NHL's Conference Finals Reaffirm The Boston Bruins' Need For More Speed

Al DanielCorrespondent IIJune 2, 2014

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12: Tuukka Rask #40, Andrej Meszaros #41, Matt Bartkowski #43 and Jordan Caron #38 of the Boston Bruins defend the goal against Max Pacioretty #67 of the Montreal Canadiens  during the NHL game on March 12, 2014 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

If the Boston Bruins have done anything hockey-related these last two weeks, they have been watching the NHL’s 2014 conference finals. If they want to participate next year, let alone reach the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, they should hope their front office watched with a studious eye.

After the Bruins’ Game 7 collapse against the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Globe scribe Fluto Shinzawa underscored a defensive disadvantage against speedy opponents. On towering captain Zdeno Chara, Shinzawa wrote, “For the second straight postseason, Chara cracked at the wrong time.”

Shinzawa also cited the Canadiens and Red Wings, Boston’s two 2014 postseason adversaries, as potentially perennial obstacles. The implication is that the Bruins must adjust their approach, and maybe their structure, to counter quickness with quickness.

But it is not only the blue-line brigade that needs faster feet. Nor is it just Atlantic Division cohabitants the Bruins will need to match in future springtime encounters.

The Habs, after all, were the first of the four divisional ambassadors to be snuffed out in this year’s conference finals. One of the reasons was that the New York Rangers were flaunting some flashy forwards of their own.

In the Western Conference, a fluid affair between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings has reached its seven-game maximum. That, too, is a partial product of clashing stables of swiftness.

The evidence could not be clearer: In the NHL’s first season under its new alignment and playoff format, each division’s last remaining representative has won on no small dosage of speed.

This is nothing new for the defending champions from Chicago. This is the team that, with copilots Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, got the better of Chara in last June’s deciding phase.

But perhaps just as critically, the Bruins did not generate enough of the same at the other end to offset Chicago’s production. That notion is collecting traction as the current tournament rolls along.

Boston held a lead over Montreal for an aggregate 58 minutes and 19 seconds in the 2014 Atlantic Division Final. That is the sum of an eight-minute, seven-second sequence in Game 2, a stretch of 3:32 later that day and a span of 46:40 in Game 5.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 25:  Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers skates against Max Pacioretty #67 of the Montreal Canadiens in the first period of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final against during the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Squa
Scott Levy/Getty Images

Conversely, when you peruse the box scores and tally up the data, you will find that Montreal led on twice as many occasions. Three of those segments lasted longer than 49 minutes, four of them north of 31. All six combined for a cumulative 217:42.

That certainly speaks, in part, to the Habs’ efficiency when safeguarding a lead. But they also needed something to spawn those leads, let alone expand upon them, as they often did. Boston also needed to be missing something on its part for the discrepancy to broaden the way it did.

The Bruins presented a first line whose wingers were the hulking (235-pound) Milan Lucic and the aging (36-going-on-37) Jarome Iginla. They either lacked sufficient speed to begin with or had subpar stamina, which precluded all significant measures of speed in the end.

Montreal’s minute-munchers in the second round included Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec. All five, with the exception of Plekanec, are in their 20s and all are known for their speed or an equivalent quality.

But after blowing by the Bruins, the Canadiens could not get the better of the Blueshirts. That is because Manhattan’s NHL chapter has evolved since springing for a coaching change 12 months ago. Craig Custance of ESPN.com wrote the following the morning after the Rangers put away the Habs:

An Alain Vigneault team is going to roll four lines. Speed is going to be a big factor. He’s going to have an active defense, all five guys involved. Players are going to be expected to read and make plays based on their skill set and the situation.

The results to date include double-digit playoff point totals for Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and even Martin St. Louis. The upgrade from the obsessive-defensive John Tortorella, whose system crashed with the Canucks this past year, is obvious.

The Rangers chose to alter their direction, and it is paying dividends. With their Game 6 clincher, they bought themselves three days of rest awaiting the winner of the Blackhawks-Kings series.

Within that rematch of last year’s Western final sits two more testaments to the league’s new winning formula. One is the model, the other a progressive follower.

When the Kings raised a 2-1 upper hand in their bout with the Blackhawks, Elliot Teaford of The Los Angeles Daily News revisited their timely transformation.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 8: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks and Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings skate across the ice as Bryan Bickell #29 of the Blackhawks watches in the background in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the
Bill Smith/Getty Images

Teaford wrote that prior to the playoffs, “There was a cynical perception among some that the Kings’ game plan was to try to win every game 1-0.” But then the new-look strike force, trade-deadline import Marian Gaborik and all, began to take shape.

Gaborik and Anze Kopitar, another world-class offensive force, have brought out the best in each other this spring. Teaford also made sure to mention homegrown youngsters Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, who have flanked veteran skater extraordinaire Jeff Carter.

Entering Sunday’s Game 7, the arrangement has translated to at least two more wins than last year’s conference final. The Kings have tallied three-plus goals in 10 of their first 11 victories this postseason. They have mustered six on three occasions, five on another two and four on two others.

Granted, L.A. has allowed Chicago to fill a 3-1 pothole and force a deciding tilt. But its 5-4 overtime loss in Game 5 and the 4-3 faltering on Friday were both frankly anybody’s game.

Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times called Game 5 a “jaw-dropping, head-spinning display of speed, skill, character and hockey at its finest.”

Notice the first of the three elements Lazerus listed there? And those who saw Game 6 ought to have emerged with a similar assessment. Chicago’s 4-3 victory this past Friday also had three lead changes, with each club holding the upper hand twice.

Contrast all of that with the 2013 playoffs, when the Kings cracked the four-goal plateau twice in 18 total ventures. Contrast that with the 2013 conference final, when they could not keep up with these same Blackhawks and bowed out in five games.

Who did the Blackhawks bump in the series that followed that five-game edging of the 2012 champions? The 2011 champions, aka the Bruins.

Western Conference crown or not, the Kings have done plenty to prove that they learned from last year’s shortcoming. They have proven themselves ahead of a few fellow contenders in the game of evolution.

Boston needed a rerun of regret this spring. But what has followed in the third round has made one of the critical solutions as clear as a freshly Zambonied rink.

How the Bruins can and should pursue that solution is another debate. It could entail any combination of internal tweaking, external trading or free-agent moves to give more minutes to players brandishing blaze and stamina.

It will take anything that makes next May and June work for Boston the way this spring has for Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com