Chicago is the best team in the NHL.
The Blackhawks stretched their winning streak to eight games on Thursday with a 3-2 victory over the Bruins at TD Garden. They have no weaknesses — airtight goaltending, eye-blink transition from defense to offense, four-line depth, and superstar talent.
For all that, Bruins’ hockey — physical, punishing, efficient when they’re rolling — nearly halted the league’s longest winning streak.
The Bruins flexed their muscles at the start of the second period and most of the third. They went demolition derby on the Formula One Blackhawks.
Milan Lucic personified their fury with a beastly third period in which he set up Torey Krug’s goal and assisted on a near Craig Cunningham strike. Lucic played with an abandon that was equal parts terrifying and beautiful.
With his team trailing, 3-1, Lucic went to work. He picked up the rebound of a Bryan Bickell shot deep in the defensive zone, then went full gas. Lucic barreled through the neutral zone and slalomed over the blue line.
Michal Rozsival and Klas Dahlbeck closed on Lucic. Choo-Choo Looch went one on two against the Chicago defensemen, sent them tumbling backward, and dished the puck out front to Krug for an easy goal at 12:17 of the third. It was a game-changing play by a behemoth whose strength and straight-line speed make him impossible to defend when steam is snorting from his nostrils.
“He was a man amongst boys on that shift,” Krug said. “He skated through their team. He was hard on the puck. He made a great pass to me. I had the easy job. It was an unbelievable shift by him.”
The bottom line, however, was the outcome: a loss, the Bruins’ fourth in their last five games.
It’s all well and good that they’re submitting stretches of dominance. But they need results, and those come by playing 60 minutes of hard, biting hockey.
“I’m not disappointed in our team’s performance,” said coach Claude Julien. “If we want to look at the score and criticize our team for it, so be it. I’m going to criticize our team for not finishing and not executing well enough. The rest, I have no issues.”
Julien’s problems were with the plays that led to Chicago’s offense, not the goals themselves. In the first period, easy entries by the Blackhawks gave their fourth line room to work down low. Both of Chicago’s first-period goals required assistance from Seth Griffith.
Dahlbeck’s shot at 9:10 skimmed off Griffith’s stick and over Tuukka Rask’s glove. Daniel Carcillo’s fling from the corner bounced off Griffith’s stick, hopped into the air, and onto Ben Smith’s blade. Before Rask knew what had happened, the former Boston College forward had given Chicago a 2-0 lead. A second-period Patrick Kane snipe put the Bruins down by three.
The Bruins answered by staying with their system. They played their way, which is hard on the puck, relentless around the net, and opportunistic after causing turnovers. For three periods, no line played with more consistency and fierceness than Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Reilly Smith.
Bergeron nearly set up Smith in the first minute of the second. Later in the period, Bergeron hit the left post. The line finally broke through after heavy heat on the forecheck, which led to Marchand finding Smith open in front at 18:37.
Bergeron landed a game-high five shots on goal. He won 22 of 30 faceoffs. Marchand and Smith each put three pucks on net. They wore out the Blackhawks all night.
Bergeron’s line just didn’t have enough help. It wasn’t until the third that Lucic settled into his game.
The left wing fought the puck for 40 minutes. He started next to Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson. But Julien dropped him to play with Cunningham and Chris Kelly. To accompany the demotion, Lucic didn’t see any power-play time. He didn’t deserve it.
But there was no stopping Lucic in the third. For whatever reason — motivation from the demotion, comfort with Kelly and Cunningham — Lucic played like he was tired of chasing the game instead of controlling it.
“We were able to create some chemistry just by being first on the puck, trying to create turnovers, and being in the O-zone,” Lucic said. “That’s what we did in the third period. That’s another important aspect of the game that we need to keep up — getting in the O-zone and playing there as long as we can.”
There have been too many stretches this season when Lucic has been a ghost. He’s been late to pucks. He’s been slow to engage physically.
He showed none of those hindrances in the third. Lucic rifled a shot off the left post from the high slot. After Krug’s goal, Lucic almost created another one. He attacked Duncan Keith with the puck, then pulled wide right and used his left arm to swat away the defenseman. Had Niklas Hjalmarsson not busted up Cunningham’s bid, the Bruins could have tied the game because of Lucic’s will.
“I don’t think too many players can do what he did on that shift,” Krug said of Lucic’s play on his goal. “Overall from the team, we waited until the third period again to do things like that.”
Zdeno Chara is back. The captain leads the charge with his brute force, strong stick, and ability to finish checks. Bergeron’s line is strong on the puck. Lucic is a specimen when he’s emotionally engaged, skating up and down, and playing angry.
Put together, these elements work. But only in concert with a 60-minute commitment to execution. Good play doesn’t matter if the result is zero points.