Why Boston Bruins Are on the Brink of Losing a Series They Should've Won Easily

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistMay 13, 2014

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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.

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 15:  Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena on June 15, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. T
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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:

Five-on-five shot attempts with the score tied
GameBostonMontrealDifference
1522626
222157
31314-1
4645014
5853
6330
Totals16211349
ExtraSkater.com

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.

MONTREAL, QC - MAY 8: Thomas Vanek #20 of the Montreal Canadiens controls the puck as he looks for an option against goaltender Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre o
Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

Tuukka Rask didn’t have a great opening game in the series (in his own words, per La Presses 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 didnt 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:

Goalposts hit in Montreal-Boston series
GameTeamPlayer
1BostonLoui Eriksson
1BostonDougie Hamilton
2BostonJarome Iginla
3BostonJarome Iginla
3MontrealThomas Vanek
4BostonReilly Smith
5BostonReilly Smith
6BostonMilan Lucic
NHL.com

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.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 10: Claude Julien head coach of the Boston Bruins gives his players instructions during the game against the Montreal Canadiens during Game Five of the Second Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the TD Garden on May 10, 2014 in
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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 Soderbergs 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.