The Boston Bruins are just a couple of wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup and giving Boston yet another, and another, championship parade. Things have become so routine, Boston now refers to championship parades as duck boat season. But while some of the most envied sports fans in existence gear up for another celebration, how Boston has dominated the playoffs and the Final should serve as a stark reminder just how close the Pittsburgh Penguins are to competing on that level but how resistant they became.
As we’ve helped launch Boston Hockey Now, I’ve been particularly involved in the coverage of another Stanley Cup Final. I’ve done this once or twice. And one immutable fact from every Final is that other GMs are watching and plotting. The league both emulates the winning team and schemes to beat it. For example, beginning in 2016 the league as a whole lurched hard towards a speed movement and by 2017 physicality was added to it.
The NHL needed to compete with the Penguins and stop the Penguins.
The Bruins are not extraordinary in any one phase of the game. They skate well. They have skill. In the regular season, they didn’t block a high number of shots and in the playoffs, they’re still not one of the leaders in blocks per game. Nor are they a leader in hits per game.
So what gives and how can the Penguins learn from Boston?
Boston has adopted an aggressive team game. As their opponent has adjusted, so too have they. The greatest example is the adjustment from later in Game 2 to Game 3. St. Louis attempted to suffocate Boston with an aggressive forecheck. Boston struggled for much of Game 2 until later in the third period. That’s when the team breakout concept appeared.
At least four Bruins came back to the zone. Two of the first three goals scored by Boston in Game 3 included touches by at least four players. Little bumps. Long rim-arounds to change direction (rim-around is not a term I’d heard before Saturday night. Most play by play announcers would call it, “around the boards”) and whatever it took to move the puck forward.
Boston executed it beautifully. A team buy-in. Just take a look at this Bruins chalkboard piece from BHN.
Now, imagine a scenario in which the 2018-19 Penguins would score goals with four or five players touching the puck. Head coach Mike Sullivan tried. Through the middle of the season, one of his go-to phrases became “five-man game.”
He referred to specifically that type of assistance. Visually, it was obvious which players weren’t part of the five-man group. After the season as loose lips began to talk, we’ve learned that some of the players specifically bristled at the five-man game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins did have it for parts of the season. For brief stretches and fleeting moments, the Penguins showed flashes of being a powerhouse team, when forwards helped their defensemen and defensemen helped their forwards. But quickly, the chain would break and individual efforts became the norm.
Oops. Just look at where the Penguins could be.
Does anyone think the Boston Bruins are more talented than the Penguins? Or that the Bruins are more physical, faster or luckier? Nope. The Bruins have done what was necessary to win. They knocked out the offensive-minded Toronto Maple Leafs by playing with them and winning that type of game. They survived a fast skating, physical war with Columbus and suffocated the Carolina Hurricanes by taking away the dirty areas of the rink. Carolina wasn’t able to fight back and Boston coasted.
Individual talent has been combatted in this era with rigid structures and systemic play. Successful teams have talent within that structure but certainly not outside of it.
Boston has done nothing which the Penguins couldn’t have done. The Penguins simply wouldn’t do those things; most specifically the Penguins wouldn’t play the team game. Stanley Cup winners usually do at least one thing better than everyone else. In this case, perhaps Boston is better at being willing to do all things.
And as Pittsburgh Penguins trades loom, that team concept–which was already hinted at by GM Jim Rutherford in his postseason press conference–will be front and center. The league is adding layers. Speed–check. Physicality–check. Team game–?
It’s the Penguins move.