By Michael Felger
The preconceived notions about the Bruins' first-round playoff series with Montreal have been turned on their ear. Those picking Boston expected the B's to win on size, grit, depth and goaltending. But, to this point, it looks like you were all looking at the wrong thing.
The Habs are in control of this series right now because they have more skill.
Oh yeah, that.
It's an issue for the Bruins all over the ice, from the inability of the defensemen to move the puck effectively out of their own zone to the lack of finishing touch up front.
There is a great misconception that in the NHL playoffs, the bigger, tougher and more defensive-minded teams are the ones that typically advance. It's as if stopping the puck has become more important than scoring the puck, and that talent is somehow less important. And it's just not the case.
Certainly, soft teams won't go far. And, yes, you can steal games with a hot goalie or a big effort. You might even get by a round or two on those things. Upsets obviously happen. But most postseason series, and the overwhelming majority of Stanley Cup championships, are won on skill.
Just because a game ends in a 2-0 or 3-1 final doesn't mean it wasn't about goal-scoring or skill on the blue line. This Bruins-Habs series is a case in point.
The Canadiens have had a dozen clear scoring chances so far in the series -- and they've buried nearly half of them. The Bruins have had around that many chances as well -- and they've put only one behind Carey Price.
Example 1: Montreal winger Brian Gionta got the puck at the side of an open Bruins net early in the first period of Game One -- and he deposited it underneath the crossbar for a goal. Bruins winger Brad Marchand got the puck at the side of an even more open Canadiens net later in that same period -- and he whiffed.
Example 2: Montreal winger Mathieu Darche was fed a pass all alone to the side of the B's net in the first period of Game Two -- and he rifled it high and wide of a sprawling Tim Thomas for the goal. Boston winger Milan Lucic was fed a pass wide open in front of a sprawling Price later that same period -- and he shot the puck square into the pads of the prone goalie.
Those situations defined the first two games, as did a blown goalmouth bid by David Krejci in Game Two and numerous other Bruins shots sent square into the chest of Price. Those plays had nothing to do with size, grit, goaltending or depth. They all came down to skill. And the Bruins didn't have enough of it.
Same thing on defense, where the Bruins defense has morphed straight into their typical shaky playoff mode. All five Montreal goals this series have been the result of turnovers from the Bruins coming out of their own zone. All five. On Saturday, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg took turns handing the puck over to the Habs, and the result was three goals behind Thomas.
This is nothing new under Claude Julien. His passive, east-west breakout system works fine over the drone of 82 games, but it has been badly exposed over the last four playoff seasons. Maybe that explains the mantra around the Bruins the last few weeks to go "north-south." Unfortunately, after being instructed by their coach to go sideways for years, it's clear the players are ill-equipped to change direction.
This is about personnel as much as it is coaching. It would have been nice to have Zdeno Chara on the ice Saturday (a pretty big story to be flushed out later), but the sad truth is that even if the captain had been there the dynamics would have been roughly the same. Chara doesn't move the puck well himself, a deficiency that really comes out in these games. And it turns out the trade for Tomas Kaberle hasn't solved the problem, either.
The B's simply do not have the skill in back to handle the puck with poise and precision in the face of a heavy, playoff-style forecheck.
The Canadiens may not be blessed with a roster full of those kinds of defensemen, either (heck, they employ Hal Gill), but at least P.K. Subban and James Wisniewski bring some of it to the table. As a result, the Habs haven't had nearly the number of mistakes in back as the B's.
Then there's this mythical "depth" advantage the Bruins supposedly have. What a fraud that is.
Not that Julien doesn't still believe it. In fact, you have to wonder if someone somewhere in the Bruins' organization got to Claude after Game One, when the Bruins didn't have a single forward log over 19 minutes of ice time while the Canadiens made sure their top four forwards were all over the boards for at least that much time (Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, Gionta and Mike Cammalleri all played between 19:13 and 20:52).
Even though the B's were in the process of being shut out that night, Julien still played some of his pluggers more than his skill players. Namely, third-liners Rich Peverley (17:50) and Chris Kelly (16:39) were on the ice more than second-line center Patrice Bergeron (15:47). And this wasn't just a special-teams issue: Both Peverley and Kelly logged more even-strength time than Bergeron as well.
Brutal. Yet typical for Julien, who never met a third-line grinder he didn't like. If there's another coach alive who believes playing Chris Kelly more than Patrice Bergeron is the best way to win a playoff game, I'd like to know who it is.
So it changed for Game Two, when Kelly was on the ice for only 11:51 and Krejci (22:08) and Lucic (22:06) were way up. And there was also, if you can believe it, a lineup change, as Nathan Horton (aka, Michael Ryder, version 2.0) was moved down to the third line in exchange for Peverley for the final period.
It usually takes a crow bar to get Julien to make such a move. Maybe someone finally informed him that he was in the playoffs.
Still, Bergeron's ice time remained stuck in the mid-teens in Game Two (16:21). With Krejci's production down due to a variety of factors (poor play, no life from his wingers, blanket coverage from the Canadiens), Bergeron could be the guy to carry the offense right now. He and Marchand are the only B's forwards finding room to operate. Yet they find themselves fighting for ice time with the checkers.
This is where Julien's roll-four-lines approach really hurts the B's. In a series where the Habs make sure they get the most out of their best players (Plekanec played 21:34 on Saturday), the Bruins coach remains slow andor reluctant to identify and lean on his.
And I won't even get into the two shifts Julien gave to his fourth line (Greg Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille) in the final 6:30 on Saturday. I was watching the game with Tony Amonte when those players hit the ice and he remarked that he has never seen a coach put out his crash line -- not once, but twice -- while trailing by two goals late in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
I responded by saying that he obviously hasn't been watching Julien the last few years.
The question now is how much longer the rest of us will be subjected to it.
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