MONTREAL — There is a reason why Adam Creighton and Tom McVie, the Bruins’ pro scouts, spend their lives in NHL rinks, watching every move their opponents make.
There is a reason why the Bruins’ coaches consider their laptops as important as their whistles.
Their eyes pick players apart, in person and on video. They identify every strength and weakness. They pass these on to their players. In high-pressure situations, like overtime in the playoffs, the Bruins are taught to be as familiar with their opponents’ tendencies as they are with their own.
Douglas Murray, a healthy scratch for the first two games, loves to hit. The Canadiens defenseman is good at it, underscored by his game-high six wallops Thursday. Murray’s best thump was in the first period when he closed in on Shawn Thornton and dropped the fourth-line winger along the boards.
Mike Weaver, Murray’s partner on the third pairing, is a stay-at-home, right-shot defenseman. Weaver is an excellent shot blocker. In Game 3, Weaver’s block of Andrej Meszaros’s shot opened up Dale Weise for the game-winning breakaway.
But there is an explanation for why they are third-pairing defensemen. They never have the puck. They’re always defending in their own zone instead of playing safe hockey away from their net.
Because he’s quick to hit, Murray is also prompt to vacate reams of net-front real estate. Weaver is prone to sagging down too deep and disrupting his goalie’s rhythm.
Both defensemen were on the ice for Matt Fraser’s goal at 1:19 of overtime in Boston’s 1-0 win that evened this series at 2-2. The No. 3 line, which had controlled the matchup against Murray and Weaver during regulation, continued its pressure in overtime.
Loui Eriksson initiated the sequence by winning a wall battle against Lars Eller in the offensive zone. Eriksson wisely looked for Dougie Hamilton at the right point. Because the Canadiens sagged back so deep, they left the points open. Hamilton’s one-timer hopped behind the net.
Fraser dashed past Murray to be first on the puck. Murray went behind the net with Fraser. At the same time, Weaver collapsed down to the left post.
Carl Soderberg won the puck from Weaver. Because neither Murray nor Weaver was standing in front of the net, Soderberg had a clean backhand attempt on Price. The goalie stuffed the puck. But as Weaver went down in hopes of smothering it, Fraser, who had gotten a step on Murray, backhanded the puck past Price.
The matchup the Bruins wanted to exploit finally tipped in their favor.
“We lost a battle in front of the net, obviously, on the goal,” said Montreal coach Michel Therrien.
Fraser’s goal and the hard-hat, danger-area grinding by Soderberg and Eriksson were not unique events. The No. 3 unit, along with the second line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Reilly Smith, were the only threesomes applying consistent offensive heat on Price.
The first and fourth lines chased the puck for most of Game 4. David Krejci had one shot on goal. Jarome Iginla didn’t have any. The fourth line combined for zero shots.
So with the first and fourth lines unable to gain traction, the second and third groups had to possess the puck and create chances. They did just that.
The Bruins recorded 69 shot attempts. The third-liners combined for 11. They worked the walls well. They cycled down low. They were quick with their sticks and hard on the puck.
Soderberg was the best of the three. The No. 3 center had two shots. A third rattled off the crossbar in the final minute of the first period. Soderberg started the play with a smothering forecheck on P.K. Subban that caused the defenseman to lose the puck to Fraser. Soderberg’s only deficiency was at the dot, where he lost 14 of 21 draws.
“Carl played well tonight,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He skated much better. He was making some strong plays and hanging on to the puck. Frase, for some reason, just seemed to fit in there extremely well. When he came in with us, he played on that third line there for a little bit. He had been with Carl anyways for a bit. So it’s not like he was in uncharted territory. He had a pretty good idea how those guys played. They just make things happen. They work hard. They’re hard on the puck. They get it back quickly. I think that’s what’s given that line some good looks.”
It didn’t hurt that Soderberg’s line regularly drew Murray and Weaver, especially in overtime. Through regulation, Therrien leaned hard on Subban, Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov, and Alexei Emelin, his top four defensemen. All played 21 or more minutes. Therrien matched his top two pairs against Boston’s first two lines. Conversely, only Zdeno Chara and Hamilton logged more than 21 minutes through three periods. Therrien had to give Murray and Weaver some shifts in overtime to spell his workhorses.
The playoffs always underscore depth. Coaches emphasize defense. Video discloses every secret. Top players often cancel out other big guns.
As invisible as Krejci’s line was in Game 4, Montreal’s first line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher (four shots on goal total) was just as sleepy. Thomas Vanek, dropped to the No. 2 line, didn’t attempt a single shot. Montreal’s best player was No. 3 right wing Brian Gionta, who chewed up the Bruins with seven attempts, five of which made it through to Tuukka Rask.
So when favorable matchups occur, like Boston’s third line against Murray and Weaver, it’s critical for teams to punch through. That Fraser and his third-line mates scored on Murray and Weaver was no anomaly. History declared that it was just a matter of time.