Friday, April 15, 2011

Why the Bruins Will (or Won't) Win the Stanley Cup This Year

I'll start with reasons why the Bruins won't win the Stanley Cup this so I can end this post as positive a note as possible after a loss. So without further ado. (though, how often does one actually insert “ado.”)

Speed Kills: The Bruins defensive structure is based on ceding the perimeter of the ice in order to mount tighter defense in areas closer to the middle where goals are more likely to be scored, while keeping one forward high in the attacking zone to prevent odd man rushes coupled with aggressive backchecking by the other forwards. It's an extremely effective system; the Bruins gave up the second fewest goals this season. But really fast teams can beat this system, simply by out-skating the structure. They can get behind the defensemen, skate passed the high forward, and beat the backchecking forwards to the front of the net. In fact, teams with nothing going for them but speed, like the now-golfing Toronto Maple Leafs, can consistently beat the Bruins, even though much better, more well-rounded teams, like the Washington Capitals or the Vancouver Canucks, can't. This is a problem because they face Montreal in the first round and Montreal is fast. Consequently, Montreal was one of the few teams that consistently beat the Bruins this season. (Damnit Carey Price, going all Halak on us.)

Special Teams: If the Bruins had an average, a mediocre, an adequate power play there is a good chance they would have won the Eastern Conference outright. They could go weeks without scoring a power play goal. It really is a testament to how good they were 5-on-5 (far and away the best in the league) that they could go over a month without scoring a power play goal and still convincingly win their division. They even had a shot at being No. 2 in the East up until the last weekend. But defense tightens in the playoffs. Goals are harder to score. A team can't let more than ten minutes of power play time go without scoring and have a good chance of winning a best-of-seven series. Furthermore, the Bruins penalty kill has been inconsistent this season, especially against the aforementioned faster teams. They can go a month without giving up a power play goal and then give up several in the course of a few games. A rough spell on the penalty kill combined with a rough spell on the power play could easily lose a series for the Bruins.

Mistakes Cost the Bruins: No team or player every plays a perfect game. But since I've had the ability to watch a lot of Bruins games, one absolutely eye-explodingly frustrating fact has emerged; if the Bruins make five mistakes in a game, they lose 3 to 2. Last night's game is a good example. They made many good plays (no great plays), played a solid game from start to finish, dominated puck possession and attacking zone time and really only made four real mistakes. They lost 2-0. I wish I knew why Bruins' mistakes so often turn into goals, but I don't.

It has to Click: There have been moments when the Bruins were the best team in hockey. I specifically remember an early Washington Capitals game where the Bruins made the Capitals (the Washington Capitals!) look like the JV team. The first half of the last regular season game against the Canadians (before the Habs gave up for the night) also comes to mind. But the Bruins have rarely clicked this season. They have enough talent and structure to beat teams even when not everyone plays their best, but it takes more to win the Stanley Cup. Everything has to come together and that hasn't happened much this season.

Now, why they will win.

The Only Truly Effective Fourth-Line in the NHL: Most teams shorten their bench in the playoffs, rolling three or sometimes only two of their forward lines in the game. But the Bruins don't need to do that. Their fourth-line is more than just a 45-sec break for the rest of the team; they can hit, forecheck, maintain attacking zone time, fight (well, two of them can), and score. Obviously, this means the Bruins will have more energy as a team as they playoffs go on, but this will also wreak havoc on opposing coaches trying to get favorable match ups. I would not be too shocked if the fourth-line didn't score in the playoffs, but if they continue to play 6-10 effective minutes a game, as they have all season, the Bruins have a real good chance to hoist the cup.

Scoring Depth: The Bruins have four players with 20 or more goals this season, spread out over two lines, and thirteen players with 10 or more goals spread out over four lines and a couple of reserves. Furthermore in that between 10 and 20 range is a future Hall-of-Famer (Mark Recchi), the fastest slapshot on the planet (Zdeno Chara), one of the game's best playmakers (David Krejci), and perhaps the best snapshot in the game (Michael Ryder). Their opponents can't just put their shutdown pair of defensemen out against the Bruins top line and expect to limit their scoring. If you're playing the Capitals, you've got a pretty good idea who will score the overtime goal to win the game, but with the Bruins, who knows.

Goaltending: Tim Thomas set an NHL record for regular season save percentage, saving both the relatively harmless shots the Bruins' structure allows and virtually sure thing goals. Oh, and Tuukka Rask was a contender for the Vezina last year, and has played well this year too. In short, the Bruins have two absolute top of the line goaltenders, when often, just one is enough to get you deep in the playoffs. (Really, Montreal? Halak made, like, a thousand saves in the playoffs last year, letting you beat teams you had absolutely no business beating and you trade him? This is not to knock Carey Price, who is probably the game's most underrated player, but seriously.) Not only could Tim Thomas win a series for the B's, Tuukka Rask could step in and win a game in that series.

At writing, the Bruins are down 0-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Canadians. (Oh, if only I posted on Thursday morning.) It was a frustrating loss in which the Bruins dominated the game, but couldn't beat Price. But it doesn't change anything. Scoring on one of the Bruins' powerplays would have changed the complexion of the game. And the Habs teams speed allowed them to take advantage of the B's few mistakes. And though the B's played well, they didn't click. But one game is one game. And well, see the above points.

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