Strength in the middle Boston's blueprint for success

Tuesday, 06.18.2013 / 5:02 PM
Corey Masisak  - Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It is a simple plan, but not the easiest to execute: Teams in most sports want to be strong in the middle of the playing surface.

For baseball teams, it is about defense up the middle -- catcher, shortstop, center field. In soccer, successful clubs look for strength in central defense and central midfield, and build out from there. A basketball team with an elite center is almost by default a playoff contender.

This idea works in hockey as well, and the past two Stanley Cup champions have adhered to a similar blueprint. Find a goalie. Find an elite defenseman (or two). Find an elite center (or two). Figure the rest out.

The 2013 Boston Bruins look a lot like the 2011 edition that won the Cup. They have replaced Tim Thomas with Tuukka Rask, but otherwise the key components to the backbone of their stifling defense -- center Patrice Bergeron and defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg -- remain the same.

It is a group of elite defenders similar to the one that helped the Los Angeles Kings to the Cup in 2012 -- goaltender Jonathan Quick, defensemen Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell and center Mike Richards.

While the 2011 group faced talented offensive players like the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux, the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, and the Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, what these Bruins have done to the two best offensive clubs in the NHL to this point might be even more impressive.

After defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 in Game 3 on Monday night at TD Garden, the Bruins lead the 2013 Stanley Cup Final two games to one and are two wins from another championship.

The Pittsburgh Penguins led the NHL in goals this season. They scored twice in four games against the Bruins. The Blackhawks were second and, after a strong Game 1, have one goal in the past two contests.

"I think every year you have to look at it differently," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "I think we've had the challenge of playing teams like Vancouver, Pittsburgh this year, Chicago now, that I just say we have a tremendous amount of respect for their offense. All it is, is awareness, knowing if you're going to give yourself a chance to win, you've got to try to slow down that offense. Our guys have committed to that.

"That doesn't mean we haven't provided any offense, because the scoring chances are there, but there's a great commitment to that right now. That's what we've did two years ago, that's what we've done so far, and that's what we've got to continue to do if we expect to continue to win."

The commitment to defense starts with the trio of Bergeron, Chara and Seidenberg. Bergeron won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward last season and finished second to Chicago's Jonathan Toews this year.

Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and was a finalist in 2008, 2011 and 2012. He and Seidenberg typically skate on different pairings during the regular season, but Julien always comes back to them as his go-to duo in the postseason, and they have been dynamite in their own end.

Other players fall in line as well, but starting a defense-first team with one of the top defensive centers and two of the best defensemen in their own end is a perfect marriage of personnel and philosophy.

"[Bergeron] is by far the best two-way centerman in the League," Boston forward Brad Marchand said. "He proves it night in and night out how special he is as a two-way guy. [Seidenberg] and [Chara] -- you can't say enough about them. They play so many minutes every night and do so many good things. They are tough for every guy that comes up against them. It is going to be a pain. We're very lucky to have those guys."

Like Richards for Los Angeles, Bergeron is by official denomination the No. 2 center for the Bruins. In reality, he's one of the best at the position in the League.

The Bruins rate highly in advanced statistics that measure puck possession, and Bergeron has always been one of the team's leaders in that category.

That Julien can put his line on the ice against the opposing team's top forwards and he, Marchand and Jaromir Jagr (or Tyler Seguin in the past) still post strong possession stats is a testament to Bergeron's defensive awareness and complete skill set.

"He's a great player all around. He's so dangerous because he does everything right," Marchand said. "He's always there to support you. He's always coming back hard. He's frustrating to play against for opponents because he's always taking away the passing lane and in your face. He's playing great. He's creating opportunities in every game, has a couple goals.

If Bergeron is a thorn in the side of the opposition on the ice, it doesn't show off it. He's always polite with the media and when discussing his foes, sometimes to a fault.

"He's the nicest guy in the world. He always wants to help you out. [Forward Shawn Thornton] is not wrong -- he's just the perfect guy," Marchand said.

When pressed on the matter, Marchand responded, "If you have a daughter, he's the kind of guy you want dating your daughter."

Chara and Seidenberg complement each other and squeeze the will out of opposing offensive players. At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds with a stick taller than many NHL players, Chara can both befuddle and intimidate.

He doesn't always play with a physical edge, but the fear that he will can sometimes be enough. Players look for different ways to go by him and are often left trying to figure out why they don't have the puck anymore.

"It is amazing how he's such a big guy, but he's so mobile from his size," Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. "You look at other big guys around the League and they might not really move that well, but [Chara] never gets beat wide or anything like that. It is not just because of his size. It is also because of his feet. He's always working on that and takes a lot of pride in it."

Seidenberg, with a clean-shaven head and bulging biceps, looks more like a mixed martial arts fighter than a hockey player. Ask five different players about him and the responses all sound about the same.

Popular words used to describe Seidenberg include "strong," "physical" and … well, mostly more variations of those two.

"He's a warrior," Marchand said. "He's a guy that a lot of guys hate to play against. He's very strong, very physical."

Julien said, "Every year in the playoffs, he becomes a horse, as well. You can't tire him out. He wears guys down. He's strong physically. You can give him as much ice time as you do to Zdeno. He's capable of handling that."

Those three form the foundation of Boston's defense, and Rask completes a new black-and-gold Steel Curtain of sorts. When Thomas posted a .9399 save percentage in 25 playoff games in 2011, it was hailed as one of the best goaltending performances in Stanley Cup Playoffs history.

Quick followed that by registering a .9461 save percentage in 20 games last spring -- the best by any goalie in playoff history with more than seven contests played. Well, after Rask collected his third shutout in the past seven games Monday night in Game 3, his save percentage is now at .9463.

If there was a way to incorporate a quality of competition element, Rask and the Bruins shutting down teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks would rate higher than the New Jersey Devils and Phoenix Coyotes for the Kings last season -- and even Tampa Bay and Vancouver in 2011.

"It is the commitment level we have to playing defense," Krug said. "One guy gets beat and there is another guy there waiting to step in. I think the commitment to block shots, no matter how you do it, as well. Then obviously Tuukka makes our defense a little bit better.

"It is a defense-first mentality. That goes a long way. It shows that the way we play and we're not too risky plays. Guys are always conscious of the defense, and I think that is important to our success."

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