Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why the Bruins Won Everything in March

The Bruins have locked up the Eastern Conference with four games remaining in the schedule and have a solid shot at the totally-meaningless-but-I-guess-kinda-better-than-nothing President's trophy. Though it was formalized on Saturday's win over the Flyer's, with the waning of the Penguins, the Bruins have been the best team in the conference (and probably the league) for several weeks now. They only lost once (ONCE!) in March and put together an almost unbelievable string of games. Here's why they were able to do that.

They're Relatively Healthy
The boring fact of the elite teams of the NHL is they tend to distinguish themselves from each other based on how healthy their stars are. When an announcer talks about “playing well at the right time,” that is generally a narrative-biased explanation for the fact that Patrice Bergeron had a punctured lung and a dislocated rib by game 6 and Jonathan Toews did not. For the last month and a half, the Bruins have been relatively healthy, with only Dennis Seidenberg (who had the courtesy to suffer his season ending injury before the trade deadline) and Adam Mcquaid missing serious time. For the last month of the season, for a Stanley Cup contender, only missing two major players, and missing them in such a way that the team has the resources to compensate is about as healthy as can possibly be. Professional hockey is a war of attrition determined, too often by luck, and for the last month, the Bruins have been very lucky.

They Have a Legitimate Power Play
The Bruins have been the best even strength team in the NHL for a few years now thanks to a successful system (more on that later), a couple of top notch shut down defensemen, and a few top notch three-zone forwards, but, even when they won the Stanley Cup, their power play hindered them. Given their even-strength excellence, I've never believed a top ten power play was required for them to be successful, but it couldn't hurt. So what changed between then and now, where they're scoring at a third-best 20.8% clip. Unlike the top two teams, Pittsburgh and Washington, the Bruins don't have a sniper to bend the power play curve. Rather, they've had success because they run two fundamentally different power play systems.

Most teams have two power play units, but very few teams that I can think of, run distinct systems based on those units. The Bruins first unit has a pretty simple strategy, stick two monstrosities in front of the net and move the puck around enough to get a decent shot so the mythological beasts can fight to stuff in a rebound. By sticking Chara and Lucic in a power-I in front of the net the Bruins first unit throws down a physical challenge very few teams will be able to meet. And the result is that shut-down defenseman Chara, has ten (TEN!) power play goals. The second unit is an entirely different story all together, using puck motion to create passing lanes for lay-up goals on the side of the net. A system which requires an entirely different strategy to defend against. And then you add in the fact that, because of their overall defensive structure, they can have four forwards on the ice without undue risk of a short handed goal (they've only given up six all year), and the puck moving ability of Torey Krug and the three-zone skill of Bergeron and Kreici and the increased chemistry between Soderberg and Eriksson and you have a dominant power play without the typical NHL superstar on the best even strength team in the league. If there is any one of these particular points terrifying other teams, it is this one.

The Olympic Break
The Olympic break gave both Iginla and Eriksson a chance to get their legs back; for Ignila, that meant a bit of a breather and for Eriksson it meant getting his reps in after returning from his concussion. The energy Iginla came back with turned his line into a true top line and they have been dominating opponents ever since. Eriksson's improvement has, not only added more depth by improving the Bruins third line, but also, I think, played a role in Carl Soderberg's recent successes. A chemistry has developed between the two Swedes that was not really there with Eriksson on the Bergeron line. The result being that once again, there is no break in the Bruins forward lines. There is skill and grit on all four lines and now, all four lines are playing well.

The Bruins System
Third man high, three-zone center, protect the house, support your teammates, weak-side defender pressures the puck at the blue line. At this point, there is pretty much one vulnerability in the Bruins' team system; a cross-ice stretch pass, but since they know that, it isn't much of a vulnerability. If someone makes a mistake, there is always someone else to cover him. And both Rask (who is playing at Vezina levels) and Johnson (who is playing far better than any back up has a right to) are good enough to make up for nearly every time mistakes compound into a serious scoring chance. Over the last month and a half pretty much the only goals the Bruins have given up have involved the occasional long pass and the bad bounce amidst the chaos in front of the net. At this point, enough Bruins have been playing the system that it is second nature, and the system is intuitive enough that newer players have fit in perfectly.

But along with the strategic system, there is a powerful team character. It leads to Chris Kelly, who is pretty goddamn good in the face-off circle, to play wing, to Gregory Campbell staying on the fourth line and making less money than he otherwise would, to David Krejci working the point on the power play, and for every player to stand up for every other player. If the Bruins can win another Cup or two in the next five years and continue their overall success, one could argue Claude Julien is one of Boston's greatest coaches, if not one of the NHL's greatest coaches.

The Schedule
It should also be noted that the Bruins won a lot of games they were supposed to win. Florida twice. Carolina. Phoenix twice. Minnesota. Washington is a cusp team that “needs” points, but they are still below Boston in the standings, and the same goes for Montreal, Philadelphia, and New York. All four are better teams than those previously mentioned, but all four are still, not as good as the Bruins. Chicago was diminished. And Colorado has come back down to Earth. Not losing in March was still pretty fucking amazing, but the Bruins also benefited from a schedule that happened to set the table perfectly for them.

Perfect Hockey
Oh yeah, also they haven't been making mistakes. Like any mistakes. And the few that happen, are almost always taken care of by a teammate. It's fucking relentless.

Looking Forward
Given all that, it's hard not to be optimistic about the Bruins chances in this post-season. From what I've seen, the only real concern is Chara. Since the Olympic break, Chara seems to have lost a step. Thus far it hasn't been a problem, but against the Penguins, or even in seven games against the Canadians, having your top shut down defenseman a step too slow could cost them the series. Hopefully, with the Eastern conference now sewn up, they can give Chara (and Bergeron and Kelly and Campbell and Krejci...) a few days off to hopefully recharge his legs a bit.

But baring that, and assuming the Bruins stay healthy, at this point, there is no good reason not to expect the best.

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