BOSTON (CBS) — What separates the Stanley Cup playoffs from other sports’ postseasons is that rarely are top seeds markedly better than lower seeds, and rarely does the home team hold a tremendous advantage over the opponent. NHL players are all so skilled, the rinks are all a uniform size, and the games usually come down to a bounce here or a deflection there to decide the winner and the loser.
Where a team can gain the upper hand over an opponent is on special teams, and that’s exactly how the Boston Bruins dispatched the Red Wings in five games rather than seven.
The Bruins successfully killed six of seven penalties in Saturday afternoon’s Game 5, capping off a series in which they played otherworldly while down a man. The Bruins finished the series having killed off 18 of 20 penalties for a clean success rate of 90 percent.
The counter of that, of course, is a 10 percent power-play success rate for the Detroit power play, a unit that was successful 17.7 percent of the time during the regular season. For the Bruins, that ability to lock down their defensive end while shorthanded proved particularly crucial in Game 5, when referees Steve Kozari and Dean Morton began enforcing the rule book in the strictest possible sense.
“You certainly don’t like to see that. It wears out the same guys, and those are things that you try and stay away from in the playoffs,” said head coach Claude Julien. “I thought it was one of those games tonight where it was a lot of penalties called, I think seven [on Boston] and six [on Detroit], 13 calls tonight. So it was very uncharacteristic if you compare it to the other games.”
While the number was certainly higher, the results were largely the same. While players like Zdeno Chara (6:35), Johnny Boychuk (5:27), Gregory Campbell (4:36), Patrice Bergeron (4:37) and Loui Eriksson (3:33) logged monster minutes on the PK, many of them also were key contributors on the wildly successful Boston power play.
The Bruins scored twice on the man advantage in Game 5, first an Eriksson backhand that followed a Dougie Hamilton one-man rush to open a 1-0 lead early in the first, and later on an absolute bomb of a Chara one-timer, on which Bergeron recorded the primary assist. That Chara goal broke a 1-1 tie, and the Bruins did not trail or find themselves in a tie game for the rest of the way.
The 2-for-6 showing on the power play gave the Bruins a final mark of 6-for-16 for a 37.5 percent success rate. It was a marked improvement from the Bruins’ regular-season success rate of 21.7 percent, which ranked them third in the NHL.
Aside from the obvious benefit of scoring, Chara’s goal with 3.8 seconds left in the second period came at a time when the Red Wings, through their own power-play goal and a series of penalties called on Boston, were starting to shift the momentum. Yet the Bruins went on the man advantage with less than 15 seconds left on the clock, and Chara’s blast completely flipped the game on its side before the two teams headed to their respective locker rooms.
“It was huge,” said Milan Lucic, who scored the game’s third goal, which turned out to be the game-winner. “You look at it, 14 seconds left and a 4-on-3 there, and you knew that if you can go into the second intermission there getting back up a goal, it would definitely give you that momentum back and kind of [get] that positive mind-set back. … I think it lifted everyone on our team.”
In addition to lifting the team, it nearly lifted the net off its moorings, as Chara certainly got every bit of his 6-foot-9 frame behind that one. The shot blasted past Jonas Gustavsson’s glove hand, fitting neatly inside the top right corner of the net.
After the goal, the captain let out a roar, displaying emotion not always seen from the 37-year-old. Chara said he didn’t particularly care whether he scored via slap shot or a lucky, bouncing shot that gets in, so long as the goal gets put on the board. Yet he did admit to a certain level of satisfaction to scoring at this time, in this fashion.
“Of course it feels good. Don’t get me wrong,” Chara said. “You work so hard to hit those kinds of shots aimed at a specific area. And it’s hard, because at practice, you’re getting puck after puck after puck, and you can kind of time it. But in a game, there is one puck, one chance, one pass, and you have to bury it. So for sure, if that goes in, then all of those one-timers, all of those shots you take in practice … It pays off.”
It certainly paid off in this particular game, and it served as the exclamation point in a series determined almost entirely by special teams play.
One need only look at the even strength play to come at that conclusion. If you take away power-play goals and empty-netters from the series, the Bruins only outscored the Red Wings 6-4 in the five games. The six Bruins’ power-play goals tripled the Red Wings’ two, despite Detroit getting four more opportunities.
That, right there, is how a series is won.
“Obviously, power plays helped us a lot through this series. It certainly makes it a lot easier. We won before without having a successful power play,” said Julien, alluding to the anemic Boston power play in 2011. “But when you’ve got that arsenal, it certainly makes it a lot easier.”
In this case, “easier” meant wrapping things up in a more manageable five games, rather than being pushed to the brink in a seven-game series like they have in their previous three first-round series. This time around, the Bruins made it clear just how impactful special teams can be.
And considering the next team on the docket is the Montreal Canadiens — a team that knows how to draw its fair share of penalties, particularly against the Bruins — there may be no better area in which to be excelling right now.
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