The Boston Bruins completely shut down the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins offense in a stunning sweep of the Eastern Conference Finals, and they will face a similarly difficult challenge against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
"I think we played pretty good defensive hockey. I think we played exactly what was our game plan, and nobody was cheating," said Bruins center David Krejci after winning the Eastern Conference.
"We all played with responsibility, and we all take pride in our game. We shut [the Penguins] down. It was a great effort by all four lines the whole series, and pretty happy that we’re going to the final."
Much like the Penguins, the Blackhawks have great forward depth with four lines that are capable of generating scoring chances, in addition to a blue line with several offensively skilled defensemen. Chicago has an ultra-talented top-six forward group with some of the best playmakers and goal scorers in the NHL, including No. 1 center Jonathan Toews, and superstar wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.
But with all the impressive offense talent that the Blackhawks have, there is no reason to believe the Bruins' stellar defensive play won't continue in the Cup Final.
Since Boston made a historic comeback in the third period and overtime of Game 7 in its first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Original Six club has outscored opponents 28-12 in its last nine games.
In that span, star goaltender Tuukka Rask has gone 8-1 with a .961 save percentage and a 1.22 GAA. The 26-year-old has been the best and most consistent netminder in the 2013 playoffs. He has looked very comfortable in net despite the massive pressure and expectations that were placed on his shoulders going into the first round.
Rask held the Penguins offense, which ranked No. 1 in scoring going into the conference finals (4.27 goals/game), to just two goals in four games.
"One of the things I thought he’s done terrifically in the last two series is handling the puck. And he’s been breaking the forecheck, especially in the New York series," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli when asked about his goaltender's postseason performance on Saturday, one day after Boston eliminated Pittsburgh at TD Garden.
"He’s been terrific, he’s been really good. And he’s got a level head about him, which is important in the heat of the action. You need top-end goaltending to win this thing, and he’s been giving us that."
Rask will play an important role in the Bruins defensive performance during the Cup Final. The Bruins aren't a high-scoring team, and their power play has been abysmal in the playoffs. That puts a lot of pressure on Rask to make very few mistakes each game, but he handles this pressure well with a lot of composure in net.
Sometimes your goaltender also needs to be the team's best penalty killer, and Rask has been that player for the Bruins in the postseason. To prevent the Blackhawks from gaining confidence offensively, the Bruins will need to maintain the level of penalty-killing success that the team achieved in the conference finals.
Boston's game plan against a Pittsburgh power play that ranked No. 1 in goals scored entering the conference finals was to pressure the players at the points, use active sticks to take away passes and force turnovers, clog the shooting lanes and win puck battles along the boards and below the goal line.
Chicago was 1-of-14 on the power play in the last round against the Los Angeles Kings, who had the worst penalty-killing percentage among the four conference finalists. With that said, there's no reason why the Bruins should struggle in this area of the game when their penalty kill is playing its best hockey of the season and Rask is consistently bailing out his team with big saves when there are defensive breakdowns.
The Bruins have the best plus/minus rating at even strength per 60 minutes (1.4) of any team in the playoffs. The B's have a 1.60 GAA during 5-on-5 play, the best of any playoff team.
The defensemen in front of Rask did a tremendous job of using their size and strength advantage over the Penguins, and this game plan should also be used in the Cup Final against a Blackhawks team that doesn't thrive in a heavy style of play.
Top defenseman Zdeno Chara shut down Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin during the conference finals, limiting the Russian center to zero points through four games. Chara and defense partner Dennis Seidenberg are the top shutdown duo in the NHL, and they have combined for 80 hits and 62 blocked shots through three rounds.
Boston's second pairing of Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk is more than capable of shutting down one of Chicago's top two lines. Boychuk leads the playoffs in blocked shots (55), and Ference is well-rested after missing eight games over the first two rounds due to an injury.
In the event that this duo goes up against Chicago's second line of Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa, the Bruins should win this matchup. Boychuk and Ference have the size and strength to excel against this line, which represents the Blackhawks trio with the best combination of skill and size. Boychuk and Ference spent a lot of time defending Sidney Crosby's line in the conference finals, limiting Pittsburgh's top trio to one goal and an assist in four games.
The Bruins excel in a structured, defensively responsibly system, but much of the team's success in its own end comes from its forwards. In head coach Claude Julien's system, they are required to back check consistently, be well-positioned and play physical. These forwards also clog up the neutral zone, which is one way to beat a team like the Blackhawks that has great speed.
The forward who will be assigned to the Toews, Kane and Bryan Bickell line will likely be defensive stalwart Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins' most important forward and the reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner.
Toews has scored only one goal in the playoffs and has failed to make an offensive contribution on a consistent basis. Bergeron's defense resulted in Penguins superstar center Sidney Crosby failing to score a single point in the conference finals.
The height of Toews' struggles in the playoffs occurred in the second round when Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg frustrated the Blackhawks captain with physical play, great stick work and winning faceoffs. The result of this brilliant defensive performance was Toews scoring just one goal, earning a minus-three rating and eight PIM in seven games.
Bergeron has the ability to defend Toews with the same level of effectiveness as Zetterberg. He should also win important draws against Toews because no player in the postseason has been on the ice for more defensive zone faceoff wins than Bergeron.
Here is a defensive zone breakdown between Toews and Bergeron, per BehindtheNet.ca:
|Player||FO Wins||FO Losses|
Winning faceoffs is the best way to prevent a team from establishing a rhythm offensively, and the Bruins lead the playoffs with a 56.0 faceoff win percentage. The Blackhawks have won only 47 percent of their draws, third worst among all 16 playoff teams.
With a balanced effort defensively from their defensemen and forwards, the Bruins should not have too much trouble stopping the talented Blackhawks offense from dominating the Cup Final. Boston has been playing in the same defensive system for the last five years with most of its blueliners having three or more years of experience in this style of play.
Chicago presents a number of challenges for Boston to game-plan for defensively, but few coaches do a better job playing the matchup game and putting his players in a position to succeed than Julien. Expect the Bruins' defensive brilliance to continue with the Stanley Cup at stake.
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.