B's team effort trumps superstar Pens
Blue-collar Boston back in Cup finals after sweeping high-powered Pittsburgh
BOSTON -- It was fitting, actually, that a third-line defenseman who simply puts his head down and does his job, a strong, physical, no-frills Bruin who excels in solid fundamentals, would be the one to shut the door on the skilled, star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins.
You know, the team that departed with more superstars than wins in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Boston Bruins swept those heavily favored Penguins to the curb on Causeway Street on Friday night and are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three seasons.
He was an unlikely offensive hero on a team that has personified the defensive side of the game since its understated coach took up residence here six years ago. The plan was simple: Play together, protect your own end, be opportunistic in your scoring. Boston established itself as a deep team with no studs but plenty of willing and able players with their own unique brand of talent borne from patience and resilience.
Thus, coach Claude Julien's crew came to believe any of them could step up and make the critical play if needed. In fact, teammate Milan Lucic claimed he told McQuaid in warm-ups that he'd pot a goal in this game.
That's because they didn't score. Not once. Nor did their team convert on a single power-play opportunity (0-for-15). The Bruins didn't fare much better (0-for-13), but that isn't their game. They finished 25th in power-play goals in the regular season, while the Penguins scored at a 24.7 percent clip.
It's the first time in 25 years that neither team mustered a power-play goal. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last time it happened was in the Adams Division finals between the Bruins and their longtime nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens.
They understood the only way they could eliminate the highly skilled Penguins was to grind the game down to its nub, to harass and harangue Pittsburgh's snipers and outlast them in a low-scoring scrum.
The strategy was textbook. Boston's defensive corps was physical, persistent, consistent. Their forwards backchecked to beat the band, with the redoubtable Patrice Bergeron shadowing Crosby from the moment he stepped on the ice.
And, on the few occasions Crosby managed a glimmer of a glance at the net, Rask was waiting, the goalie's confidence increasing with each playoff win. He held the Penguins to two goals on 136 shots.
"He was," acknowledged Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, "the difference in the series."
Pittsburgh's shocking elimination was reminiscent of Boston's dismantling of another highly skilled offensive team, the Vancouver Canucks, on their way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Rask, Bruins Just Two Good
How good was the Bruins defense and goalie Tuukka Rask against the powerful Penguins? The two goals allowed in the four-game sweep were the second fewest in an NHL playoff series of four or more games. Here's a look:
|1952 Red Wings||2||Canadiens|
|1935 Maple Leafs||2||Bruins|
|-- Elias Sports Bureau|
Friday night marked just the seventh time in NHL history that a team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals via a 1-0 victory. The Bruins are hoping for the same result as the last time it happened, in 2011. Here's a look:
|1950 Red Wings||Leafs||Won|
|1934 Red Wings||Leafs||Lost|
|-- ESPN Stats & Information|
Perhaps now that Boston is back in the Cup finals again, the hue and cry over Julien's style will mercifully subside.
"I've been here six years," Julien cracked. "I think I've been fired five times."
He is correct. There's nothing sexy about Julien or the way he asks his team to perform. It was an adjustment for former snipers like Jaromir Jagr, who admitted in the aftermath of the win, "It's not easy on me, because I'm used to something else. I know it will make me a better hockey player later, make me stronger."
"That's the way we play," said the gifted David Krejci, whose prolific postseason output consistently seems to fly under the NHL radar. "It's the only way we can be successful.
"We don't have superstars on this team. We don't have the best players. But we do have the best team."
Such a statement would have been laughable a month and a half ago, when the Bruins faltered in nearly every phase of the game, as a certain decorated football coach likes to opine. The underachieving Bruins were maddeningly inconsistent and seemed to be enveloped in a puzzling ennui heading into the final weeks. They were not likable, resilient or inspiring during that stretch. In fact, they were downright infuriating.
"I think it all changed the first game of the playoffs," Marchand said. "The season was getting really long. We played a ton of games in a bunch of days.
"But once the playoffs started guys had a different focus. We knew we had a special team in here. We knew we had the right group of guys."
Bergeron has harped throughout this series on his teammates' "buying in," whether it was passing around the camouflage player-of-the-game jacket, or committing to the game plan they devised for Pittsburgh.
"They are definitely a dangerous team," McQuaid said. "You know, they can create scoring chances from next to nothing."
Indeed, some of the Penguins, Malkin among them, have the right to leave the Garden shaking their heads. While Rask was impeccable and the Bruins' defense both stingy and generally impenetrable, Pittsburgh did have its chances. Pucks clanged off the post or squirted wide. There were obvious scoring chances one minute that were suddenly gone the next.
Suffice to say Pittsburgh was utterly and completely devoid of hockey karma.
"I share your disbelief that (lack of scoring) was a possible storyline in this series," Bylsma concurred.
Jagr, the former Penguin, was asked if playing against this Bruins team in the prime of his career would have been as fruitless and as frustrating as it was for Crosby and Malkin.
"I think it would drive anybody crazy," he said. "The way Boston plays, everybody has to backcheck. Everybody. It doesn't matter how talented you are, when you know someone is chasing you from behind every second of the game, it's hard to change speeds.
"It's hard to do anything."
And so Jagr's team moves on, putting him back in the finals for the first time in more than two decades, while the Penguins go back home and try to figure out what the heck just happened.
Jagr wishes them well. He's ready for the next opponent, whoever it is, ready to dig for the puck along the boards, or backcheck another high-priced goal scorer.
Whatever Claude wants. Jagr, at the age of 41, said he is up for it. The last time he won a Cup, Tyler Seguin wasn't even born.
"It's fun, you know?" Jagr said. "It's a great team. Right now, we can beat anybody."
- COUNTDOWN TO XLIX
- The time for debating deflated footballs is over and it's (finally) time for Super Bowl XLIX. Game on.