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Past two Cup champs different defense approaches

Friday, 10.14.2011 / 2:56 PM / NHL Insider

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Past two Cup champs different defense approaches
The truth is, there's no manual on how to go about repeating as champion in the NHL, and the varied approaches of the Bruins and Blackhawks -- who meet Saturday in Chicago -- displays that.
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When it comes to how a franchise goes about defending the Stanley Cup, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks are a study in contrasting styles and situations.

Those teams -- winners of the past two Cups -- will meet in what should be an entertaining contest Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) at the United Center. But it's fair to say there's very little, if anything, the defending-champion Bruins can learn from what the Blackhawks went through last season after winning the Cup in 2010.

Almost before Jonathan Toews' champagne-soaked uniform had time to dry, the Blackhawks were in the process of tearing apart the roster. GM Stan Bowman had no choice. With the team pressed against the salary cap, he was forced to make one tough decision after another about who would stay and who would leave.

Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd -- three key cogs in the championship -- were traded. That trio combined for 20 goals during the playoffs, but they all were on the verge of receiving well-deserved pay raises. Since leaving Chicago, they have signed new contracts that total nearly $60 million.

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Also lost that summer were Colin Fraser, John Madden, Adam Burish, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, all of whom had varying importance to the Cup run. But the biggest loss might've been between the pipes, when the Blackhawks let Antti Niemi leave.

Niemi, playing in his first season, went 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in the postseason. He bailed out the Blackhawks when Cristobal Huet was struggling, and without Niemi, it's doubtful the Stanley Cup would've returned to Chicago for the first time in 39 years.

But when an arbitrator awarded Niemi a $2.75 million contract, the Blackhawks opted to walk away from the offer and let him become an unrestricted free agent. He eventually signed with the San Jose Sharks and took them to within two games of the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Despite the dramatic shakeup, the Blackhawks were able to find their way into the postseason in 2011. They needed help on the final day of the season, and received it when the Dallas Stars lost to the Minnesota Wild to give the Blackhawks the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks lost in the first round in a Game 7 overtime to the Vancouver Canucks, but not before forcing the deciding game after falling into an 0-3 hole in the series.

What happens with the Bruins this season remains to be seen, but GM Peter Chiarelli had a far different blueprint during this summer than Bowman had a year prior.

Of their 16 leading regular-season scorers, the Bruins lost just two of them -- Michael Ryder to the Stars as a free agent and Mark Recchi to retirement. Blake Wheeler also was among their leaders at season's end, but he was part of a trade-deadline deal that brought the Bruins Rich Peverley, who just signed a three-year contract extension with the team.

Conversely, the Blackhawks lost five of their 16 leading scorers along with their No. 1 goaltender.

With Niemi gone, the Blackhawks handed the goaltending reins to veteran Marty Turco, who never got comfortable in Chicago. He eventually was supplanted by rookie Corey Crawford, who acquitted himself well and was a big reason the Blackhawks made the playoffs. In Boston, Tim Thomas is coming off a record-setting season. He led the League with a 2.02 goals-against average, set a single-season League record with a .938 save percentage, and won the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies.

And despite the Bruins' struggles in the early going this season, he's been sharp, posting a 2.02 GAA and .933 save percentage in three starts.

Despite all of this evidence showing the Blackhawks opened their defense with a vastly different team and the Bruins virtually have everyone back, they do have something in common -- a slow post-championship start.

The Blackhawks lost three of four at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, including their home opener. The Bruins have lost three of four to start this season, including their home opener.

Goaltending was the problem for the Blackhawks, as they allowed 13 goals in their first four games. For the Bruins, their seven goals scored in four games are the main reason for the 1-3-0 start.

There is no Stanley Cup owner's manual with a section that tells the team the best way to defend its title. GMs can bring back everyone or drop a neutron bomb in the locker room, and the results -- at least the early ones -- may be exactly the same.

But Chicago should be wary of the champs on Saturday -- after starting 1-3 last season, the Blackhawks ripped off four straight wins. If the script holds, the Bruins might use the former champs as a springboard toward defending the crown with a little more success.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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