The Penguins know this migraine. So do the Rangers. The Bruins moved one giant step closer to a Stanley Cup championship Monday night on Causeway Street, once more blending their painful, punishing cocktail of stifling defense and air-tight Tuukka Rask goaltending (28 saves) for a 2-0 win over the Blackhawks.
What a pain it must be to play the Bruins right now. They allowed the Penguins only two goals in four games in the Eastern Conference finals. They shut down everything and everyone Pittsburgh had to offer. Sidney Crosby disappeared. Evgeni Malkin never came out of the fog. Ditto for Kris Letang and everyone else in the Penguins lineup.
And now it’s happening to the Blackhawks. Different laundry, same bad wash. The Western Conference champs worked into triple OT to squeeze out a 4-3 victory in Game 1, and now they’ve lost two in a row, 2-1 and 2-0, putting only one shot behind Rask despite squeezing off 120 shots in 133:48 worth of meat-grinding hockey.
“Yeah, they had shots, but most of them were from the outside,’’ said Rask, who inched ever closer to clinching the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP. “And we took away all the rebound opportunities.’’
Therein is pretty much Boston’s two steps to a championship this postseason. They keep shooters to the outside, and punish one and all who attempt, or even hope, to bring pucks to the net. It breaks the spirit, backs, and will and dreams of their opponents.
The Bruins won the Cup two years ago with the same formula, but they didn’t execute nearly as proficiently. They needed to clinch three of those series (Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver) with Game 7 wins. This time around, after another No. 7 to edge by Toronto in Round 1, they’ve rubbed out the Rangers in five and the Penguins in four. Monday night it felt like they rubbed out the Blackhawks in three.
Where is the pushback? We asked the same after Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t come. It never came. Not in Game 3. Not in Game 4. Neither Pittsburgh’s big stars nor its role players ever turned it into a series.
Now we’re asking the same after three games of the Cup Final. Where is Jonathan Toews? No points. Where is Patrick Kane? A lone assist. Where are defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook? Goose eggs for both. There is no pushback. It’s as though the entire Chicago squad enrolled in Anger Management 101 before the Final and aced the course with flying colors — varying shades of black and gold.
“I think it’s the energy in the game, the effort,’’ said Boston coach Claude Julien, who believes this is the best his club has played in the postseason. “You see our guys, like I said, backchecking, [creating] layers, so when somebody makes a mistake, you have somebody covering up. We’re blocking a lot of shots [17 Monday night, 75 for the series]. The commitment is totally there.’’
It is also totally in Chicago’s faces, and its heads, its hands. The Bruins are just too heavy. The Blackhawks may be faster and some of their forwards more skilled. They opened the season without a regulation loss in their first 24 games (21-0-3) and they were not shutout in the regular season. But that doesn’t matter now. The Bruins gathered up the stat sheets from those games, crumpled them up, and rendered them as inconsequential as Toews, Kane, et al.
“I think when you get to this stage, players start feeling it,’’ said Julien, noting it’s nearly impossible for a club to summon such thoroughness during the regular season. “They go above and beyond. That’s what you’re seeing from our team right now.’’
Game 3 was a carryover from Game 2, in which the Bruins rallied to win in OT after opening with perhaps their worst period of the season (the Blackhawks fired 30 shots, the Bruins only five). In Game 2, the Bruins began to skate and hit in the second period, did more of it in the third, even more in the OT. As they grew bigger, the Blackhawks grew smaller. The Blackhawks had a decent first period Monday, then quickly began to shrink again once Danny Paille, left wing on the Misfit Toys Line, connected for the 1-0 lead with 2:13 gone in the second.
From that point on, over a time of 37:47, the Blackhawks mustered 18 shots on Rask, only eight more than they managed in the opening 22:13. They never scored on the power play (now 0 for 11 in the series) and they were hammered brutally at the faceoff dot, where the Bruins won a nearly inhumane 71 percent of the drops.
Patrice “The Thief” Bergeron put on a puck-drop clinic, winning 24 of 28 draws (86 percent). On the other side, late-season pickup Michal Handzus went 0 for 10 and Dave Bolland 1 for 8. In a series this tight and this heavy, puck possession is key. After 71 percent of the drops, the Blackhawks were chasing. And they kept chasing.
The poor power play and the poorer faceoff record, noted Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, were key elements of the loss.
“It’s a tight game and scoring is going to be challenging,’’ said Quenneville, asked if the grind is tougher against Boston than it was against Los Angeles in the conference final. “But we’ve got to be ready to play that kind of game. Let’s look to get that first goal and try to sustain it. It’s not like we want to go outrace [the Bruins], and exchange high-scoring chances off the rush. That’s what they want to do. We have to be ready. We [have to] play a patient game, capitalize, get opportunities, and hopefully we get the power play going.’’
It has to come from somewhere or it’s over for the Blackhawks. Maybe the power play comes around. Maybe Rask falls down six times the way he did once against the Rangers. Maybe the Blackhawks win faceoffs, reboot their temerity to get to the net. But that’s a tall order now for a team growing shorter by the shift.