How the Boston Bruins' Defense Should Counter the Sizzling St. Louis Blues

Al DanielCorrespondent IINovember 18, 2014

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21: Dougie Hamilton #27 of the Boston Bruins fights for the puck against Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues at the TD Garden on November 21, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

The Boston Bruins passed Saturday’s quiz against the Carolina Hurricanes. Now the St. Louis Blues shall administer a test Tuesday night, comprising the weightiest questions with their offense against Boston’s new-look defense.

St. Louis ventures into the TD Garden with a 10-1-0 hot streak in the works. Its strike force has only accelerated amidst that streak, tuning the twine at least four times in five of its last six ventures.

The Bruins, on the other hand, have just stopped the bleeding after letting in 11 goals over two games in Toronto and Montreal last week. Now it becomes a matter of drawing up the best choices of who to assign against whom in Tuesday’s marquee matchup.

As they press on through the indefinite absences of Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller, the Bruins used new combinations in their 2-1 squeaker past the Hurricanes.

For the better part of Saturday's outing, the Bruins rounded out their pairings as follows:

Dennis SeidenbergAdam McQuaid 
 Joe MorrowDougie Hamilton
 Torey KrugMatt Bartkowski

It worked well enough against the lowly Hurricanes. But should the Bruins rerun the arrangement against a Western Conference force that has scored 14 goals in a three-game winning streak?

At the top, anyway, there are enough parallels between the last matchup and the next to keep the McQuaid-Seidenberg pairing intact. Consider what coach Claude Julien said after Saturday’s game, as quoted by Jess Isner of the team’s website:

We only gave up one goal tonight, and the goaltender played great, and those guys — from my point of view, anyway — seemed to handle it well. (Adam) McQuaid and (Dennis) Seidenberg had the big Eric Staal to deal with, and I thought they did a good job against that line. The other guys did a good job as well, just moving the puck and getting a little bit of a flow to our game.

Size-wise, and experience-wise, Eric Staal resembles his fellow 30-year-old NHL captain, St. Louis’ David Backes. Backes makes formidable use of his 6'3" stature and 221-pound bulk the same way Staal does with his 6'4" and 205-pound allotment.

Based on the official play-by-play transcript of their last game, a 4-1 win at Washington, the Blues will employ the following as their top six:

 Patrik BerglundDavid Backes  T.J. Oshie
 Jaden Schwartz Jori Lehtera Vladimir Tarasenko

The former unit has seasoning, with Backes and Oshie each wearing letters of leadership, and size, with Backes and Berglund each filling out 6’3” frames. Based on how they handled Staal, the St. Louis captain Backes is a fitting assignment for the grizzled likes of Seidenberg and McQuaid.

There was one blemish on Saturday, namely when Staal assisted on linemate Jiri Tlusty's icebreaker while Hamilton and Seidenberg were working together amidst an incomplete change. Apart from that, the veteran pairing helped to confine the Staal line to only seven of Carolina's 34 shots on goal throughout the day.

Facing Backes and his wingers, the Bruins might as well go with what just gave them a fresh sample of effectiveness in a comparable matchup.

With a pair of flashy 22-year-olds in Schwartz and Tarasenko, the Blues' other top-six troika is defined by youth and energy. With Hamilton and Krug, the Bruins can claim the same about their two third-year professional blueliners. In turn, they should explore pairing the two against the Lehtera line.

Although he expresses it through a different position, Hamilton mirrors Tarasenko with his advanced skill and physical maturity. Boston would thus pursue its best bet if it sends its future defensive anchor out to neutralize the Blues’ future (if not current) offensive catalyst.

Add the fact that Schwartz, not unlike Krug, is comparatively undersized. The third-year winger is neck and neck with Oshie as St. Louis’ smallest rostered forward.

In turn, a Hamilton-Krug combination would be worth trying for at least some, if not all, of St. Louis’ youth-line shifts. The natural drawback to that would be a greater drainage of seasoning once Boston gets down to its bottom pairing.

Bartkowski, however, can claim authentic NHL experience that has touched five full professional seasons. Although he was not a permanent Boston blueliner until last year, his 90 regular-season appearances date back to his rookie campaign in 2010-11.

Furthermore, the 26-year-old’s professionalism came through in his performance Saturday after going without extramural action for two-and-a-half weeks. Per Caryn Switaj of the Bruins website, Julien offered, “You know, I think he was physical today, he moved the puck, and he did OK.”

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 15 : Matt Bartkowski #43 of the Boston Bruins skates against the Carolina Hurricanes at the TD Garden on November 15, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Assuming he suits up again, Bartkowski will thus have no excuse to omit those attributes against the Blues. Considering who they are preparing to face, the Bruins may serve their best interests to bank on those attributes of his against St. Louis’ depth forwards.

Presumptive visiting fourth-liners Maxim Lapierre and Steve Ott are no strangers to New England puckheads and no strangers to a sandpaper game.

Under perfect circumstances, namely with Chara and Miller in action, the Bruins would have the means to let McQuaid counter the Blues’ fourth troika. But they need to use what they have, and a Bartkowski-Morrow combination would be a sensible resort on that front.

Morrow, a fellow 2011 first-round draftee of Hamilton’s who has put in eight NHL appearances, has a largely untapped penchant for physicality. His scouting report from The Hockey News acclaims him for being “an aggressive defenseman who can hit with aplomb, put up good numbers on offense and also act as a shutdown, big-minute defender.”

Naturally, the “big-minute” aspect will not be necessary against a forward line that does not crack double digits in nightly minutes. But working with the two-way plugger Bartkowski to ward off Ott and company should suffice as a welcome-to-The-Show project.

In addition, deploying Bartkowski and Morrow against the Blues’ brawny bottom-liners will allow Krug to compete against forwards closer to his ilk. If he joins Hamilton on the middle pairing, they figure to see their share of shifts against St. Louis’ second and third lines.

Each Boston defenseman who dressed Saturday earned the right to take Tuesday’s upgraded challenge at the hands of the Blues. Part of that upgrade, for the players and coaching staff alike, is learning to change on the fly until normalcy returns to the lineup.

In this case, the Bruins should stock up on experienced physicality for its top pairing, relatively seasoned two-way proficiency in the middle and supplementary grit at the bottom. Through those means, they will arrange their best available assets to stifle a St. Louis team that bears a similar pattern up and down its offensive chart.

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


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