It did not help the Blackhawks that Patrick Kane, their most creative offensive dynamo, was injured for Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Bruins at TD Garden.
If the teams clash again in June, the Blackhawks could be shorthanded again.
The defending champions are among the league’s top dogs. They skate like Ferraris. Their collective hockey IQ qualifies them for Mensa membership. They are dominant on offense because they spend so little time in their own zone.
Yet they have the misfortune of playing in the West. To set up a repeat showdown, Chicago would most likely have to dispatch the speedy and skilled Avalanche in the first round. They’d then have the pleasure of having the Blues bash in their brains. If they advanced to the Western Conference final, one of their likely opponents would be the Sharks, a team that plays with similar pace and precision.
By the time they squared off against the Bruins, they’d be swollen from three rounds of battering. They’d arrive at TD Garden in an ambulance instead of a team bus.
Conversely, the Bruins are playing like another run at the Cup is a formality.
Currently, they are the best team in the NHL. The East is crammed with cupcakes. Their Cup opponent could be bandaged from helmet to skate blade.
They are more than two months away from claiming the prize they want. But it appears oh-so-close because of the circumstances surrounding their current stampede to the postseason — starting with how darn good they are.
“That was the best one in a while for 60 minutes,” said Tuukka Rask, perfect on 28 shots. “From my standpoint, I don’t think they got too many chances. What they got, the guys cleared the rebounds or I saw the shots. So it was a great effort from everybody.”
Chicago pushed early. The Blackhawks had their puck-possession game rolling. They stretched out the Bruins by sending a forward deep. Because of Chicago’s speed and skill, the Bruins spent the first 10 minutes chasing the game.
Chicago plays a precise game. The Blackhawks silently pick your pocket and max out your credit cards before you even notice your wallet’s missing.
The Bruins are not so subtle. They grab you by the collar and swipe all your cash.
After Chicago’s initial burst, the Bruins flexed their muscles and punched back. They gummed up the neutral zone to slow down Chicago’s attack. They enveloped the Blackhawks with defensive layers to form a perimeter around Rask.
Then they claimed the puck as their own.
The Bruins’ puck-possession game is different from Chicago’s. The Bruins retrieve pucks in the defensive zone or force turnovers in center ice. Then they tear off their leashes and go on the attack. They employ a station-to-station advance that starts with speed in the neutral zone, well-placed dumps behind defensemen, and acceleration over the blue line.
They might give up the puck to gain offensive-zone entry. But they send in the alpha dogs to get the puck right back.
“I thought we were a little bit light on our sticks in the first period,” said coach Claude Julien. “When we had the puck, we lost it. We didn’t hang on to it for very long. I thought we found our legs after the first half of the first. We started getting better at the end of the first. We were the better team. In the second period, we started being a little heavier on our sticks and played a heavier game, stronger along the walls. Because of that, we were able to play with the puck a lot more.”
The Blackhawks were in good shape to prevent the winning goal. Patrice Bergeron was in front of the net. Matt Bartkowski had the puck at the left point. Duncan Keith thought he had Bergeron’s stick tied up.
But Bergeron is one of the game’s best players because of his insistence on fundamentals. After brief eye contact with Bartkowski, Bergeron knew the defenseman would aim for his blade. Bergeron had to get his stick free from Keith’s.
So when Bartkowski’s snapper came his way, Bergeron brushed off Keith’s stick check and tipped the puck past Corey Crawford at 11:50 of the first.
“I saw Bart look to the side of the net for me to be there for that tip,” Bergeron said. “I knew the puck was coming. I just wanted to have a strong stick and be ready for that. It was a perfect play by Bart.”
Bergeron throttled the Blackhawks in the third. Carl Soderberg had given the Bruins a 2-0 lead at 5:28 of the third. Thirteen seconds later, after a Crawford turnover, Bergeron slammed the puck over the line just before the goalie dislodged the net.
Bergeron’s second goal gave the Bruins a 3-0 lead. It felt far more substantial.
The Blackhawks pushed at times, especially in the first. But the Bruins never bent, to say nothing of broke, under the pressure. They submitted a professional effort by paying attention to detail at every turn.
Chicago usually employs a surgical approach. Aside from the early heat, the Bruins didn’t let the Blackhawks open their toolbox.
“Every shift is important,” Bergeron said. “You can’t really sit back or take a breather. They’re going to turn it up against you. They’re a team that relies a lot on speed and their transition as well. I thought once we played a little tighter in the neutral zone and also on our forecheck, it gave us success.”
The Bruins can be mouth-breathers. For part of Monday’s 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal, they went full caveman on P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin, and the other hated Habs.
But they’re just as good at playing chess as well as checkers. They played a cerebral game against Chicago. It helps to play with brains as well as brawn.