Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins Game 7: Keys for Each Team
Those 50-50 splits have permeated the formula of a two-week tug-of-war that is destined to reach its maximum length. Continental hockey buffs will get what they had every right to expect in the form of a Game 7 on Wednesday night.
After Boston bumped Montreal to the brink of elimination with arguably its best effort of the series, the Habs countered with their best performance. Per The Gazette reporter Pat Hickey, first-line forward Max Pacioretty said as much afterward.
Being the definitive seesaw series that it is, this best-of-seven bout has displayed the best and the less-than-ideal of both teams and several individuals. With maximum and matching stakes sitting before both parties, here is what needs to happen to ensure a victorious outcome from each team.
Key for Montreal: Rising Price
Goaltender Carey Price has engaged in two previous Game 7s in his NHL career, both against Boston.
As a rookie in 2008, he helped a decidedly better Montreal team ward off the upset-minded Bruins after whiffing on two previous closeout attempts. Three years later, in enemy territory, he blinked first in an overtime staring contest with Tim Thomas.
Another three years have elapsed, and the pattern continues. Price will now hope to build on his Monday night shutout and secure his first-ever series-clinching triumph on the road. (Recall that he gave way to Jaroslav Halak for the Canadiens’ Cinderella run in 2010.)
In between, there has been a key development in Price’s stock. He is less than three months removed from blanking the United States and Sweden to help deliver Olympic gold to Canada.
Minus the medals, Wednesday presents the same basic scenario as those Olympic contests. One party plays on afterward, while the other ceases to contend for the ultimate prize.
Price can be an X-factor if he brings that same big-game aptitude and instills poise from the crease outward for the visitors. He will most likely need to do nothing less as he opposes another recent medalist netminder who is looking to enhance a similarly so-so Game 7 track record.
On that note, we turn to the other crease custodian.
Key for Boston: Rask Seeking Redress
Wednesday night will be Tuukka Rask’s third Game 7 in his NHL career, with all three occurring before his team’s fanbase. He is 1-1 in the previous two with four goals against in both of them.
If he is to use any past performances as a reference point, those need not be it. Even last year’s comeback against Toronto should join another four-goal shellacking, that being Game 6 of this series, in the zamboni snow behind his memory rink.
He needs to approach Wednesday’s tilt like he would any other prospective series-clincher. Since that Maple Leafs series, he has demonstrated a stingier form when aiming to drop the curtain on a playoff adversary.
To date, the masked man has personified Boston’s fortunes in this series with the Habs. His shutout through regulation in Game 4 enabled the Bruins to usurp momentum in the series with an overtime victory. Another sound effort on Saturday helped them raise their first upper hand in the series.
Now his task is to recover his lost form once more and bolster another series tiebreaker at the TD Garden. How he handles that task could be a telling gauge as to how his intangibles have evolved since his last winner-take-all engagement 12 months ago.
Key for Montreal: Elusive Skating and Puck Movement
When Montreal skaters break loose from the Bruins, they tend to bury biscuits. Even when they do not quite finish a play, they afford themselves a chance to foster momentum that way.
Through the first six games, the Canadiens have put 16 homeward-bound pucks behind Rask. Seven of those have come on the power play, which is encouraging enough but not something to rely upon.
Most of the other nine non-empty netters, namely the even-strength tallies, have come when the eventual scorer has beaten every backchecker.
It need not even be a textbook breakaway. Any play, no matter where it originates or how long it takes to unfold, that involves a puck-carrier coming between every Boston skater and the Boston net will help.
The forwards, in particular, need to seek out space and fill it without hesitation as they move the puck from zone to zone. They need to impose a dilemma on Boston’s skaters by forcing them to decide between relying too much on Rask and risking a penalty.
That, in turn, could bring on the byproduct of deploying the largely effective man advantage. Even if it does not click on the scoreboard, it can physically and psychologically drain the more leaned-on Bruins.
Among Rask’s skating mates, if one goes by cumulative minutes, Zdeno Chara is naturally the most leaned-on. The fact that Pacioretty finally got the better of him for an even-strength strike in Game 6 is nothing short of a timely boost of self-assurance.
Key for Boston: A First-Rate First Line
First-line center David Krejci has yet to influence this series the way he has most postseason bouts. He still has one solitary assist from Game 2 and a cumulative minus-two rating through the first six contests.
Linemate Jarome Iginla has two playoff goals against Montreal, while Milan Lucic has three points.
Most of that production, however, came in the first half of the series. Little of it has come when the entire first line has been peppering Price at even strength.
Between Games 4 and 5, head coach Claude Julien addressed the statistical silence of Krejci and his wingers, telling reporters on the scene, per NESN.com: “We’ve seen them at their best, and a little adversity is what they’re facing right now. But they’ve been as steady as we could have asked for the entire year, so to me, it’s just a matter of time and they’ll find their groove again.”
Two games, which the contesting clubs split, have passed since those comments. Save for Iginla’s Game 5 power-play conversion, the Krejci line’s endeavor to break through is as unfinished as the series.
The latter will be finished one way or the other by late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. Which way it ends could hinge, in part, on whether the Bruins’ top troika lives up to its slot on the depth chart.
Boston has devoted the last eight months, training camp included, to letting Iginla’s hunger for a title complement everyone else’s craving for more. Now the team faces its first potential plug-pull on its journey.
Key for Montreal: Defense and Transition by Committee
The Bruins’ off-and-on failure to get pucks through to Price (more on that in a moment) is not a complete indictment on them. The Canadiens deserve credit for blocking their share of shots and pursuing fugitive rebounds in their own zone.
Montreal’s winning efforts in this series have involved reasonable workloads for Price as other players have channeled him to create another layer of defense.
After any shortcoming shot by one team, alertness is everything for the defending team. That is how one retrieves the remnants of a blocked, wide or repelled shot and spawns a spontaneous transition from defense to offense.
That pattern is Montreal’s best bet for keeping the likes of the Krejci line muffled and eliciting its aforementioned puck movement key.
In a Game 7 at the opponent’s arena, enough plays of that nature could cause enough consternation for the crowd to neutralize that factor. The less the Habs have noises working against them from outside the dashers, the smoother their path will be to claiming the upper hand.
Key for Boston: Polished Puck Management
Loui Eriksson carried on a series-old trend Monday by clanking the crossbar at the 16:20 mark of the first period. Earlier, in the other zone, Kevan Miller’s lack of preparedness for fellow rookie defenseman Torey Krug’s pass led to Montreal’s icebreaker.
That icebreaker by Lars Eller morphed into the clincher, in part, because of Boston’s egregious inability to finish on offense. Eriksson was hardly alone in the way of close shaves that preserved Price’s shutout and let Montreal nudge the game out of reach.
The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa was apt to underline one sequence that saw the Bruins buzz on Montreal property for two-plus minutes.
The Canadiens sagged back and gave the Bruins tons of room at the points. By keeping the puck in Montreal’s zone, the Bruins got good looks. The Bruins snapped six pucks on goal. But the Canadiens turned back three of them, including a pair of blocks by Mike Weaver on Soderberg.
In all, out of 63 attempted shots on Monday, Price needed to address 26. His skating mates blocked 20, while the other 17 traveled wide.
That made for a throwback to Boston’s last loss in Game 3, when the Bruins landed 28 shots on net, saw another 29 blocked and sent 10 wide. Conversely, with the exception of Game 1, Boston has won whenever the majority of its attempts counted as shots on goal.
If the Bruins are to put the Habs on their heels, they must make Price perspire and cut back on giveaways.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.