After two consecutive grinding, defensive-oriented games, the ice opened up in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals last night in Boston, and the Chicago Blackhawks won a wide-open goalfest 6-5, as the series saw its third game go to overtime. Chicago evened the series two games apiece, and while reclaiming home ice doesn’t have the same impact in hockey that it does in the NBA, the Blackhawks can now win the Cup by winning Games 5 & 7 in front of their home fans in the Windy City.
CHICAGO IMPOSES ITS WILL
Chicago won this game for a simple reason—they imposed their style on the Bruins. I say “imposed”, because the Blackhawks won hustle battles to loose pucks, they were in better rebounding position for shots, and had their goaltender not suffered an off night, they would have won this one going away. The Blackhawks outshot the Bruins in regulation 41-28 and never trailed in the game.
The problems of the Blackhawks power play has been much discussed, and apparently head coach Joel Queeneville stumbled upon an innovative solution—if he couldn’t score on his own power play, he’d just do so on Boston’s. In the first obvious sign that Chicago was outskating Boston, the Blackhawks got a shorthanded goal in the first period when Brandon Saad beat everyone to a loose puck, created a breakaway and fed Michal Handzus for the goal.
This goal was noteworthy in another regard—of the six times Chicago lit the lamp, it was the only goal where I could say with any degree of conviction that Boston goalie Tuuka Raask maybe should have stopped. The Blackhawks continued to score through rebound opportunities—including one third-chancer where Raask, having already made two good saves was in no position to stop. And when Patrick Sharp got a rebound from a foot away in the third period, one was left to wonder where the Bruin defenseman were.
Furthermore, Chicago fought Boston to a virtual draw in faceoffs, winning 38 to Boston’s 39. Faceoffs in general are a somewhat overrated statistic. But for teams that play a defensive style winning them and securing possession of the puck is critical. Boston usually enjoys a big advantage in this category, and that was wiped out last night. The Blackhawks can win without dominating faceoffs. The Bruins cannot.
Chicago got good production from its defenseman last night, taking away another customary advantage Boston usually enjoys. Duncan Keith, always a solid player, had an assist. Michal Rozsival had two assists, and Brent Seabrook scored the winning goal. Seabrook, you may recall, scored the overtime goal that won Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. Clearly he’s someone to keep an eye on in the extra session.
It’s not that Boston is incapable of playing an up-tempo game. The fact this went to overtime and the Bruins had some good chances to win in the early part of OT bear witness to that. But there’s no question that the style favors Chicago. We’ve had two low-scoring games in these Finals and the Bruins have won both. We’ve had a moderately scoring game (4-3) and a high-scoring shootout last night. Chicago has won both. Not only is this an obvious pattern, but it’s one that could have been easily predicted by watching these teams play hockey over the last three or four years.
BOSTON’S NUGGETS IN DEFEAT
I’ve been tough on the Bruins, in part because I’m a frustrated fan of the team, but also because everything above is true. They were beaten to pucks consistently. But you don’t go to overtime against the best team in hockey during the regular season without doing some good things, and the Bruins had their high points and heroes.
The power play for Boston continues to play at its highest level…well, probably since the days of Phil Esposito and Johnny Orr in the 1970s. No, I’m not suggesting it’s that good, but this is not an area the Bruins have generally enjoyed success in. But Patrice Bergeron scored with the man advantage last night, as did Rich Peverley. This is now four power play goals, scored in three separate games against the penalty-kill unit that had been the best during the playoffs. If Boston does anything at all close to this, and can return the style to its defensive grind, they can win two of the final three games and take home the Cup.
And in spite of the high goal totals, I thought Raask generally outplayed his counterpart, Chicago’s Corey Crawford. As mentioned, Chicago had at least four, and possibly five goals, that couldn’t have been stopped without shrinking the size of the net. Whereas I felt that had Crawford just played a competent game, there would have been little drama. Playoff hockey success starts with goaltending, and if Raask can continue to outplay Crawford, the Bruins have a good chance.
It’s time for a couple days off, as the teams fly back to Chicago for Game 5 on Saturday night (8 PM ET, NBC). TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis comes back on Sunday, when we know who’s going to be one win from the Cup.