By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the Bruins are going to keep most of their defense together as Zdeno Chara approaches the end, they'll be in very good hands.
Chara's absence in Game 4 against the Hurricanes may have sounded alarms if the Bruins weren't up 3-0 in a lopsided series against a clearly inferior opponent. But credit is still due for a shutdown performance by a shorthanded defense in shutting out a desperate Hurricanes team. And the most powerful young guns led the way on the blue line.
The keys to their defensive dominance were speed and clean breakouts. They achieved those outlet passes with precision and patience. And it was consistent from top to bottom. Even the pairing of John Moore and Connor Clifton made it tough for Carolina to establish any kind of forecheck, wiping out their best known tactic with relative ease.
Paired with Matt Grzelcyk in Chara's place, McAvoy suddenly found himself with a partner who can keep up with him in the skating department. Grzelcyk is smart with the puck when he's on top of his game and he put his cranium to good use with crisp breakout passes through the neutral zone. He wasn't afraid to muck it up when forecheckers engaged him in the corners, either.
Torey Krug stood out with his particularly smart puck management, which wasn't always clean in the first two rounds. Thursday night found a sharper, more patient Krug protecting the puck in his own zone as he waited for the right opportunities to break out. It's unclear what the future holds for Krug beyond next season, the final year of his contract. But he's certainly reached an impressive level playing on a pair with Brandon Carlo, directly impacting his second trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
To Krug there was nothing outrageous about the Bruins' adjustments without Chara. They just played their game confidently. It sure looked that way.
"We don’t need any superheroes back there to step in," Krug said after the game. "It’s just about playing good solid hockey and our systems will take over and we’ll eventually win. We have a great goaltender that backstops us and gives us a lot of confidence. Like I said before, no superheroes. Just good solid plays and we’ll be OK."
The Bruins found a way to beat the Hurricanes' aggressive two-man forecheck, though. Even with Moore and Clifton. In one striking sequence in the second period, Moore absorbed both forecheckers before flipping a backhand pass behind the net at the last second. Already in pursuit, Clifton was left all alone for an easy breakout.
Swapping Chara out for Moore clearly resulted in an uptick in speed on defense, which allowed the Bruins to spend minimal time in their own end. But losing the captain also docked them in terms of size. That's where Brandon Carlo once again looked like a torch-taker.
Carlo routinely used his 6-foot-5 frame and length to keep Hurricanes forwards to the outside, or blanket them whenever they got near the net. His size allowed him at times to beat both forecheckers for breakouts up the half boards. He's also underrated as a skater and often retrieved pucks for quick exits sparked all by himself.
And yet, sometimes the Bruins did have to play actual defense in their own end. That worked out too, thanks in part to some tenacious shot-blocking. The Hurricanes held an empty advantage in 5-on-5 shot attempts, 54-40 (57.5 percent). But that edge shrunk to 31-26 (54.39 percent) in unblocked shot attempts (per Natural Stat Trick). The Bruins blocked 23 shots total, 11 from the defense.
It still gets worse for Carolina. Shots on goal? A mere 24-23 advantage. And the most damning number of them all is high-danger scoring chances. The Bruins had seven of those in 5-on-5, compared to just two for the Canes. The closer the game got to the net, the better it got for the Bruins.
All this math adds up to a stifling performance by the Bruins defense, extinguishing forechecks with their transition game and suppressing legitimate chances when they needed to. And they did it all without their captain and defensive stalwart from the past decade-plus. But as McAvoy explained after the game, it's not like Chara wasn't there at all. His father-figure authority as captain helped them play their best hockey.
"He’s always with us regardless. We saw his face there before the game. He just kind of has that presence," McAvoy said. "He just dials everybody in and we all sharpen up a bit when he stands up and we see him. Obviously he couldn’t be out there with us, but we’re playing for him and we’re playing for Wags [Chris Wagner] and Millsy [Kevan Miller] and the guys who couldn’t be with us tonight due to injury.
"Just crazy to think that we closed this thing out and we're going to the Stanley cup Final."
Ideally, Chara is in there and logging big minutes (especially in strong defensive situations) over Moore in the next round. But if and when No. 33 does decide to hang them up, the Bruins better have a plan in place to keep the likes of McAvoy, Carlo, and others around long-term.
Because after a years-long on-the-fly rebuild, it appears that the Bruins have collected a core of defenders built for the modern NHL who are ready to contend at the highest levels.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].