SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 26, 2014

On Hockey: Special teams, skating that drove Bruins by Detroit should help against Montreal

On Hockey
Matt Williams

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BOSTON -- In the aftermath of closing out their first round playoff series, several members of the Boston Bruins felt their five-game win over Detroit was much closer, and more difficult, than the 4-1 count in games made it appear.

As they did in all four of their playoffs wins so far, Boston dominated special teams and skated strongly as a team in the series clinching 4-2 win here at TD Garden Saturday.

Both those factors should continue to work in the B's favor in the conference semifinals against Montreal, set to begin later this week.

The B's are facing Montreal in the postseason for the first time since 2011, a 7-game series win that eventually led to the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens beat the B's in the first round in 2008, and Boston returned the favor the following year.

Anytime these Original Six rivals, who have met in the playoffs more times than any two franchises in North American pro sports, get together there is drama, excitement, and angst in the fan bases.

"First time that it isn’t a first-round match-up, so another Original Six battle that we get to be a part of and a lot of hatred between the teams, the fans, the cities," Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who had the crucial third goal in Saturday's win, said. "When it comes to this kind of rivalry, so we expect them to bring their best."

Typically, Bruins fans want their team to play even strength hockey heading into a series with Montreal, a club that historically thrives on special teams. If the series against Detroit is any indication, special teams will be no problem for the Bruins.

Boston's power play scored six times in the first round, and their penalty kill was nearly flawless at 90 percent (18-of-20). The Bruins didn't lose a game in which they scored a power play goal, and that dramatic edge in special teams helped them put the Red Wings away in only five games. It was a much shorter series than anticipated, one that might've dragged out if the special teams were even.

"I think we handled it well, we came into this series ready and we got the job done," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. He scored the biggest power play goal Saturday with a blast from the point that broke a 1-1 tie with only four seconds left in the second period.

"That series was much tougher than maybe the results showed. Detroit is a really good team with a great system, great players. We were just able to play our game and stay on top of it. It wasn’t a one-sided series."

Perhaps the biggest goal of the series was defenseman Torey Krug's power play tally in Game 4 in Detroit. It was the first of three unanswered Boston goals, and highlighted the huge difference Krug and fellow defenseman Doug Hamilton have made on the man advantage. Hamilton's rush essentially created Loui Eriksson's power play goal in the first here Saturday; Either Krug or Hamilton had a point on five of Boston's six first round power play tallies.

"I think all season our young guys, especially our D-men have been thrust into playing against other teams’ top lines, QB on the power play," Bruins forward Jaroma Iginla, who had an empty net goal in Saturday's game, said. "They're very confident."

The President's Trophy winner as the NHL's best regular season, Boston finished third in power play percentage (21.7) and sixth in the penalty kill (83.6). They were one of four teams in the top 10 in both categories, while Montreal was 19th on the man advantage and fourth on the kill.

Which is to say that there's no reason Boston should be concerned with a special teams series against the Habs, who handled an undermanned Tampa Bay squad with a four-game first round sweep.

Skating also drove Boston over Detroit, a team that was said to have all kinds of speed coming into the series. The Wings do, but Boston was able to neutralize it by slowing things down in the neutral zone and by showcasing strong skating. Being a good skating team means more than simply being able to skate quickly, and that which worked against Detroit could also translate against Montreal.

"We were pretty good skating team as well and if we played really good and tight on them and not give them too much space out there we should have a good chance. I thought we did that," Eriksson said of the speed game against Detroit.

Compared to Detroit, Montreal doesn't have the top-end talent of a Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, though Thomas Vanek has been a Bruin-killer over the years and Tomas Plekanec is underrated. Montreal's young, speedy forwards like Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais have much more experience than Detroit's Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tator, neither of whom showed much against Boston.

In net, Carey Price had a good season and won an Olympic gold medal with Canada. His playoff career save percentage is .905 (.904 in the first round sweep), as compared to .919 for Detroit's Jimmy Howard, who wasn't a problem for Boston (two losses despite a .931 series save percentage) and missed the last two games with illness.

After the Game 1 loss to Detroit, Boston possessed the puck more than their opponents. They decided where and how the game would be played, and if they do so again in the next round the results should be similar.

"I think we were able to fight through and start playing our game and dictating the pace. A lot of people were talking about what kind of pace this series was going to be, and I think the most important thing was that we were able to dictate that," said Lucic.

It's impossible not to mention Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask. He's the best goaltender on Earth at the moment, and with the way Jonathan Quick has played in his team's series against San Jose, it isn't really close. He allowed four goals in five games and had a save percentage of .966.

Rask was 1-2-1 in the regular season against the Canadiens, but Detroit handled Boston in the regular season too and that didn't seem to matter much.

Conventional wisdom held that the Red Wings would be a tough out, and it holds that the Canadiens should be too. If Boston skates as it did in these last four games, however, and continues to dominate on special teams, they're capable to making shorter work of their opponents once again.

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Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.