It’s the magic question, isn’t it?
Even at a win a side heading to Montreal for Tuesday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bruins have struggled mightily on special teams.
The power play, littered with scoring opportunities and absent execution, is without a goal in five attempts after finding the back of the net with relative ease against the Red Wings in the opening round (6-for-16, 37.5 percent) and, for that matter, throughout the regular season (20.5 percent).
The B’s have been able to compensate for lost chances and an inability to draw many calls in their favor by pummeling the Canadiens’ defense and goaltender Carey Price at even-strength with a 7-3 advantage five-on-five, an area they are clearly superior.
The penalty kill, however, has been a disaster. And that all stems from P.K. Subban.
In the face of racial bigotry from a loud and disgusting minority of anonymous cowards on social media, the Habs’ offensive-minded defenseman has kept his composure. He's said and done all of the things that make him among the most respected players off the ice in the NHL, and used his unique skill-set on it to pace Montreal’s power play to four goals in nine chances (after a miserable 2-for-36 slump). Subban has scored twice and assisted on two Thomas Vanek tips in front.
How to stop the gifted defenseman has become the question du jour. It’s not necessarily a terribly difficult one to answer, but it’s far tougher to put into practice.
On that subject, Boston coach Claude Julien and his players have been guilty of sounding like a Nickelback album. Different titles, same sound.
Track 1: Julien, “We’ve got to take away the shooting lane.”
Track 2: Dougie Hamilton, “We’ve got to stay out of the box.”
Track 3: Torey Krug, “He’s working with a lot of space.”
Track 4: Tuukka Rask, “We try to block shots…but he releases in an instant.”
You get the idea.
Subban is fast, mobile, and possesses a booming blast from the point or blue-line. On a power play unit with numerous weapons – like a big-bodied Vanek and his active stick in front – the plays are obviously designed through him. The best way to limit his opportunities, first and foremost, is clearly to stay out of the penalty box. No easy task in a place like the Bell Centre, where calls are often believed to go in the home team’s favor.
Perfection rarely exists. A minor infraction or two will probably be unavoidable, but foolish, lazy, unnecessary, frustration-driven penalties can be removed if the Bruins do a better job of keeping their composure (that includes on the bench, evidently) than they did at the Garden. It was one of the keys to the series going in and remains all the more so now after being largely ignored through the first two games. In short, they have to be smarter and less woe-is-me, especially away from the puck.
But, when the B’s do find themselves shorthanded, they’ll have to be willing to sacrifice the body more and get in front of shots (a la David Krejci in Game 2). Along with taking those necessary bruises and welts, they must position themselves in front of Subban – if they can’t deny him the puck altogether – to remove the shot and force the pass. That’s provided they can keep up with the speedy d-man and his lightning-quick release.
The amount of time Subban has received to work at points in the series has been inexcusable, but it’s also left young blue-liners like Krug and Hamilton marveling at their counterpart’s abilities.
"I've asked a couple of times how he gets so much time up top,” said Krug. “I feel like, personally, when I'm up there, I don't get as much time. It seems like he's working with a lot of space. It's nice to watch – well, it's not nice to watch – but from a learning perspective, you can learn a lot of things."
“He’s obviously really good and has good movement, good vision, and a really good shot, as well. I don’t know if we should try to pressure him or make sure we’re blocking his shots,” Hamilton said with a loss. “He’s pretty dangerous, so it’s something we have to look at and try to take away. He gets all his shots through and, the way he moves and passes; it’s pretty much a perfect way to run a power play.”
It’s been a game of chess. The Bruins allowed Subban the space to survey the landscape in the series-opener and he scored two goals by putting the puck just where he wanted to. They tried to clog the shooting lane in the second game and he still managed to pivot his position and set up two others. As Julien said, he’s kept defensemen on their heels. Now, it’s the B’s move again.
None of this is easy, nor is it new information to those in Boston’s dressing room. It’s simple to say, “We have to win face-offs, get clears, win battles, close off the shooting lanes, deny Subban the puck, put a body on him, block shots, take away the angles, prevent tip-ins,” or whatever else.
The Bruins achieved penalty-killing success in the regular season, when they held the Canadiens to just two goals in 17 power play chances. It’s not foreign territory as they, well, head to foreign territory.
Now it's just a matter of doing it again.
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