It has been said that hockey is a kids’ game played by grown men.
Same can be said for just about any team sport. Playgrounds are full of kids hitting the game winning home run, catching the touchdown pass or nailing the trey as time expires – hockey is a little more defined and the equipment unique to the sport, but those kids have the same dreams.
Not every hockey dream starts on a frozen pond, many start in that playground or on a residential street where the goal is a trash can tipped on its side, the puck is an old tennis ball and the stick was anything you could find…
…and eventually the kid grows and leaves the playground for ice rinks and proper equipment, but the street laws still apply – the playground mentality: you take something from me, I take something from you.
So it goes without saying that when the Chicago Blackhawks took the ice against the Boston Bruins in game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night, they had a score to settle. The Bruins had taken middle ice away from the Blackhawks - from the neutral zone and down the slot – and if they wanted any chance at getting back into the series that Boston led 2-1, they had to take back what was taken from them.
The result was a wild 6-5 overtime win that evened the series at 2-2, with game 5 scheduled for Saturday night in Chicago.
In the process, the Blackhawks also took back what was inherently theirs, the home ice advantage earned by having the best record in the National Hockey League – taken from them by The Bruins by splitting the first two games of the series in Chicago – the direct result of keeping Chicago’s speedy forwards pinned to the boards, forcing their defensemen to take a majority of shots on goal, and almost always from long range…
…so it counts as ironic that it was a defenseman, Brent Seabrook, who scored the gamer at TD Garden to tie the series, from long range, no less - the lightning quick forwards opening up a shooting lane by patiently spreading the Bruins thin and congesting the slot, aggressively putting shots on net and rushing in for the rebounds.
Now it’s a best of three series and the real chess match of adjustments begins.
In game 4, the Blackhawks’ coaching staff countered the physical style of the Bruins by being aggressive in the neutral zone - their forwards, instead of floating backwards and allowing the Bruins to send the puck in deep, employed a risky trap zone between the blue lines, getting into the passing lanes to intercept pucks and by challenging every clearing attempt by the Bruins out of their defensive zone.
Risky because it generated a couple of odd man rushes the other way, but it worked to open up the neutral zone for those stretch passes that are the bread and butter of their offense, and the results were compelling…
…and the key to opening up those long passes was the play of the defensemen in the transition game.
As a team, the Blackhawks were able to use their superior speed to full advantage, much of that success was directly tied to the defensemen clearing their zone after gaining possession by escorting the puck to the middle of the ice and delivering those long stretch passes to the streaking forwards with a lot of mustard on them - and that’s when the Blackhawks become so fast that they can’t be defensed.
But it wasn’t just flying into the offensive zone with their teeth on fire that got their offense going.
The Blackhawks also showed a patience that they hadn’t up to that point in the series, instead of throwing the puck at Boston goalie Tuukka Rask in frustration when the Bruins had cut off their angles and pushed everything to the boards as they had in the first three games, Chicago’s forwards battled on the forecheck while allowing traffic to build in front of Rask before putting a shot on net – as a result Chicago found their offensive rhythm early.
The Bruins had manhandled Chicago since the opening faceoff of the series and kept their goaltender clean, but the Blackhawks’ attacking style and willingness to battle the Bruins along the boards combined with the defensemen jump-starting their offense in game 4 opened the flood gates - Rask showing an uncharacteristic frustration that comes with playing hide and seek…
…with not only the Chicago forwards, but also with his own defensemen as they had to work to try and push the Blackhawks out of the slot.
Charging Rask after a shot on net caused the Bruins’ defense to collapse down, causing even more congestion and opening shooting lanes for a split second at a time – and the patience that Chicago showed with the puck in setting up their triangle instead of randomly firing shots at Rask from long range paid off as the traffic helped the Blackhawks screen the Bruins’ defensemen from the rebounds.
And that is important to remember. When the Bruins control the slot, hard shots on Rask rarely find twine, and the resultant rebounds, if any, are easily swept away, particularly by the big galoot in the middle, Zdeno Chara. But not on this night.
An excellent example was on Seabrooks’ game winner in overtime was Hawks’ forward Jonathan Toews - who gives up seven inches and fifty pounds to the bruising Czech – but was able to get into Chara’s body and screen him off and distract Rask, who was easily beaten stick side by Seabrook’s drive.
The Bruins had been very successful keeping the Blackhawks away from Rask in the first three games of the series, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and anyone who thinks the Blackhawks didn’t feel their backs against the wall hasn’t been paying attention.
They took chances and took as good as they got, but one has to wonder if that’s all they have…
Next: The eerie premonition from a crusty old man…