There was a column written by Ed Willes in the Vancouver Province before the Conference Finals that I didn’t get a point to talk about. He wrote about why the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings represent pure evil, and that fans ought to be hoping for a Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins final because “the Blackhawks play the game with flair and style”
“The NHL, after all, is nothing if it’s not a copycat league, and if it’s proven you can win with speed and skill, the game will move that way.”
Every year, the key ingredient for winning changes. When Anaheim won in 2007, I remember reading about the importance of size and fighting. When Detroit won in 2008, it was development, system and puck possession. Pittsburgh was about youth, Chicago about depth, and the Bruins won and the argument came back to being about skill.
Has the NHL trended in the direction of any of the past winners? No. Has the NHL gravitated towards a more defensive style at 5-on-5? No. Scoring is down, because power plays are down, and scoring at 5-on-5 has remained relatively consistent over the last few years. Willes’ logic is flawed. If the NHL is a copycat league, then why is there such perfect symmetry in one “offensive” and one “defensive” team being the last standing in either conference?
But that’s not the point. The point here is that nobody seems to be giving the Boston Bruins credit for how skilled and exciting they are. Perhaps in Vancouver there’s some leftover hard feelings due to the thuggery that was supposedly on display during the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. To hear it told by revisionist historians (like the ones signing Tom Sestito to two-year contracts), Shawn Thornton, Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk out-intimidated and out-sized Vancouver to win the Cup.
The real issue was that the Canucks couldn’t score on the power play, and they couldn’t seem to beat Tim Thomas. The last game they won in that series, Game 5, was a game they for the most part controlled but ran into a crazy good goaltender. They finally were able to beat him when Max Lapierre banked in a shot off Thomas’ pad, who had come out of his net to challenge a missed shot.
The Bruins are better than they were in 2011. They still have an excellent goaltender in Tuukka Rask, who was the Bruins’ best player against the Penguins, but their core forwards have all seemed to have gotten better in the last 24 months. Patrice Bergeron has established himself as an elite No. 1 centreman with back-to-back Selke Trophy-worthy seasons in 2012 and 2013, Brad Marchand has become a formidable goal scorer and Tyler Seguin, though you wouldn’t notice by looking at these playoffs alone, has become himself a pretty good hockey player.
Best of all for the Bruins is that when they missed out on Jarome Iginla and the trade deadline, they took Jaromir Jagr from Dallas as a consolation prize to shore up the Top Six. Fans got a taste of what Jagr can still do in the Conference Finals series against the Penguins. He thinks hockey is a giant game of keep away. He’s still not scoring (though has 8 3+ shot games so far in the postseason) but his playmaking is beginning to result in goals. There’s a reason Claude Julien has kept him with Bergeron and Marchand.
I wouldn’t disagree that I’d prefer a final series with more skill and offensive talent than defence and grit, but keep in mind that the Bruins are one of the smaller teams in the NHL. By average height and weight, according to pre-season calculations made by James Mirtle at his personal blog, the Bruins rank 21st and 26th in the NHL.
Aside from Thornton, the team deploys no goons in its forward core, but even Thornton has more skating and offensive ability than some of the other token hockey players brought aboard to face punch people. Milan Lucic has re-discovered his offensive ability this spring and hasn’t thrown down yet in the playoffs. The Bruins third and fourth lines have been made up of skill players like Jagr and Seguin, but also Rich Peverley, Kaspars Daugavins, Danny Paille and Chris Kelly. Varying degrees of ability, but even when you factor in the injured Greg Campbell, there are a lot of hockey players in the Bruins’ bottom six that can contribute on any team in ways other than by fighting. Most of those players didn’t even drop the gloves this season.
As for defence, the Bruins were 5th in the NHL in goals against per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5 this past season, but much of that was due to their goaltender. No. 2 on that list? The Chicago Blackhawks, who are probably a more stifling defensive club than people are also willing to give credit for. Chicago was also third in Corsi Events (shot attempts) per 60 allowed, behind just Los Angeles and New Jersey.
That’s why the Blackhawks present a much better challenge for the Bruins. They’re built from the wings in up front, whereas the Penguins were built from the middle out. They’re quicker and have more players that can create in the offensive zone. They don’t give up a lot of shots not because they trap, but because they always had the puck this season. Travis Yost over at Hockey Buzz did a good job at breaking down how the Hawks are fundamentally different than the Penguins and are not just another offensive team. Think of that as a pre-emptive strike against panel discussions in the coming days.
It’s going to be an awesome series with lots of intriguing match ups. I’m loving a head-to-head match between Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron, or Chara against Marian Hossa. Both teams are very speedy along the wings and lots of quick strike opportunities. If the NHL is a copycat league, this is a matchup that fans could have hoped for. There is going to be a lot of skill on the ice for both teams.