April 17, 2011

Bruins/Habs: The First Two Games

I agree with Paula's points in her last post. Here are some more thoughts about what is happening in this series, and how to make it better.

First, some stats.
GF: 5th GA: 2nd PP: 20th PK: 16th SV%: 1st
+51 goal differential
32.9 shots for/game (3rd) 32.7 SA/g (29th)

GF: 21st GA: 8th PP: 7th PK: 7th SV%: 5th
+7 goal differential
31.7 SF/g (9th) 31 SA/g (18th)

Besides Montreal's odd disparity in shots for vs. goals for, all of this paints a very clear picture of these two teams. The Bruins are strong but somewhat reckless. We have the ability to kick the crap out of other teams, as is evident by our high goals for and goal differential.

The Bruins are known as a defensive team; however, the defense has struggled to move the puck all year. Chara and Seidenberg are high points. Johnny Boychuk ranges from our 2nd defenseman to the worst player on the ice, Ference does what he can, and Adam McQuaid's struggle with anxiety only sometimes works in our favor. We let up more shots than anyone but Carolina. Our low goals against is entirely due to Timmy.

This, coupled with our horrid special teams, is indicative of a disorganized team. All year the Bruins' biggest problem was mental. When they lost it was because they panicked and lost focus. One could often pinpoint the exact moment at which they freaked out. Going into the playoffs, I said I thought they had the ability to win the Stanley Cup, but that by no means meant they would.

I should explain now that I don't think PP and PK are as important as GF, GA, or SV%. The main reason I include those stats is because they reflect on the coach. There are limitations on every team, so a team can be stronger in one special team or the other and still have a decent coach. However, if a very strong team is in the bottom of the league in both categories, it is a sign that things are not running smoothly. On the other hand, if an otherwise mediocre team has very good special teams, it is a sign that the players are doing what the coach wants, and that the coach wants the right things.

Montreal can't score. They have some skill up front but overall their forwards are their weakness. Their strength is goaltending, defense, and special teams. Their low goal differential means that they only won games by a small margin. Going into this series, I believed we could steamroll over them simply by outscoring them. There was no way Montreal could keep up with our offense.

But there was something I didn't take into consideration: Jacques Martin knows all of this. All of it. His teams strengths, the Bruins weaknesses, both teams' style of play. He clearly studied numbers and video extensively, probably obsessively. He knew there was only one way his team could beat ours, and he figured out how to make sure the series was played exactly that way. What we've gotten is a low-scoring series and an emotionally fragile Bruins team that may be too traumatized by the first two games to recover.

This is what the Habs have been doing to make the Bruins look bad:
  1. Chipping the puck over our heads into the neutral zone or deep into our zone. They do this a lot without icing the puck, meaning they practiced it. While that play gives us possession, it puts the puck in the hands of our de, who have had trouble making clean breakout passes all year. Montreal is doing this over and over again to test our de, and our de have mostly failed. Kaberle has suddenly lost the ability to move the puck, and Johnny Boy passes it to Plekanec more often than any Bruin. Seidenberg consistently makes plays no one else can, and Andrew Ference has had the most success carrying the puck up, but that still means 67% of our defensemen are terrifying and ineffective. Chara has an excuse. Kaberle does not.
  2. Collapsing down on our forwards the second they enter the offensive zone. This either forces a turnover or forces us to dump the puck in deep. Unlike the Bruins, the Habs defensemen are very strong, and their breakout is a thing of beauty when they have time and space.
This is what the Bruins should be doing:
  1. First and foremost, the de need to settle the fuck down. They can't expect the forwards to score if they can't keep the puck in the offensive zone and pass to the wrong team. As a former defensemen, I feel their plight, but I also know there is no place for fear in hockey. Work your hardest with every step and you'll have nothing to be nervous about.
  2. Close puck support. This is probably the biggest change in the system that needs to happen. Basically, the Bruins need to play more like Detroit. When a Red Wing loses the puck, the first player to get it is another Red Wing. Especially coming across the Habs' blue line, the Bruins should be right on top of one another. Nathan Horton isn't going to do any good breaking for the net if David Krejci skates alone into 3 Habs. If he skates into 3 Habs and is trailed by Milan Lucic, who can pick up the puck he loses and send it to Horton, that's another matter. Closely supporting the puck carrier also means they can make shorter passes, meaning fewer turnovers and more sustained puck possession. However, the only way this strategy is effective is if every player knows where their teammates are going, knows where they are supposed to be, and skates as hard as they can to get there.
  3. Forecheck. Their de need time to work their magic. We've had some success when we don't let them build momentum. Pressuring them also means they'll need to dish to their forwards sooner and more frequently, and like I said, their forwards are their weakness. We've won a lot of battles along the wall in the offensive zone, especially when our de pinch down early. We need to get the puck out of their defensemen's hands and then take it from their forwards.
  4. Generally, the Bruins have to move more in the offensive zone (themselves-- not just the puck). It's too easy for Carey Price to see and stop shots when they come from a stationary player. Instead of setting up in their zone and trying to force point shots when we clearly don't have shooting lanes, we need to keep moving throughout the zone. This automatically creates chances, as it spreads out their de and forces Price to scramble. They clog the slot, which has made things tricky for us. However, it also means there is more room to skate in the rest of the zone. We need to use that space. Standing still in the slot is only effective if we're about to shoot. Otherwise, keep moving. Help the forecheck. Pull a Brett Hull and wander around until you see an opportunity. Just keep swimming, guys.
  5. Entering the zone cleanly is another way to get movement in their zone. It's how we scored our only goal.
People in Boston are acting like this series is over. It is not over. Montreal has made us look bad but it's only because we've let them. The Bruins are still the better team. We can absolutely still win this series. Changes need to be made as a team and individually, but the Bruins should remember that every change they need to make is to be more like themselves and the team they were for most of the year. In the end they shouldn't try to be Detroit and shouldn't focus on countering Montreal's strategy-- that's up to Claude. The players just need to play like Bruins. If they do that, they'll never hear boos again.

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