Monday, April 4, 2011

The Big Bad Bruins Are Back

As the playoffs approach in every sport, fans consider which teams they would least like to face this postseason.  There are a few such teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference right now.  The Flyers have sat atop the standings for most of the season with their scoring depth, solid blue line, and strong duo in net.  The Capitals always threaten to break out with their fire power.  The Pittsburgh Penguins have more star players injured than most teams have at all, and yet they continue to win with strong team play.  But sitting in third place, with 99 points and having clinched their division, the Boston Bruins are beginning to look like the kind of physical and scrappy team you definitely don't want to play in the first round.  This is especially true for the Montreal Canadiens if they continue to cling to sixth place.

Take note, the Boston Bruins are
surging into the playoffs
In the recent meeting between Montreal and Boston, the Bruins scored a touchdown's worth of goals against the Habs, while Tim Thomas posted his eighth shutout of the season that night.  In the previous meeting, on March 8th, the Bruins lost to Montreal, but Boston captain Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty left the latter with broken vertebrae, and led to the city of Montreal initiating a criminal investigation into Chara.  Chara was cleared by the league, and in March 24th's 7-0 victory, the Bruins made it clear that they can also channel their aggressive play into copious goal scoring. So why is Boston such a dangerous matchup? Let's take a look at the numbers...

Boston has had a streaky but successful season.  But over their last seven games they have gone 5-1-1, for 11 of a possible 14 points.  So what can this success be attributed to? Let's begin with goaltending.  Tim Thomas is probably on his way to his second Vezina Trophy in three years.  Through 52 starts, Thomas has a 33-10-9 record with 1.98 goals against average and a .939 save percentage.  The next best goaltender in the league, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, is averaging 2.13 goals against per game and saving 92.9% of the shots he has faced.  Over these last 7 games, Thomas has started 5 of them.  In those five starts, Thomas has record two one goal games and two more shutouts.  Furthermore, Boston doesn't have a backup goalie, what they really have is another starting goalie just waiting for his opportunity for Thomas' role to pass to him.  Tuukka Rask made a name for himself last season, with a 1.97 GAA and .931 SV% in 39 starts and by taking the Bruins to the Conference Semifinals (before their disastrous collapse at the hands of the Flyers).  This year, Rask hasn't put up quite the numbers he did last year, but it can be hard for a goalie to get the same kind of edge and confidence in only 26 starts.  He still has a respectable 2.66 GAA and .918 SV% this season.  His most recent loss, a 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers on March 26, can hardly be blamed on him, as he only allowed one goal on 23 shots.

As far as some of the other categories by which we evaluate Boston's recent success, the most revealing are shots taken and faceoff winning percentage.  Over this seven game span, Boston has outshot its opponents in five of these games, by an average of 7.4 shots per game.  The Bruins have also take at least 30 shots in 5 of these 7 games as well, including a whopping 41 shots in their 7-0 shellacking of Montreal.  The best way to score goals is to just get pucks on net, and this Boston club seems to have really taken that message to heart.  As far as faceoffs go, the Bruins have won more than 50% of their faceoffs in five of these seven games, and only in one game did they win fewer than 48% of them.  In fact, over the past seven games, they have won an average of 54.9% of their faceoffs.

As an example of their recent success, let's take a closer look at the Montreal game again.  In that game, the Bruins record 12 takeaways and only 6 giveaways.  Although the Habs had a respectable 11 takeaways themselves, they also gave the puck away 12 times.  As far as faceoffs go, the Bruins were over 50% in every zone.  They won 53.8% in the offensive zone, 55.6% in the neutral zone, and an impressive 69.6% in their defensive zone.  One of the offensive zone faceoff wins led directly to a goal (McQuaid's at 4:29 of the third period).  For Montreal, losing nearly 70% of their offensive zone faceoffs is one good indication of their scoring frustration in this game.  They only managed 24 shots, to Boston's 41.  With the exception of Andrew Ference, every single Bruins skater recorded at least one shot on goal.

Although in some ways an exceptional game in its lopsidedness, the stats from this match do illustrate why the Bruins have been such a difficult team to play coming down the stretch.  In fact, the guys over at Broad Street Hockey gave me the idea for this in the first place after the Flyers loss to Boston, where they reported about giveaways in that game.  The Eastern Conference is pretty wide open among the top four or five teams, and Boston is definitely one of the teams that will prove a real challenge as the playoffs progress.

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