By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins are undefeated in the playoffs when they win what Bruce Cassidy describes as the “slot battle”. So in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues, it’s key to get back to their winning ways in that all-important area.
It remains pretty self-explanatory that you want to play better and more often in the slot than your opponent. It’s also easier said than done. But the results are simply too strong to ignore. The Bruins are now 9-0 in the 2019 playoffs when they get more 5-on-5 “high-danger scoring chances” (per Natural Stat Trick) than the other team, and 3-5 when they lose that battle.
They absolutely dominated that area of the ice at both ends in Game 1, where they generated six 5-on-5 high-danger chances against just one for the Blues. But St. Louis turned the tables somewhat in Game 2, in which they won the 5-on-5 high-danger chance battle 11-8.
But the Blues also out-shot the Bruins 37-23 in Game 2, indicating a quantity-over-quality approach in their 3-2 overtime win. The game was mostly about the Blues adjusting their defense and thus dominating in their own end. So the key for the Bruins in the slot battle will come down to how they re-adjust on offense.
Getting there is the goal, and much of it is finding space and winning puck battles just to spark a good possession. The Bruins’ bottom-six forwards had their ways, even in Game 2. Hopefully, Patrice Bergeron & Co. can glean something from their performance for Game 3 and beyond.
The below example shows what led to Joakim Nordstrom’s first-period goal that put the Bruins up 2-1. With the Blues overloaded to the strong side, Noel Acciari simply chips the puck to the other side where Nordstrom can retrieve it in open space and fire it deep for a solid zone entry. This took the Blues out of their defensive structure, which at its best walled off the Bruins from the middle of the ice.
From there, the fourth line’s forecheck took over and got the Blues chasing a breakout. Nordstrom eventually cuts off David Perron’s desperation attempt and gets it deep again, then catches Alex Pietrangelo watching the puck to reach the slot. Acciari and Kuraly win their battles until Kuraly finds Nordstrom in front, and No. 20 lights the lamp.
Here’s another example from the third line of Marcus Johansson, Charlie Coyle, and Danton Heinen. It didn’t result in a goal, but it showed how the line was able to find opportunities in the slot area. This one started with Johansson pressuring the point into a turnover. Heinen gathers the loose puck and crisscrosses with Johansson through the neutral zone, which slightly freezes the defense and at least makes them think for a moment. The Blues need to account for Matt Grzelcyk on the rush, which frees up Heinen to slip into the low slot. A shot attempt closer to the net-front would have been trouble for St. Louis.
Cassidy remarked last Monday that while he’s not a huge analytics guy (and neither are the players), he does put a lot of stock into advanced stats that indicate slot success. He has coached accordingly and the Bruins literally haven’t lost when they’ve out-performed the opponent in that area.
“I do believe that teams that control the slot battle – and I think that’s eye test, too, but the numbers really back that up – win the majority of the games,” Cassidy said. “I think for me, it’s you keep them out of the prime scoring area, you get to the prime scoring area. That’s a big determiner. So we constantly look at that area.”
The B’s success in the slot is also predicated on the defensive end. But they’ve been better at limiting the Blues in the slot than creating opportunities of their own on offense. The Blues’ only goals in Game 1 came off sloppy breakouts and egregious mental errors by the Bruins.
Other than that, the Bruins kept everything to the outside and the point, as this “heat map” of 5-on-5 shot attempts from Game 1 shows. The blue indicates that the majority of the Blues’ attempts came from the right point:
The B’s also need to get back to what they did in Game 1 on defense, but this is more about the offense. Especially from the top-six forwards. The Bergeron line needs to make smarter decisions with the puck and win battles with their superior speed, much like the bottom-six have.
All that needs to be known is in these playoffs, if the Bruins win the slot they win the game. If and when they surge back to success in that department, they’ll make life harder for the Blues than they did in the first two games.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.