Commentary

Bruins defensemen making points

Boston blueliners not only stopping goals, they're scoring them as well

Updated: June 12, 2013, 5:01 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Defense wins championships -- especially when your defense scores goals.

We have committed Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien's defensive-minded approach to memory, yet as the Bruins begin their quest for the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston's blueliners have done more than thwart their opponents from scoring. They also have potted 15 playoff goals of their own -- seven more than any other defensive corps this postseason.

Six of Boston's defensemen have found the back of the net, including Adam McQuaid, whose blast in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals sealed the elimination of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

How deep is the Bruins defense? Two of the players who have scored postseason goals, Matt Bartkowski and Wade Redden, were healthy scratches in the Pittsburgh series.

Boston always has pressured the points and used its brawn to force turnovers and clog the shooting lanes. But instead of dumping the puck off the glass into the offensive end or chipping it to the corners, the Bruins' defenders have been carrying the puck up the ice and occasionally pinching in the offensive zone to create opportunities.

"I've seen a little shift in Claude's style," Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park confirmed. "They've had some real success pinching.

"But one of things I've seen great improvement on is their outlet passes coming out of their own zone. They don't seem to be in a hurry. They're taking their time to make the right pass to the right guy."

Andrew Ference said the defense evolves as each season passes, the personnel stays the same, and the players adapt to one another's tendencies. The Bruins are giving up a scant 1.88 goals a game in the playoffs, aided by persistent backchecking from the forwards and terrific goaltending by Tuukka Rask.

[+] EnlargeFerence
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesAndrew Ference and the rest of the Bruins' defense didn't give the Penguins much room to maneuver.

"I think we're more confident because we have such a core group of guys playing together that we are able to anticipate where other people are," Ference said. "So when the opportunity arises, we might [carry the puck more]. It's a really fine line."

Boston survived a sudden flurry of untimely injuries to Ference and fellow defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Redden, which could have spelled playoff disaster for a number of NHL teams. Instead, the Bruins plucked Bartkowski and Torey Krug from their AHL franchise in Providence and barely missed a beat against the New York Rangers in the second round with the newbies in the lineup.

Krug, in particular, has been a revelation, ripping off four goals in his first five outings and displaying a vicious one-timer that flummoxed one of the best goalies in the game, New York's Henrik Lundqvist. Although Krug did not continue his torrid scoring pace in the series against Pittsburgh, he carries a plus-5 into the Stanley Cup finals and was brimming with confidence as his team departed for Chicago.

"They called me up here for a reason," said Krug, who is the most offensive-minded player among the defensemen. "When I talked with Claude he told me, 'Don't change now that you're here. Keep doing what you're doing."'

While Krug's unlikely journey continues to garner headlines, the true core of the defense, redoubtable captain Zdeno Chara, eschews the spotlight even as he leads all defensemen in the postseason with a plus-12 rating. Chara submitted a plus-16 en route to winning the Cup in 2011.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Chara is logging 35.4 shifts per game and 29:21 of ice time, both career highs for a single postseason. The towering defenseman has also submitted 11 points in the 2013 playoffs, a career high as well.

Chara's rigorous conditioning regimen is legendary (he often works out two or three times a day), and he waved off any suggestions that extra minutes are a hindrance to him.

"The more you give him, the more he likes it," Julien said. "He takes good care of himself in between games and recovers extremely well.

"When you are that size, that well-conditioned, that strong, it's really hard to slow him down."

Although Chara did not register a point in the Pittsburgh series, he was an imposing force who rendered the normally prolific Evgeni Malkin ineffective. Park said he's seen a subtle shift in Chara's game as well.

"In the last few years, he's become more and more comfortable handling the puck," Park noted. "Whether it's experience or success, he just looks more comfortable, especially in his own end. He'll go cross-ice a lot of times now, which is often the right pass to make, instead of going up the boards with it."

Chara and Seidenberg have established themselves as the elite shutdown duo in the game, but continued to pay homage to a highly skilled Blackhawks lineup that includes Jonathan Toews (get ready for some more backchecking, Patrice Bergeron), Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and the white-hot Bryan Bickell.

Park believes the Bruins' D is up to the task.

"Those guys made [Sidney] Crosby and Malkin look average, which is a very hard thing to do," Park said.

Boston's depth is provided by the duo of Ference and Johnny Boychuk and the third pair of Krug and the unheralded McQuaid, who is plus-8 in the playoffs.

Mixed into that group is a dose of toughness, deftness, speed and size. ESPN Stats & Information says the Bruins have combined for a playoff-leading 181 blocks, with Boychuk accounting for 55 of them. Paul Martin of Pittsburgh and Rob Scuderi of the Los Angeles Kings are a distant second in the playoffs with 38 blocks.

"That's a skill," Ference said. "It doesn't happen by accident. It's about positioning, knowing how to get in lanes, being mentally strong enough to take a blast and get back up again, which Johnny is willing to do.

"That's why this defense is so good. Everybody has something to bring to the table. We all have the same checklist of things we need to do, but beyond that we've been able to flourish at what we're all naturally good at individually.

"We're not being asked to jam a square into a circle, and that's helped everybody."

Boston has been known to plunk the 6-foot-9 Chara in front of the net as a full-length, high-test goalie screen on the power play, a strategy that wasn't necessary in a sweep of the Penguins in which the Bruins outscored Pittsburgh 12-2.

Boston blanked the Penguins on their vaunted power play, forcing them into an 0-for-15 effort. The Bruins also were blanked on their man-advantage opportunities, but that has been a consistent failing throughout the season.

Chicago has struggled with its power play, too, scoring just one goal in 14 tries against the Kings. The Blackhawks will be wary of Boston and its bruising, smashmouth, preventative style.

They should also pay attention to those pinching Bruins defensemen. Six of them have found the net, and they like how it feels.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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