Bruins Need to Win Faceoffs, Control Barzal & Be Smarter in Games 6 & 7

The Boston Bruins turned in a sloppy performance at home in Game 5 against the New York Islanders — not in terms of shots and scoring, but in terms of mental fortitude. There was a lot of discussion during and after the game about the officiating, and most will agree that the referees did not call the game both ways.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy put the referees on blast after the game, arguing that the Islanders were not penalized as often as the Bruins for the same infractions. He made it clear that he did not disagree with Boston’s own penalties — he was just disappointed with the inconsistency in calling penalties the other way. He was fined $25,000 shortly afterward.

This is not the first time that referee Francis Charron was the target of criticism from a head coach. In the 2020 Playoffs, Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour had negative things to say about Charron and his team of officials. Brind’Amour was also fined $25,000 for his comments.

In any case, the Islanders seized the day, going 3/4 on the power play and sending Tuukka Rask to the bench for the first time this postseason. The Bruins might have outplayed them for most of the game, but New York took control in the big moments, which they seem to have a knack for doing. Now, with their backs against the wall, here’s what the Bruins must do to win Games 6 and 7.

Enough With The Stupid Penalties

Say what you will about the officiating in this series (Cassidy has, with great sacrifice to his wallet). Sean Kuraly’s first period “slashing” penalty, the missed high-sticking calls, or the missed delay of game call on the Islanders in the third are certainly valid complaints. It also hurts to see an all-time great like Patrice Bergeron get disrespected by another great in Isles coach Barry Trotz.

Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins
Barry Trotz is the latest person to accuse Patrice Bergeron of bending the rules at the faceoff dot.
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But, how did the Bruins respond? A blatant cross check right in front of the goal by the usually level-headed Matt Grzelcyk, an intentional high stick by Chris Wagner, and other mental lapses from their best players. Bergeron’s delay of game penalty came at a crucial time in the third period. Rask, who had been great all series, started getting caught deep in his net and giving up soft goals. They clearly let the poor officiating get to their heads as the game wore on.

Even with all the missed calls, the Bruins still stayed on the attack and continued to impose their will in the five-on-five. Brad Marchand played arguably his best game of the playoffs. Their own mistakes killed the momentum. The aforementioned penalties from Grzelcyk and Wagner in the second period were the biggest culprits. If these two stupid penalties aren’t made, the Islanders don’t go on the power play, and don’t go up 4-2.

Brad Marchand Boston Bruins
Brad Marchand and the Perfection Line dominated the Isles at even strength, but they could not make up for the Bruins’ mistakes and poor penalty killing. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

These mistakes play right into the Islanders’ hands. We’ve seen it countless times. The Isles capitalize on opportunities better than any other team in the NHL. It’s the main reason they made it to the Eastern Conference Final last year, and it’s the main reason they are up 3-2 in this series. The Bruins are more skilled on both ends. If they lose this series, they have only themselves to blame, not the officials.

Continue to Wear Down Mat Barzal

So far this series, Boston has made it a priority to break down Mathew Barzal mentally and physically. However, New York’s young star has proved impervious to these efforts. He has taken some rough hits and slashes, but responded with some stellar performances in Games 4 and 5. The Bruins should not abandon this strategy yet, though.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Bruins try to injure him. I am, however, willing to bet that enough hits from Nick Ritchie, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jarred Tinordi could demoralize him and put him off his game. They must be careful, of course. Keep the hits legal, and avoid pulling stunts like David Krejci’s slashing penalty in Game 4.

Nick Ritchie Boston Bruins
Nick Ritchie was active on the boards and in the o-zone in Game 5. He will move down to the fourth line, in place of the injured Curtis Lazar.
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Boston can learn a thing or two from the Islanders in this facet of the game. New York’s “Identity” line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin seems to have mastered the art of borderline legal/illegal hits. The Bruins aren’t nearly as subtle in that regard, with Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo sidelined.

Another way Boston can break down Barzal is by never giving him space to create, much like how the Montreal Canadiens shadowed Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. This starts by hounding him on the forecheck, which Bergeron himself acknowledged that the Bruins need to improve on. Don’t let him breathe. Know where he is at all times, and always keep a body in front of him.

Regain Control in The Faceoff Game

The Bruins had the best faceoff percentage in the league during the regular season, winning 56.6 percent of their draws. Bergeron also had a career mark, winning 62.2 percent, almost two percentage points better than anyone else in the league. Those numbers have dropped against the Islanders.

Boston still holds a narrow advantage in the series, winning 51.6 percent, but for an opportunistic team like the Islanders, 48.4 percent is enough — especially when their main faceoff guys are playing well against Bergeron. The Bruins’ captain was outplayed by New York’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the dot in Games 1 through 4. Pageau won 58.7 percent of his draws, most of those against Bergeron. Casey Cizikas has also won 56.2 percent throughout the series, three ticks up from his regular season totals.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau New York Islanders
Jean-Gabriel Pageau has stood toe-to-toe against Patrice Bergeron at the faceoff dot.
(Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Faceoffs are such an important aspect of the Bruins’ game. They are better than any other team in the league at turning a won draw into a scoring chance. They need to get that winning percentage back up to the 55-56 percent range, and Bergeron needs to become the dominant force that he was in the regular season. He got back on track in Game 5, winning 59 percent. Krejci has also picked up the slack. They must continue to do so in Games 6 and 7.

Bruins Just Need To Play Their Game

The Bruins thoroughly outplayed the Islanders for 55 minutes in Game 5. Those other five minutes consisted of mental lapses, complaining to the referees, and poor penalty killing. Regardless of the officiating, if the Bruins just stick to their game and stay disciplined, they will have the upper hand.

Instead of venting their frustrations through high sticks and elbows, Boston can put that energy into the faceoff game. They can take their anger out on Barzal. They can keep their foot on the gas and control the 5-on-5 like they have all series, instead of taking the wind out of their own sails by handing the Islanders a power-play opportunity.

Yes, the officiating could be better, but the wrong response plays right into New York’s hand, as we saw on Monday night. Don’t give them any opportunities to steal a win. If the Bruins stay level-headed and control the pace of play, they will be just fine.

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