If the Chicago Blackhawks are looking for the key to beating the Boston Bruins, they might be better off dissecting their first-round elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs rather than the shocking sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Like the Penguins, the Leafs were given a quick lesson in Game 1 on the punishing defensive game played by the Bruins. Led by Zdeno Chara, the Bruins blueline takes the body at every turn to discourage enemy sorties near goaltender Tuukka Rask and all pucks are cleared quickly to prevent any second or third scoring chances on rebounds.
At the same time, the Bruins offence thrives on the turnovers created by the defence.
Once an opposing forward coughs up the puck, the Boston counterattack is quick and merciless. Penguins star Sidney Crosby discovered that 28 seconds into Game 2, when he coughed up the puck at his own blueline to set up a 6-1 rout.
A lingering image from the NHL’s Eastern Conference final is of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal trying over and over again to stick-handle their way to the front of Rask’s net. And either losing the puck, missing the net or seeing the shot blocked, if not by Rask then by one of the defencemen.
Much was made of the Penguins repeatedly missing the net in the four games of that series. Some of that was bad luck, but a lot of it was not being granted any time or space by the Bruins to shoot. Not that this did not stop the Penguins from trying the same old thing over and over.
Which brings us back to the Maple Leafs.
After getting dominated in a 4-1 loss in Game 1, with Chara once again shutting down Phil Kessel, the Leafs quickly realized they had to change their game plan. They had to crash and bang their way to the front of the net and somehow jam the puck behind Rask. Finesse was definitely not the way – as the Blackhawks will find out.
The Leafs also made Chara a target. He was hit every time a Toronto player had the chance. And it slowed him down. Not by much, but enough that the Leafs made a series out of it. It sprung Kessel enough to score two game-winning goals in the series.
By the end of the series, the top points-producer on the Leafs was winger James van Riemsdyk. This was no coincidence, as the 6-foot-3 forward does his best scoring when he crashes the net. This did not always happen during the regular season, but he was a regular presence around Rask in the playoffs, with a Bruins defenceman or two draped over him.
The Leafs also got a lot of support on offence from their back end, notably from Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner, who jumped into the rush judiciously. The only time the Penguins’ James Norris memorial Trophy finalist Kris Letang was noticed – he of the 38 points in 35 regular-season games – was when he was giving the puck away.
In the end, the Leafs’ adjustment to the Bruins was not enough, largely because of one other important quality Boston has in ample supply (although Leafs fans are still caught up in blaming their own team for the Game 7 collapse): The Bruins have the will and patience to stick with their game, no matter how badly things are going.
This, plus an all-world goaltender like Rask, is vital when the difference between success and failure is as thin as the Bruins’ power play. The Leafs should have beaten the Bruins in that seventh and deciding game, and if the Pens hit the net a couple more times than they hit the goal post, the names of those on the firing line would be much different.
But Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli assembled the right group of players and head coach Claude Julien taught them how to play and believe, so they are dancing on the thin edge of success.