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Here’s how the Bruins shut down Sidney Crosby’s line

Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid (left) helped keep Pittsburgh’s top line, led by center Sidney Crosby, in check all night in a 5-1 victory at TD Garden.AP

Early in the first period, Kevan Miller was not playing the puck well. Miller, skating with Zdeno Chara on the top pairing, was matched against Pittsburgh’s top line of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, and Patric Hornqvist. Against such opponents, precise coverage and strong puck play are critical.

So the coaching staff made a quick decision. They replaced Miller with Adam McQuaid to create a shutdown pair to take on Crosby and his wingmen. The result: zeros across the board for all three players, and just one shot apiece for Kunitz and Hornqvist. McQuaid and Chara did their jobs well in the Bruins’ 5-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday at TD Garden.


“You’re always looking for different options,” coach Claude Julien said of his defensive assignments. “Especially in that first period, we had some guys that had some tough issues with the puck management part. When you’re playing against the Crosby, Hornqvist, and Kunitz line, you can’t afford to have too much of that. So we had to move players around a little bit. As the game went on, everybody settled down a little bit and we had better pairs.”

The switch emphasized McQuaid’s significance. He and Chara are the Bruins’ two most dependable defensive defensemen. There is nothing fancy about McQuaid’s game. But the Bruins like McQuaid’s reliability. They have a good idea that on most shifts, he’ll chip pucks the other way, box out forwards well, hold his ground, and intimidate opponents.

“It’s pretty easy to play with a guy like that,” McQuaid said of his left-side strongman. “It was a tough challenge tonight. It’s something where we really needed to be focused every shift we were out there. Z communicates well, so that helps a lot.”

The Bruins were diminished when McQuaid missed 18 games because of a concussion. His return for the last five games has given Julien and assistant coach Doug Houda, who’s responsible for running the defense, more options. Upon his return, McQuaid had been skating mostly with Torey Krug on the No. 2 pairing.


On Wednesday, the Bruins could afford to move McQuaid next to Chara. The Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, two of their top three centers. By deploying McQuaid alongside Chara, the Bruins created a power pair that reduced Crosby’s time with the puck and steered the traffic-loving Kunitz and Hornqvist out of the danger areas.

But if Malkin and Bonino were in the lineup, it would have been harder for the Bruins to use the Chara-McQuaid tandem. By doing so, the Bruins created a top-heavy blue line.

The Bruins rubbed out the Crosby threesome. But for good stretches of the first 40 minutes, Pittsburgh’s three remaining lines had clean entries, quality looks, and long offensive-zone time against the two other tandems: Krug and Dennis Seidenberg, and Miller and Joe Morrow.

Through the first two periods, the Penguins held a 28-18 shot advantage. They also held a 51-31 lead in attempted shots, an indication of how much they controlled the puck and the Bruins did not.

“Although we won by a fair margin, I really felt we were tight in the first two periods,” Julien said. “Our guys were really trying to do the right things out there as far as not giving up too many chances. But they were skating and a lot quicker than we were for the first two periods. The first was a tough one. I told the guys to loosen up a little bit. We got a little better in the second. We looked more like ourselves in the third.”


The Bruins remain at least one quality NHL defenseman short to make an honest run, not just in the postseason but also to lock up a playoff spot. Seidenberg has his moments of chasing the play. Krug’s strengths are at the other end of the ice. When Miller is fighting the puck, he really fights it. Whether Morrow is ready for the intensity of a stretch run is in question. Tuukka Rask (41 saves) can only bail out teammates so much.

“We still had our moments,” McQuaid said. “Tuukka was big at times for us. Overall, I think it was a better effort.”

It may not be possible for general manager Don Sweeney to acquire a top-four defenseman before next Monday’s trade deadline. Such trades are easier to execute in June. That’s when all 29 other teams are in play, they have yet to allocate their budgets, and picks are valuable chips. But defense remains Sweeney’s priority, even if Loui Eriksson is not the piece that brings back blue-line help.

The defense stabilized in the third period. The Bruins retrieved pucks well, moved them up the ice, and got them deep in the offensive zone. They never let the Penguins gain a breath in the final 20 minutes. It was the kind of strong, overwhelming, and smart play the coaches have been asking their players to execute.


The Bruins play the Hurricanes on Friday. It won’t be as easy for Julien to use Chara and McQuaid as a shutdown pair. Carolina runs three centers deep with Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, and Elias Lindholm.

A balanced defense will serve the Bruins well short-term. Reinforcements will be even more welcome long-term.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.