Boston Bruins on Paper: The Neutral Zone


Lisbon Street News is Lewiston’s answer to Floyd’s Barber Shop – a bustling convenience store on this central Maine town’s main drag.

You can find just about anything you’re looking for inside, but mostly old men drinking nasty, bitter New England Coffee and talking pucks.  It’s a surly lot for sure, not given to cheap talk – nor to aging hippies who look every bit the stereotype…

June 5, 2013; Boston, MA USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (44) and defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) shove Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) in the goal crease during the first overtime period in game three of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

…so it took a while before the repugnant stares ceased, and a bit longer than that before my presence was acknowledged with anything more than a quick glance – and it’s still a day to day thing as to whether anyone talks to me or not – so when I approached the owner of the store this afternoon, the ring leader of the Artificial Hipsters, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I knew that he was a Pittsburgh Penguins fan from way back, and I wanted his opinion as to how he thought the Boston Bruins would fare against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks – who he thought would win, and why – and his candor caught me off guard.

“Five games.” he replied quickly, “Bruins.  Maybe six if the Blackhawks get lucky.”

Perhaps it was my stunned silence that caused him to elaborate, as I was not ready for him to be anything but negative in regard to the Bruins, who had just run his Penguins out of the playoffs in a brutal four-game sweep.

We talked through his afternoon cleaning routine, but it was the last thing he said that ultimately stuck in my brain: “They can turn into anything they need to be.”

Which may or may not be true – at the time I took his words as those of a bitter old man that was going to feel better about how his team’s season ended only if the Bruins take the Blackhawks to the woodshed and give them a thorough beating – and hopefully a sweep, just as they had managed to do to Pittsburgh…

…and the more I’ve thought about it the more I think that’s exactly what it is – because in all three series the Bruins have played, they’ve played only one way: Bruins’ hockey.

It took a little while in the opening round – actually it took a minor miracle to advance out of that round, but once they got to the conference semi-finals against a preseason favorite to win the Stanley Cup in the New York Rangers, it was a three-high defense that dominated the neutral zone and also shut down the prolific Penguins’ offense in the conference finals…

…and there’s no reason to change that against a Blackhawks’ team that needs center ice to get their transition game going, the life-blood of their offense.

Chicago’s top two lines feature world class scorers in Jonathan Toews , Marian Hossa, conference finals hero Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp – but Towes and Kane have struggled to get much going this post-season, though Kane broke out of his funk with a hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, including the series clinching goal.

After that, though, is a mix of inconsistency that can be exploited by aggressiveness on the part of the Bruins’ neutral zone defense – something that is made possible by the other-worldly play of goaltender Tuukka Rask and the fact that the Bruins feature excellent two-way play on the part of their forwards and have perhaps the best collection of blue-liners in the NHL.

The idea is to stem any forward momentum the Blackhawks try to generate by standing up their forwards at the blue line, forcing the action to either wing and causing them to have to battle the Bruins’ more physical defensemen in the corners – and with the likes of  Zdeno Chara on the back check, setting up their triangle will be an effort that may cost them stamina towards the end of the contest.

This also takes away the stretch pass, an essential tool in Chicago’s transition game – something that Boston had great success stopping with poke checks on the puck in the Penguins series, resulting in more than a few momentum-killing offsides whistles and turnovers.  The Penguins scored all of two goals on the Bruins in four games, both the direct result of a stretch pass across the neutral zone on busted coverage.

Any breakdown in fundamentals like that in the neutral zone could spell disaster for the Bruins against Chicago, but this is not to say that the Blackhawks are without the means to create offense otherwise, as powerful forward Bryan Bickell leads of roster full of forwards that can wreak havoc in front of Rask and must be manhandled out of the slot, a task easier said than done.

…as with any goalie, if they can see a shot, usually they can stop it, and though Rask has seemed to bring a sixth sense to the crease in making some truly unbelievable saves, the fact of the matter is that the Bruins’ defensemen have done a masterful job of escorting top scorers out of their wheelhouse and keeping them off balance, so that if they do get a shot off it will not have as much on it and be easier to turn away.

Chara,  Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuck, Adam McQuaid and rookie sensation Torey Krug must continue to assert their will in both pushing forwards out of the slot and in their physical backcheck – and also in clearing the defensive zone, something that they’ve had issues with in the regular season and something that is extremely dangerous against a fire-at-will team like Chicago.

Boston’s penalty kill is one of the top units in the league, as evidenced by their 0 for 15 white washing of the Penguins power play, the kill anchored by Seidenberg and Chara.  Boston lost an integral part of this unit when Gregory Campbell went down with a broken leg but, just like anything else with this versatile team, they have adapted and remain excellent.

Still, it is best not to put themselves in that predicament – it goes without saying that the Blackhawks will try to get under the Bruins’ fur and it’s important for excitable players like Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic to pick and choose their battles wisely, lest they give the Blackhawks the man advantage.

With the amount of firepower the Blackhawks can generate when given the opportunity, when they are on the power play it has been surprisingly ineffective, hitting on just 13% of their attempts in the playoffs, and it figures to become more difficult against the Bruins.

Essentially, Chicago may have to resort to taking chances in the attacking zone after change of possession, blocking passing lanes or luring bad passes across the crease.  Boston’s difficulty in clearing the zone would be made that much more of an issue with some sort of a full ice press and trying to force a turnover and quick shot.

So, even if the Bruins are so deep and versatile that they can morph into whatever they need to be to succeed, if they remain on their fundamental excellence they can beat the Blackhawks by just being physical and winning the neutral zone, not giving Chicago any room to operate their stunningly effective transition offense…

…a recipe for success that the Bruins have already proven works against a superior offense to the one they will face in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Next: A long distance relationship…