The Boston Bruins are going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years, and this time it’s on the back of Tuuka Raask. The Bruin goalie completed a series where he spearheaded a defensive effort that not only shut down the potent Pittsburgh attack, but in the final two games, Raask saved 77 of 78 shots. The kid from Finland came of age in this series, and he’s the biggest reason Boston is the champion of the Eastern Conference.
Boston’s 1-0 win in Game 4 was right out of the playbook in Game 3, a defensive grind, with neither team getting to the 30-shot threshold. Not until 15 minutes remained in the game, did Bruin defenseman Andrew McQuaid light the lamp.
Games like the last two Bruin wins have an element of luck to it, but it ultimately underscored Pittsburgh’s problem. The Penguins are not built to grind out wins. They’re a flashy offensive team that dazzles in the open ice, but they aren’t great defensively and while goalie Tomas Vokoun acquitted himself well in Games 3 & 4, he’s still inferior to most goalies that reach even the second round of the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby finally decided to at least get involved in the offense, and he took four shots last night. But of Pittsburgh’s 26 shots, the most were taken by defenseman Kris Letang. As has been said in previous installments of our NHL analysis, Letang is a terrific player and an excellent passer. When it comes to shooting, he’s about seventh on the list of Penguin players you want attacking the net and Raask’s great performance was certainly aided by the stellar job his team defense did at forcing Pittsburgh’s best weapons off the puck.
This result is going to be taken as a big upset. But how many more times do we have to watch playoff hockey to know that goaltending and defense are where it begins? Pittsburgh has shown obvious vulnerabilities here all year long, and the first time they met a genuinely tough opponent, the Pens crumbled.
CHICAGO LOOKS TO FOLLOW SUIT
Chicago got a clutch 3-2 win Game 4, the first time the Los Angeles Kings have lost on the road in this postseason, and the Blackhawks did it without defenseman Duncan Keith, suspended for a cheap shot he took in Game 3.
In the NHL analysis after that game, I noted how Los Angeles was getting help from unexpected sources like defenseman Slava Voynov. The pattern continued, as Voynov scored the first goal of Game 3. Chicago though, has found its own unlikely hero in forward Bryan Bickell. He’s been an offensive force all series, and he scored his team’s first goal and assisted on another that tied the game 2-2. If hockey was like baseball, where you have a League Championship Series MVP, Bickell would easily be the frontrunner for Chicago right now.
It was one of Chicago’s more predictable stars that delivered the game winner in the early moments of the third period. Marian Hossa broke the tie and the Blackhawk defense made it stand up. Los Angeles got the overall style of game they wanted—defense-oriented, with shots going 28-21 for Chicago. That’s manageable. But no matter how much defense you play, you can’ t justify only getting two shots on goal in the third period, particularly when you played from behind virtually the entire time. Jeff Carter got himself active, took five shots and had an assist, but Chicago is a more well-rounded team than Pittsburgh, able to compete and win this type of game, and the Blackhawks did it again in Game 4.
Game 5 will be tonight at 8 PM ET on NBC. If Chicago wins, TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will pop back in tomorrow to celebrate the victory. If Los Angeles extends the series, we’ll come back in Monday to look ahead to that night’s Game 6.