Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Beating The Bruins

Remembering What Habs Knew So Well

Last season, thanks to Montreal, the Bruins were a middling regular season club. Last year, thanks to the Canadiens, the Bruins were a first round eliminee. This year, the Bruins have another fate on their minds, and barring a collapse of Ottawaian proportions, they have already surpassed middling. But can the Habs remember a bit of the spellbinding trickery that won them 8 of 8 meetings with their most vicious rivals?

Boston has some astonishing numbers so far this year, so maybe their biggest weakness for the second half will be the law of averages. Take Blake Wheeler and David Krejci's shooting % for example (whose numbers have both started falling since I started researching this): over 20% is unsustainable for even the Ovechkins of the world. Reason says they can't go on shooting at over 20% forever. History tells us scoring streaks like theirs sometimes, but rarely last a whole season – only 2 players topped 20% last season: Mike Ribeiro (who lucked out a whole season at 25%) and Brad Boyes; the next guys were at 18%. Take their goaltenders, both have inordinately high save percentages at the moment. Are they the best tandem of all time, or have they saved their bad goals and sub .900 games for the end of the season?

A real weakness that Boston has is their comeback ability. Someone who wants to impress you will tell you that Boston has only trailed 13 times after the first period and 8 times they have come back from the deficit to win. But I also noticed that the Bruins have not once come back from a deficit at the second intermission. In 7 games (I admit that's impressive), they are 0-6-1.

It's hardly a game plan to say: let's score lots of goals and have a lead at the end of 2 (although it is genius Julien's plan). Yeah, no kidding. However, consider teams top teams like Detroit and San Jose come back after the second nearly 40% of the time. The Habs themselves have rescued 5 wins and an OTL from 14 deficits (0.357). It tells me that if you can get them down, you get get them out of their game, out of their comfort zone.

In a game strategy, I'd make sure that every battle you can win, you win. They are a team that has had things their own way and clearly don't like it when they don't. Score first, score early. Check Chara, expose the others. Take the game to them and don't let them bring it to you.

I saved this article from a week ago about a strategy for beating the Bruins. It was written after a couple of losses about a team that you would have thought from the tone was unbeatable:
"A dastardly plan that will frustrate and eventually defeat the high-powered Bruins attack, and leave their scoring machine in the shop for repairs. Granted, not every team has the talent or discipline or chutzpah to implement Operation Beat the Bruins but teams with enough scoring skills — or grit – to get a lead and a good enough goaltender could do it."

It talks sense, even if it does over-exaggerate the risks of playing in Boston.

Lessons should be easy to come by for the Habs when it comes to beating this Bruins team. Each game last year speak to the same kind of stuff at that article and the fact the Bruins don't like to be out of the driver's seat:

Game 1, we pounded them early and they laid down to take the punishment
Game 2, we did it with defence; but also scored 2 before they could show up
Game 3, we gave them a complex by trading goals for 2 periods before burying them under 25 shots and 3 straight killer goals
Games 4, 5, 6 and 7 we scored first and never gave the Bruins a sniff of victory
Game 8 was the first the Bruins made a contest of it. We toyed with them and took it in a shootout

Over these 8 games, the Bruins never led the Habs. Not for a minute. And, with the exception of Game 5 in the playoffs, the Bruins never came back from a deficit to win against us last season – that was 12 victories for us out of 13 where we took a lead.

They are the team that needs a strategy, methinks. Probably something beyond the genius tactics of a man who twice got himself shipped out from a team who would make the playoffs:
“I think for every team, every game, we talk about [scoring first] and getting an early lead and taking control of the game.”

– Claude Julien

And besides, is this year's Bruins team so different anyway?

Not on paper they aren't. Wins and stats-wise they are worlds apart. But really, let's see. Even Chuck Kobasew looked like a scorer once down there. Time and reality will make us better judges of this Boston hockey outfit.

We must acknowledge they have learned and improved somewhat – for they have beaten the Canadiens twice already, and got points in all three meetings. However, their embarrassing displays against us last season were unnatural. What's more, they are still a team with weaknesses (as per this pseudo-Bruins fan), such as unorthodox goaltending:
Another puzzling part of the picture is Boston's goaltending. Tim Thomas has a 2.08 GAA and .933 save percentage, which defy explanation. Thomas (and most Boston fans would agree) has atrocious positioning and lacks basic fundamentals. Yet, Like Dominic Hasek, he makes the save, no matter how ugly.

And average defence:
A puzzling aspect is Boston's defense, which has remained largely the same since last year. Zdeno Chara is still woefully incompetent with the puck in his own end, and Andrew Ference, Shane Hnidy, Matt Hunwick, Matt Lashoff, Mark Stuart, Dennis Wideman, and Aaron Ward round out what would otherwise be a group of very average defensemen.

Add to that injuries to players like Bergeron, Kessel, Sturm and even Lucic, and they will have to be superhuman to repeat their 62 points from the next half season. The quiet Habs can catch this team as it settles back into Bruins 2008. Let's start tonight.

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