Hockey is a curious sport.
Against Montreal, the Bruins played their best in Game 1. They swept pucks out of their zone. They bulled through center ice as a five-man unit. In the offensive zone, they swarmed and cycled and shot the lights out of the Canadiens. The Bruins attempted 98 shots. Fifty-one landed on goal.
The Bruins lost Game 1 in double overtime, 4-3. Yet they would have been thrilled had they followed the system in the following six games. Their playoff beards would still be growing.
“We were never able to recapture Game 1,” coach Claude Julien said in Friday’s end-of-season press conference at TD Garden. “Even if we didn’t get the results that we got, I thought Game 1, we were by far the better team.”
The Bruins executed their system in Game 1. They dominated the puck. They played the game at their pace. Offensively, all five players were in concert.
Three things kept them from winning: bad luck, an inability to finish, and Carey Price. Those were elements outside their control.
But their Game 1 execution went missing in their four losses. For that, the Bruins can blame their play in the defensive zone and center ice.
The Canadiens jammed them with a stiff forecheck. The Boston defensemen could neither retrieve pucks cleanly nor initiate the breakout. The forwards weren’t in place in the neutral zone to receive pucks and launch themselves over the offensive blue line.
Five players, five pages.
“It comes down, really, to making cleaner breakouts,” Zdeno Chara said. “Quicker passes. Moving ourselves quicker. It’s just one of those things where if one thing is not done as it should, then it slows down all the other things. So you might be moving the puck quickly. But if somebody’s not skating, then everything slows down. If somebody’s skating but you’re not moving the puck quickly enough, then everybody has to slow down. It has to be everything in one motion and in synch. I thought we were kind of missing that. If we’re talking about the second round, we had only games where we were really in synch, really on top of it, moving pucks, a lot of jump. The other games, we were kind of in between.”
General manager Peter Chiarelli emphasized that he likes his team. Tuukka Rask was excellent this year. Chara was a shutdown machine. Patrice Bergeron was a two-way monster.
The lead dogs are in place. So is their system. The bosses will insist that the players who join — Chiarelli said changes will happen — will enhance their style.
The Bruins are committed to their approach. Defensemen keep tight gaps, play inside the dots, and don’t pursue the puck. Once the defensemen retrieve it, they start a rapid breakout: to the center swinging down low, to the strong-side wing posting up on the wall, or D-to-D to get it up the weak side.
Forwards backcheck furiously. They support their defensemen once they gain control of the puck. They go up the ice as a group. They flood the offensive zone with speed and numbers, whether they carry the puck over the blue line or dump it in places where they snatch it right back.
“We’re a strong team when we have five guys in each zone and come up the ice together,” an injured Chris Kelly said. “It makes our forecheck go. It makes our defensive game go. It makes the neutral zone go. We got away from that the last two games.”
For some segments, the Bruins played like the Canadiens. Montreal’s philosophy is to pack it in defensively, cram the shooting lanes, and block shots. They’re quick to blow the zone whenever there’s an opening. It worked.
The Canadiens took advantage of the Bruins’ awareness issues on defense. In Game 3, when Dougie Hamilton tried to seal off Lars Eller, P.K. Subban roared out of the penalty box and scored a breakaway goal. Later in Game 3, Dale Weise took off after Mike Weaver blocked Andrej Meszaros’s shot. In Game 6, Max Pacioretty pulled away and caught Chara and Rask in between before scoring the second goal.
It works for Montreal. The Canadiens are built to survive defensively when forwards cheat. Carey Price bails them out. Their defensemen block shots. They have fast, skilled players such as Pacioretty, Daniel Briere, and Brendan Gallagher who are good at dashing the other way.
If the Bruins cheat, their structure crumbles. They tried to scoot away when Bergeron briefly settled the puck in the defensive zone in the second period of Game 7. But when Bergeron lost the puck, the Canadiens had a two-on-one because the Bruins didn’t have the proper defensive protection in place. David Desharnais set up Pacioretty for the winning goal.
“It’s a fine line you’re walking if you’re blowing the zone all the time,” Gregory Campbell said. “You’re leaving the rest of your teammates exposed if there’s a breakdown. You saw on the one goal, the second goal, we were going the other way and the puck was turned over. Breakdowns like that happen. They found a way to work for them. But sometimes you can get burned, too.”
The system will stay the same. So will the stars who play it. In 2014-15, it will be a case of executing the system properly and adding reinforcements to enhance its results.
Management will make the fourth line sleeker. They’ll try to add mobility and skill on the back end to improve the five-man rush up the ice.
Once the Bruins race into the offensive zone, they’re in good shape. They’re strong on the walls, in the corners, and in front of the net. Their forwards are skilled and slippery. The defensemen pinch well and serve as outlets at the points.
The offensive zone is where the Bruins want to be. Getting there more efficiently will be critical.