By Bob Mand, Boston Bruins Senior Correspondent
The Boston Bruins are 28-9-1 against 28 out of their 29 foes in the NHL, a .750 point percentage and 123-point pace over 82 games. Of course, the Bruins have run into one squad that has their number – a team whose underwhelming performance this season is only surpassed by their shocking success against the Black and Gold – the Carolina Hurricanes.
With three wins in three games versus the Bruins, the Hurricanes (who are a robust 13-23-7 against the rest of the League) have shown how a lesser squad can compete with and best one of the NHL’s premier lineups.
In each of their three contests to date, the Hurricanes have demonstrated the capability of creating and maintaining an advantage against the 2011 Stanley Cup Champs. Following the ‘Canes blueprint, here are five ways the ‘Canes have evinced defeat the Bruins:
1. Aggressive Forecheck
The Bruins have many things: Prolific scorers, depth all over the lineup, consummate two-way talents. However, one thing they lack is plus-puck-moving from the back end. At the very best, their defensemen perform this duty adequately. At their very worst, they can look like a bunch of Mike Komisareks out there.
Additionally, the Bruins’ blueliners aren’t particularly fleet of foot and while it’s debatable how lead-footed the corps is as a group, they’re vulnerable to a tenacious, speedy forecheck.
Now, the Bruins’ defense is willing to concede a modest turnover rate because their defensive structure is so well codified that it will mitigate the danger of handing to the puck to the opposition intermittently. However, even with the B’s shot-quality-reducing defense – mistakes, deflections and fluky goals will result if an opponent can up the pressure and the ante consistently with a solid forecheck.
In all three games, the Hurricanes frequently sent two men beyond the attacking blueline to put tremendous pressure on the B’s breakout, repeatedly forcing turnovers and occasionally creating chances.
A team with a speedy and physical forward corps should send those players to aggressively hound the B’s defenders, dispossessing them when they can and generally limiting their ability to cleanly break out of their own zone. Just as importantly, the defenders need to be willing to step up and negate the help B’s forwards (who’ll drop deep into the defensive zone to shorten passes and open up lanes) can give to their harried blueliners.
Of course, a heavy forecheck comes with a price – increased opportunities for the B’s offensively – and unless a team is willing to work for every inch and backcheck like beasts, the Bruins will dole out the punishment.
2. Outwork Them
Yeah, it’s one of those “duh, really” moments, but when they’re on, the Bruins will make other teams look like junior squads because they consistently go to war for every loose puck – and win. They are capable of controlling play in the offensive zone for shifts that feel like eons. The B’s possess some of the most defensively responsible forwards in the game and will backcheck harder and smarter than nearly anyone else in the league.
And you have to beat them.
Needless to say, it’s not going to be an easy task. It starts with winning puck battles along the boards, continues with negating odd-mans through exhaustive backchecking, and doesn’t end even in the offensive zone – where teams must be positively relentless in their puck-pursuit.
The Hurricanes’ back-pressure and resolve produced several turnovers (including an offensive-zone steal by Brandon Sutter which led to the Hurricanes’ first goal). While one would have a tough time arguing the ‘Canes outworked the B’s from start to finish, it’s certainly up for debate – and that’s more than you could say for many (perhaps most) of the Bruins’ opponents.
It’s a rare day when you make the Bruins look bad or even out-competed – since the start of last season (a span of 148 games) they’ve lost by three goals just six times (and just once more than that) – and only a single time this season. Their ‘compete level’ and defensive structure prevent games from (almost) ever getting out of hand. Only by exceeding their effort and drive does a team have a good shot at competing and defeating the defending champs.
3. Agitation, Baby!
The Bruins’ play outstanding when their dander is up. When they’re emotionally invested in a contest, they seem to find that next level that makes them almost unbeatable. However, emotion cuts both ways and when the B’s get too frustrated with an opponent they have a tendency to get undisciplined.
Case in point – the Bruins’ second loss this season to the ‘Canes, when the Bruins’ were repeatedly aggravated by Carolina’s agitation (and occasional unwillingness to drop the gloves) – which led to significant penalty minutes and two five-on-three goals against at the end of the game, turning a 2-1 barnburner into a 4-1 cruise control victory.
We’ve seen it dozens of times over the past few years. The Bruins’ aren’t afraid to play angry but if an opponent won’t drop the gloves, starts diving, or takes cheap (particularly un-penalized) shots at them, the B’s have the habit of taking undisciplined penalties which will give an opponent the opportunity to win.
Look at the Bruins recent history – when they’ve been able to duke it out (completely) versus opponents, they tend to utilize that energy from those battles to establish themselves and take home a “W”. However, when those pugilistic opportunities don’t present themselves, the B’s frustration is tangible and they seem frequently incapable of self-restraint.
So agitate like crazy, refuse to drop the gloves and profit.
4. Get Traffic in Front!
Boston takes care of much of this for their opponents. A key component in the Bruins’ defensive structure is clogging the lanes and falling back to defend against high-quality shots in the slot and just to the left and right of the crease. The Bruins’ will allow quite a few perimeter shots (only eight teams in the League allow more per game).
So getting shots through is vital (even then, the Bruins have the fewest blocked-shot totals in the NHL) but redirecting shots past two of the League’s premier goaltenders is often the only way to get on the board.
Take a look at the B’s most recent loss against the Hurricanes. Yes, the B’s denied shots (and quality shots), only allowing 20 against Tim Thomas on the evening. However, the Hurricanes were able to score three on the defending Vezina- and Conn Smythe-winner because of traffic and deflections which screened and fooled Thomas each time they tallied.
In fact, looking at the Hurricanes ten (non-empty-net) goals against the B’s and you’ll find that a significant majority came off of deflections and tips or with significant traffic obscuring the B’s ‘tenders sight lines.
5. Great Goaltending
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s far more significant than many realize. Cam Ward is one of the better netminders in the NHL and he seems to have eaten his Wheaties before each contest with the Bruins, allowing just five goals and running up a nasty .948 Sv%. It’s more than just numbers, Cam Ward stood on his head in each of Carolina’s three wins against the B’s.
Goalies have been pivotal to the Bruins’ demise in their thirteen losses this season. Only once have the Bruins scored three goals or more and lost a game in 2011-12 (last Saturday against Vancouver… they scored three.)
Netminders who were victorious against the B’s have sported a .957 save percentage while allowing less than 1.5 goals per game despite facing almost 34 shots on average in those contests.
While it goes without saying that a good performance in net is a key to victory every night in the NHL, teams facing the Bruins must rely even more heavily on their men between the pipes.
So there you have it. The lottery-bound ‘Canes have managed to beat the B’s three times in three opportunities because they got traffic to the net, forechecked like crazy, outworked the B’s in puck battles, agitated and got outstanding netminding.
Sure it’s a tall order (what would you expect when facing a team with a greater than 2-to-1 even-strength goals for/against ratio) but if the Hurricanes can do it (three times!) – Who can’t?
Bob is a Boston Bruins Correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He lives in the Boston Metro Area with his wife, Amanda and their five-year-old son, Cormac.