There have been times during his tenure in Boston when the best defense played by the Bruins has come from coach Claude Julien. Even after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, Julien has been habitually compelled to defend his tendencies, strategies, and hockey philosophy from the dais.
Julien’s oft-criticized defensive dogma is the reason the Bruins are on the verge of dispatching Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a passel of high-scoring Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bruins have a 3-0 series lead after their epic 2-1 double-overtime win in Game 3 and can send Pittsburgh packing Friday night at TD Garden.
There are sports clichés that are meaningless maxims and those that are tropes of truth, and great defense beats great offense is one of the latter. This series is Exhibit A, or in the Penguins’ case Exhibit L.
The Penguins led the NHL in goals scored for the second straight season. They came into the series averaging a playoff-best 4.27 goals per game, had scored three or more goals in 10 of their 11 playoff games, and had a 28.3 percent power-play conversion rate.
But the Bruins have thrown a Black and Gold blanket over Pittsburgh’s offensive machinery. The Penguins have yet to lead for a single second of a series they entered as favorites. They’ve been limited to two goals in nearly 11 full periods of hockey. Their vaunted power play is 0 for 12.
Crosby and Malkin, who have three NHL scoring titles and two NHL MVPs between them, could be sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts. They’re a combined 0-0—0 in the series.
The Penguins came in scoring style points and they’ve been ground down by the millstone of the Bruins’ substance. The case of wide-open hockey versus Julien’s closer-to-the-vest approach has been an open and shutdown one.
If what is happening to the not-so-mighty Penguins seems vaguely familiar, it should.
The buzzsawing Bruins are teaching the Penguins the same lesson that our very own Patriots have learned the last three seasons. A team whose underpinnings are offense-first-last-and-always will come undone eventually when confronted with a more balanced act.
Perhaps there is no greater testament to the teachings of Julien than the fact the winning goal in Game 3 was started by a defensive takeaway by Jaromir Jagr, who stripped Malkin. This is the same Jagr who for the bulk of his Hall of Fame career has regarded defense as the downtime when he doesn’t have the puck.
Now, the Jarome Iginla Consolation Prize is backchecking like Steve Kasper.
“He’s played a certain way his whole career, and now he sees a team that plays a certain way, and he’s bought into it and gets rewarded the last couple of games with some pretty important shifts,” said Julien.
“But our guys believe in what we’re trying to do here as a group. We’ve won that way, and it doesn’t matter who comes in, eventually those guys realize how strong a belief we have in that dressing room, and they just jump in. It’s a credit to the players for believing in what we do and what we preach and going out there and executing it.”
Speaking of credit, Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask, who has turned aside 108 of Pittsburgh’s 110 shots, including 53 in Game 3, deserves a lot of it.
It was Rask who set the tone for the series in Game 1, when he caused the Penguins to lose their cool and their scoring touch with a shutout.
“His performance in the series has been outstanding. He’s come up big for them,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “We clearly haven’t been able to crack him. We’ve had good opportunities . . . and we haven’t been able to solve him at all.”
Rask and the Bruins have had some puck luck. The boys from the Steel City have hit a lot of iron in this series, striking the framework three times in Game 1 and Game 3.
But the Hockey Gods have rewarded the Bruins’ defensive devotion.
It is a sin that we’re this far along in a discussion of Bruins defense and haven’t mentioned Zdeno Chara.
The indefatigable defenseman logged 42 minutes and 5 seconds in Game 3 and is averaging 31:01 against Pittsburgh, much of it spent snuffing out Crosby or Malkin.
Add Chara to the Bruins’ lengthy list of deserving Conn Smythe candidates as playoff MVP. He hasn’t registered a goal or an assist in the Pittsburgh series, but neither have Crosby or Malkin, which speaks to his value.
Chara started Thursday leading all defensemen in plus-minus (plus-12) and tied for second in blue line scoring with 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists).
But it’s t-e-a-m defense that is Boston’s calling card.
Gregory Campbell gave his right leg to stop the Penguins from scoring in Game 3, blocking a Malkin shot. Campbell is hors de hockey after suffering a broken fibula.
By the way, all the defense the Bruins have played in the postseason hasn’t been at the expense of pucks in the net. The Bruins are the second-highest-scoring team in the playoffs, averaging 3.27 goals per game.
Julien proved prophetic before Game 3, when he said the team’s defense often translates to offense.
“We take pride in that part of our game, and that part of our game has also given us the opportunity to be better offensively,” he said. “Turn that puck over quick and then everybody comes back, then we go back up the ice as a unit. That’s been a big part of our game, and when it’s good, it provides us with some good offense.”
Julien’s choice of playing style might offend certain fans’ sensibilities, but there is nothing offensive about it.
The Penguins can attest to that.