaltending of Rask. Specifically, the Chara vs. Evgeni Malkin matchup, which the Bruins captain won handily.
Chara vs Malkin: Chara was on for 89 % of Malkin's even strength shifts in the series. Malkin finished with 0 points, -5— THE STATS GUY (@TH2NSTATSGUY) June 8, 2013
Chara and defense partner Dennis Seidenberg did an amazing job defending Malkin and his linemates, who were usually James Neal (a 40-goal scorer) and Jarome Iginla (one of best wingers of his generation). This Bruins duo played a physical game against this line, took away their time and space in the attacking zone, and blocked a combined 16 shots in the final two games of the series.
These three Penguins forwards were scoreless in the series after 38 points through two rounds.
"We were committed to do the little things and really buy into our structure; what we want to do defensively," said Chara after Game 4.
"Let’s not kid ourselves, they have the best offense in the world, and they are an unbelievable team. They probably deserved better, but we were just playing under our game plan and exposing what we do well, and trying to limit what they’re trying to do."
But the Malkin line wasn't the only trio that failed to produce offensively. Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, which was arguably the most effective line in hockey during the regular season, combined for one goal and zero assists through four games.
The play of Crosby, in particular, was most shocking. After dominating the regular season with 56 points in just 36 games, then tallying 15 points in his first 10 playoff games, the world's most talented player went scoreless in the conference finals. His four-game scoring drought is the longest of his postseason career.
With Chara and Seidenberg assigned to the Malkin line for most of the series, veterans Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk were given the challenge of defending Crosby and the Penguins' top line.
Ference vs Crosby: Ference was on for 76% of Crosby's even strength shifts in the series. Crosby finished with 0 points, -3— THE STATS GUY (@TH2NSTATSGUY) June 8, 2013
The Penguins are 2-15 all time when Crosby and Malkin both fail to tally a single point in the same playoff game, and that happened four times in the conference finals.
"If you look back, the chances are there," said Crosby when asked about him going scoreless. "You try to fight, you try to get through to the net and get rebounds, and sometimes they come to you, sometimes they don’t."
He added: "But obviously, you score two goals as a team in four games and virtually we go without any points. That doesn’t sit very well."
Here are some notable stats from the Penguins' top-six forward group in this series.
While a lot of credit should go to the Bruins defensemen, who as a unit were tremendous in all four games, the incredible play of Rask in net was the difference in the series. Goaltending was an area that the Bruins had a clear advantage in prior to this series, and the 26-year-old made sure it was a matchup that his team won.
Rask was 4-0 with a microscopic 0.47 GAA, a jaw-dropping .985 save percentage (134 saves on 136 shots) and two shutouts. The Finnish netminder now ranks first among all playoff goalies in wins (12), second in GAA (1.75), first in save percentage (.943), first in total saves (497) and second in shutouts (two).
He also played a huge part in the Bruins' perfect penalty kill during this series. Boston went 15-of-15 in short-handed situations against a Penguins power play that ranked first in goals scored entering the conference finals.
The Bruins wouldn't be preparing for the Stanley Cup Final without Rask's fantastic play on a nightly basis. He's the team's most valuable player to this point and instills confidence in his teammates from the first puck drop. It was fitting that the final play of the series was a glove save by the Bruins' No. 1 goalie.
"Right now he's in a zone that you hope he can hold on to," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien of Rask. "Without that kind of goaltending, you don't get a chance at winning a Cup."
The Bruins' opponent in the Stanley Cup Final is not known yet. The Chicago Blackhawks have a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final over the defending champion Los Angeles Kings with a chance to clinch a berth in the final round in Saturday's Game 5 at the United Center.
Regardless of the opponent, Boston will be an extraordinarily difficult matchup because of its offensive depth, defensive skill and consistently strong goaltending. This Bruins team never gives up (see Game 7 of first round vs. Toronto), it plays with a lot of character and the players don't want to let each other down.
"We all love each other," said Bruins center David Krejci, who leads the postseason in goals (nine) and points (21). "We’ve been together for a long time. We’ve spent time on and off the ice. And obviously the experience as well; we played some good teams a couple years ago, so it stays with you."
Will Boston win the Stanley Cup?
Next week, the Bruins will attempt to become the first team in the salary-cap era (2005-present) to win multiple Stanley Cup championships. They have been to the Cup Final 19 times, but the Original Six franchise has won only six titles (one since 1972).
"Being through what we’ve been through as a team over the years, and even this year with everything that happened in the first round and Game 7 and just going through that and getting to this point, it’s truly a great feeling," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic when asked about earning another Cup Final berth.
"I think we definitely need to enjoy this tonight. We don’t know who we’re playing yet, so like I said, just enjoy it the next couple of days and then regroup, refocus, and go out there and start having fun again."
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.