On Wednesday, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will play a winner-take-all seventh game. As with any such contest, this one could easily go either way, which means we may see the Habs upset the heavily favoured Bruins.
It should never have come to this, because the Bruins are a better team than the Canadiens.
Even without getting into esoteric explanations, this should be self-evident.
The Bruins had 11 more regulation/overtime wins than Montreal in 2013-14, and their goal differential was a whopping 79 points better than the Habs’. The core of this year’s Bruins team won the Stanley Cup in 2011; the core of this year’s Canadiens team missed the playoffs in 2012 and has generally been one-and-done in the postseason otherwise.
The basic superiority of the Boston roster is something that has been evident, to a degree, in this series.
Because of score effects, it is generally accepted by stats types that the best measure of a team’s effectiveness comes with the score tied. With the score tied in this series, the play has overwhelmingly taken place in Montreal’s end of the rink, as evidenced by the shot clock:
The Bruins have held a massive edge in shots with the score tied but haven’t been able to convert that dominant puck possession into a series victory. Why not?
It comes down to two factors: shooting and save percentage.
Boston’s defence is renowned as one of the NHL’s best, both thanks to a strong blue-line corps anchored by Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara and owing to a defensive commitment from forwards such as Selke Trophy-nominated Patrice Bergeron.
While the Bruins haven’t been perfect defensively in this series, they haven’t been any worse than Montreal, which makes it difficult not to look at the goaltender.
Tuukka Rask didn’t have a great opening game in the series (in his own words, per La Presse’s Richard Labbe: “I was s--t”), but he has had some excellent performances, including a shutout in Game 4 which allowed the Bruins to tie the series after going down 2-1.
Overall, though, he hasn’t been a match for Carey Price; the Montreal goaltender has faced 26 more shots and allowed two fewer goals. Rask’s 0.910 save percentage isn’t bad for an NHL goalie, but it doesn’t come close to matching his work in either the regular season or the first round.
Price, in contrast, owns a 0.931 save percentage in the six games he has played against Boston, culminating in a shutout in Game 6. TSN analyst Jamie McLennan noted not only key saves but also other strengths in Price’s game in his postgame analysis:
[Price] had a huge game, with no better series saver than the paddle save on Milan Lucic in the second period. He had great rebound control all night long, handled the puck well and didn’t allow second chances. Price also had big saves on Jarome Iginla, Davif [sic] Krejci, Carl Soderberg and Patrice Bergeron. His big save on Bergeron helped turn it around immediately as the Habs scored the same play. He was the best player on the ice for the Habs on Monday night. He had a huge game when it counted, especially in the second when the Bruins pressed hard.
Price’s brilliant play is only half of the puzzle, though; the other half is the Bruins’ seeming inability to finish.
One way to quantify finishing is by looking at the number of times a shot hit the goalpost. NHL.com tracks posts in its play-by-play records, and while it doesn’t tally them at its official website, a notation is added to the individual game logs and the event is recorded as a missed shot.
It is interesting to note the balance of the goalposts in this series:
The Bruins are averaging better than one post per game; Montreal has all of one post in the series. The 7-1 imbalance has been a critical factor in the Canadiens’ survival to date.
Prior to Game 6 (in which Boston did not score), Bruins head coach Claude Julien singled out his third line of Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson and Matt Fraser for praise.
“Carl Soderberg’s line has arguably been our best line so far in the series,” he told Neil Davidson of The Canadian Press (via the Ottawa Citizen). “They make things happen.”
Noticeable by its absence in that comment was the Bruins’ top six, a group which has rung pucks off the iron five times. It would be a different series if those pucks were going into the net instead of off the post. While Price deserves full credit for his work, the simple fact is that Boston’s best forwards aren’t converting their shots frequently enough.
If they were, the series would be over already.