Thursday, April 10, 2008

Welcome Opponent One: The Boston Bruins

The Bruins hardly need much introduction. After all, we have all seen them 8 times since October, 10 times since September if you're keen. They lost to us in Montreal. they lost to us in Boston. They even lost to us in Halifax.

Strange thing though. Since the Habs beat these opponents 8/8 times (or 10/10 if you prefer) it doesn't feel like we know the Bruins the way we should. At least not the bruins the rest of the league knows.

We've heard ad nauseum (from myself included) that if the Habs had lost to the Bruins just 4 times, the Bruins (45-25-11: 101 points) would be ahead of the Canadiens (43-29-10: 96 points).

We know the world doesn't work this way: eliminating the team you play worst against would make a similarly enchanting story for most of the teams in the league. Even so, the fact that the Bruins cultivated more points against the rest of the league than the Habs is a matter of some intrigue.

For me the first question that cam to mind was: "Well, who did they beat?"

The answer: Everyone at least a little bit.

vs. Southeast (10-9-1: 21 pts)
Wins: Atlanta (3), Carolina (1), Florida, Tampa and Washington (2 each)

vs. Northeast – sans Montreal (13-6-5: 31 points)
Wins: Toronto (5), Buffalo and Ottawa (4 each)

vs. Atlantic (12-4-4: 28 pts)
Wins: Philadelphia, Islanders and Rangers (3 each), Pittsburgh (2), New Jersey (1)

vs. West (6-3-1: 13 pts)
Wins: Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, LA, Phoenix, San Jose

Basically, the Bruins were steady as we thought. They never slipped too far down the standings, even despite a brutal December. They picked up a lovely 12 bonus points for losing to the Canadiens 10. But while the Habs gave up on this habit of slipping in for points somewhere around the illustrious Xmas road trip, the Bruins have used it as a tried and tested method for point collection.

Interestingly for a team that gets to OT so frequently, they have not seemed to learn how to win from it: going 8-12 in 60+ minute games this season.

If you take the wins another way and examine which teams the Bruins like and dislike, you can see certain patterns emerging:

1) The teams they lost to most frequently are faster than they are: Montreal, Carolina, Buffalo, New Jersey and Pittsburgh

2) With the exception of New Jersey, all the teams above like to win by scoring – the Bruins don't seem to enjoy that

3) Many of the teams they were most successful had trouble scoring in general as well: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Atlanta, Toronto

4) They poached bad goaltending: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Toronto and Ottawa after their crisis mode

NOTE: The Bruins were also involved in 3 (count 'em, 3) scoreless draws, twice with the Rangers alone. These guaranteed point (and fan-pleasing) affairs got them 4 points and a good-looking record against the Rangers.

From all these results you begin to get a picture of how the Bruins win and lose. If a team skates at them, passes around them and generally tries to play normal hockey, the opponents have a good chance of winning. If a team gets into a jousting match with them, the Bruins hold more cards.

As a final enquiry, I contacted someone who knows a heck of a lot more about the Bruins than me – Russ from the Bruins Report (a great Bruins blog) – check it out if you have the time. I asked:

How were the Bruins so good against the rest of the teams in the East?

And, as if to corroborate what all the circumstantial evidence says, he replied:

The Bruins were good against the rest of the East because they have, for the most part, played a solid, simple defensive scheme in their own zone that allowed them to minimize scoring chances down low, and kept the majority of the shots to the perimeter. Tim Thomas was more effective playing behind this style of defense, and allowed him to modify his "crazy flailing everywhere like Hasek only not as good"

He went on to qualify:

The Canadiens, however, have proven that the Bruins have a hard time defending against a team that uses their speed to quickly get into the Bruins' zone, and not allow them to set up in their "Box Plus 1" formation. Montreal was very good all season long at both getting into the offensive zone, as well as forcing the Bruins to take multiple penalties trying to neutralize their speed. As evidence, the Canadiens on the PP had a 30% success rate against the Bruins' 28th ranked penalty kill.

So, combine strong team speed with a solid powerplay, and you see where the Canadiens were able to beat the Bruins this season. It remains to be seen if the Bruins can 1) find a way to clog up the neutral zone enough, and forecheck strong enough, to stop the Canadiens breakout, and 2) stay out of the box. If they *can*, it'll be a decent series.

Hence the Canadiens need to stick to the gameplan. Adjust for Anaheim, maybe. Not for these guys...

By the way, stay tuned to Lions in Winter for a couple more primers on this series. I (Topham) handle the key Bruins players to watch for the series and beyond and Tobalev chimes in with his expert views on the critical players from the Habs.

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