If you are a hockey junkie, you loved every part of Game 5’s most important goal.
At 13:13 of the first period, Carl Soderberg scraped an offensive-zone faceoff away from Tomas Plekanec. Matt Fraser, he of two NHL playoff games, had the awareness of jumping on the puck and promptly feeding it to Matt Bartkowski at the right point.
By then, it was just a matter of time before things went haywire for Montreal.
The Canadiens were in all-out chase mode. When Bartkowski sent the puck down the right-side wall, Loui Eriksson had rolled off Alexei Emelin’s net-front jam and darted for the boards. Douglas Murray couldn’t slow down Eriksson off the draw. Murray was scrambling to catch up. The defenseman, seemingly wearing concrete blocks instead of skates, chased Eriksson behind the net.
As Eriksson dished the puck out front, Murray closed on his opponent and finished him. It was too late. Soderberg had caught Carey Price leaning to his left and snapped the puck past the goalie’s right pad at 13:20 of the first. The Bruins made the right plays against the wrong personnel. The Canadiens never recovered.
Soderberg’s goal initiated a segment of 46 minutes and 40 seconds in which the Bruins led the Canadiens en route to their 4-2 win. In the four previous games, the Bruins had led for just 11:39. Like most teams, the Bruins are better when they grasp the game by its collar than chase it around the rink.
“As always and as any normal situation would tell you, you always like to play with the lead,” said coach Claude Julien. “It was nice for us to have it and be able to hang on to it.”
It was no surprise that the No. 3 line created the goal. It’s been the Bruins’ most consistent offensive unit. They’ve turned pucks over and gone on the attack. In the offensive zone, they’ve been strong on the walls, in the corners, and in front of the net. On Saturday, they finished their chances.
“Arguably been our best line so far this series,” Julien said. “They make things happen. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. It certainly takes a lot of pressure off the other lines.”
The Bruins had a one-goal lead after 20 minutes. It felt like four. That’s because the Bruins got to their game early.
Reilly Smith snapped a shot off the post at 2:12 of the first. Jarome Iginla had a good look down low off a Zdeno Chara setup. They controlled the puck and the pace. Then a menacing play by Soderberg triggered the goal-scoring sequence.
Plekanec had the puck in the neutral zone. He was in good shape. If Plekanec gained the red line, he could have dumped the puck in and retreated for the bench. Instead, Soderberg closed on Plekanec and threatened to dump him. Plekanec pulled up short of the red line and iced the puck. Seven seconds later, the Bruins scored the opening goal. They kept on going full gas.
It helped the Bruins that Plekanec crumbled at the wrong time. He iced the puck before Soderberg’s goal. He lost the faceoff to Soderberg. The No. 2 center then took two critical penalties.
At 19:43, Plekanec ran over Tuukka Rask. While he served the goaltender interference penalty, Smith scored a power-play goal at 1:04 of the second. On the following faceoff, Plekanec high-sticked Johnny Boychuk. Six seconds later, Iginla scored another power-play goal.
“It’s definitely easier,” Eriksson said of playing with the lead. “It’s always nice to get that first one. I thought we did a pretty good job. It’s definitely nice to get those two power-play goals there and get the lead to 3-0.”
For long stretches of the four previous games, the Canadiens had mastered their approach. They led for 106:11 compared with the Bruins’ 11:39.
When the Canadiens are ahead, they play pack-it-in hockey in the defensive zone. They stuff the shooting lanes. They lean on Price to make the first save. There is no room to breathe.
When their opponents get frustrated and start cheating offensively, the Canadiens counter-attack, blow the zone, and take off.
That’s why the Canadiens, up 1-0 in Game 3, added two more breakaway goals to swipe a 3-0 lead. P.K. Subban sprinted out of the penalty box to make it 2-0. After Mike Weaver blocked an Andrej Meszaros shot, Dale Weise blasted out of the defensive zone and scored on a breakaway.
“A lot of it was the D’s not being aware of the guys blowing the zone,” Julien said. “But our guys are better now. We’ve made that adjustment, and it really helps Tuukka.”
The Canadiens never settled into their identity in Game 5. They couldn’t.
Because they fell behind, they didn’t have the option of sagging back and protecting the house. They had to play looser defensively to seek scoring chances.
The stretch passes and up-the-ice opportunities never took place. Montreal also didn’t have the right players to execute its game plan.
It didn’t matter to Michel Therrien that Murray was on the ice for Fraser’s overtime winner in Game 4. Therrien dressed Murray again instead of opting for more mobility in Francis Bouillon. The Bruins took advantage of Murray’s presence on Soderberg’s goal.
The Montreal coach also replaced Daniel Briere on the fourth line with Brandon Prust. Briere isn’t a fourth-line masher. But he’s good at blowing the zone, scooting behind defensemen, and making good offensive plays in tight spaces. Prust had zero shot attempts in 8:28 of ice time. Weise had the fourth line’s only shot. The Canadiens needed Briere’s offensive presence.
The Canadiens are opportunistic. They’ve scored six power-play goals, including two on Saturday.
But in even-strength play, the Bruins have smothered the Canadiens. It starts with Chara. The captain has made Montreal’s No. 1 line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher irrelevant. None of the three has scored at even strength. Thomas Vanek, dropped to the second line, attempted two shots in 18:31 of ice time.
It’s not easy to chase. The Bruins learned that in the first four games. Saturday was Montreal’s turn to learn how hard it is.