BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins-Canadiens series is currently 385 minutes and 36 seconds old. It is a rivalry that spans 90 years, a period that includes 900 games, innumerable fights and skirmishes and endless wars of words.
With the B’s and Habs, there are no secrets.
That much is certainly true in this series, as the two teams have exchanged figurative haymakers over the course of the six games, with each team showing great resolve after absorbing the opponent’s best punch. The Bruins looked down and out in Game 2 before scoring four unanswered third-period goals to even the series. Likewise, the Habs appeared to be toast after a dominating Boston win in Game 5, yet they responded by shutting out the B’s in blowout fashion in Game 6.
So here we are. When the puck drops tonight, the teams will have 60 minutes to prove how badly they want to win this series. Both teams have had players on hot and cold streaks, but tonight, the past doesn’t matter. All it will take is one play, one burst or one bounce to send one team to the conference finals and the other to the golf course.
If the Bruins want to avoid that early summer vacation, here are the keys they’ll need to work for them in Game 7.
For the Bruins, it all starts with an aggressive forecheck. The Montreal defensemen — P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin, in particular — have displayed an unwillingness to take contact behind their net when retrieving pucks. They tend to either fall to the ice and give up on the puck or force a pass hard around the boards that is ripe to be intercepted and lead to a Boston possession in the Montreal end of the ice.
When the big bodies like Milan Lucic are flying toward the corner, only good things can follow. And for the struggling fourth line, an aggressive forecheck following neutral zone dump-ins is the path they can take to getting back to what makes them effective — sustained offensive possessions. They used that game to play a crucial factor in the Bruins’ Game 7 win against Vancouver in 2011, and getting back to that will go a long way in keeping the puck far, far away from the Boston net.
Speaking of which …
This one is obvious, but to be more specific, the Bruins need elite goaltending. They can’t afford for Tuukka Rask to be average, or pretty good, or even very good. They need Tuukka Rask to be exceptional — a level at which he plays on a very regular basis. Yet whenever Rask has played at anything lower than a Vezina quality this postseason, the Bruins have lost.
The Bruins are 1-3 in games when Rask allows three or four goals. In the games in which he allowed two goals, the Bruins are 3-0. They’re 1-1 when he allows a single goal, and they’re (obviously) undefeated when he posts a shutout, which he’s done twice.
Though Rask has struggled at times in the playoffs, he’s still leading the NHL in save percentage (.933) and goals-against average (1.90). He’s posted those stats because he’s an excellent goaltender, and the Bruins rely on his ability to make the difficult save look easy.
It’s clear as day when he’s locked in, when he’s in that special sort of zone where it’ll take a near-miracle to beat him. Considering he has a dreadful .855 save percentage in the two Game 7’s in his career, he’ll need to find that zone this time around for the Bruins to have a chance.
3. Defending The Breakaway
What do Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and Dale Weise have in common? They’ve all scored in this series on breakaways.
Brian Gionta and Pacioretty have also gotten behind the defense for breakaways in the series, though Rask was able to make those saves.
It’s become crystal clear that the Canadiens are content with sitting in their own zone and blocking shots, biding their time before launching a 90-foot stretch pass to set up a breakaway, yet the Bruins haven’t yet figured out how to defend it.
Pacioretty burned past a coasting Chara in Game 6, and it doubled the Habs’ lead and buried the Bruins. One of those in Game 7 could end the Bruins’ season. It’s time for the D-men to pay attention.
4. Smelling Salt For The Krejci Line
David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla simply need to wake up. It’s plain and simple.
Krejci has been the one who’s come under the most criticism, as Twitter became a sea of professional hockey coaches who wanted to see Krejci shoot more often during Game 6. While some of the criticism of Krejci has certainly been warranted (he has no goals and three assists this postseason), his linemates are equally to blame for the lack of production from the pass-first Krejci.
Milan Lucic missed an empty net in Game 6, a shot that potentially could have — and really should have — tied the game at 1-1 in the second period. While Jarome Iginla was able to score on the power play in Game 5, but for a player who was tied for the team lead with 30 goals, his two-goal output this series is not cutting it.
The line looked good at times in Games 5 and Game 6, but the Bruins really need them in Game 7. Lucic said it best: “You’ve got to play your best hockey when it matters the most.”
It’ll matter the most in Game 7. The Bruins need their best players to look the part.
5. Marking P.K.
The Bruins have done a fair job of disrupting P.K. Subban after he began the series on an absolute tear. Still, Subban has been able to break through with a goal late in Game 5. While they’ve slowed him down, they can’t afford to let him slip out of their sights at all in Game 7, because he’s proven that if he has time to tee up that slap shot, it’s going to find the back of the net more often than not.
Three years ago, it was Subban who fired a one-time bomb past Tim Thomas in the final minutes of regulation of Game 7, thereby forcing overtime and putting all of Boston on edge. He’s clearly motivated to win this thing on Boston ice, so it’ll take a concerted effort (particularly from the penalty killers) to prevent him from getting off that lethal shot.
6. Earth To Marchand
Patrice Bergeron is tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with nine points (three goals, six assists). Reilly Smith is tied for the team lead in playoff goals with four.
Brad Marchand, meanwhile, hasn’t scored a playoff goal in his last 19 postseason contests.
He’s regarded league-wide as an agitator and a pest, but anyone who watches the Bruins on a regular basis knows that the team relies on him for scoring. If you extrapolate last year’s lockout-shortened season to a full 82-game schedule, Marchand has basically averaged 26 goals per season. Yet in his last 40 playoff games, he’s scored just five goals — a 10-goal pace over an 82-game season.
The Bruins simply need Marchand to find the back of the net. He’s gotten 26 shots on net this postseason, with zero beating the goaltender. Some may chalk that up to lousy luck, but it’s been more an issue of sending quality shots on net. Carey Price’s chest must be sore from all the wristers from Marchand, who’s treated the Habs logo like a bull’s-eye. Marchand did have a better shot in Game 6, a low wrister from the right wing to the far post, on which Price was able to make a nice kick save. It’s shots like that, or Marchand’s patented near-side rip when streaking down the wing, that he’s going to need to execute to break this scoring drought, all of which comes from hard work.
7. Mix It Up On The Blue Line
Johnny Boychuk displayed a stroke of simple brilliance late in Monday’s Game 6 loss. The D-man with a ferocious slap shot decided that instead of sending another futile shot into a diving forward’s leg pads, he’d try a revolutionary new strategy: Shoot it wide.
Not only did Boychuk nearly decapitate Rene Bourque with the shot, which will therefore make the forward think twice about going down to ice level to get in front of that missile next time, but he also generated an alternative scoring chance with a carom off the end boards. It was a creative strategy that just may help the Bruins bury a goal or two in Game 7.
The Canadiens have really put forth an incredible effort in shot blocking. They rank second in the NHL this postseason, behind only the Rangers, with 201 blocked shots. They’ve used that commitment to frustrate the Bruins offensively, taking away dangerous point shots and clogging lanes with regularity. At a certain point, the Bruins have to realize that continuing to shoot into a brick wall is an ineffective strategy, and mixing things up may be the secret solution to finally solving that stingy defense.
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