The Bruins’ ability to impose their physical forecheck versus the Blackhawks’ lightning-speed transition game will be the deciding factor -- I believe, anyway -- in which club holds Lord Stanley’s mug within this fortnight.
“That’s the whole battle in that series,” agreed an NHL head coach who spoke to ESPN.com on the condition of anonymity Tuesday. “The Bruins got right on top of the Penguins' defense. You have to get right on top of the Chicago blue line and pound them in order to slow them down. They like the stretch pass.”
The Bruins forecheck like few other teams in the NHL, and I think the Penguins would agree on that. On the other hand, the Blackhawks just beat a heck of a forechecking team in the Los Angeles Kings, who indeed play a similar style to Boston's.
So, I asked Bruins winger Shawn Thornton, whose amazing fourth line redefines the word forecheck, how the B’s can do to Chicago what L.A. could not?
“It’s a hell of question,” Thornton said Tuesday. “I think these guys have as mobile a D-corps as there is. Putting pucks into areas where you might usually get them back -- that might not work against these guys.
"I honestly do not have the answer. Other than I think we’re built a bit differently. I’m sure there’s similarities between us and L.A. -- big forwards that can play heavy on the puck and stuff like that -- but these guys are not going to be easy to forecheck on, you’re right. It’s going to be a tough task. But for us to have success, we’re going to have to figure out a way.”
I think Thornton was being a little humble there, much of which was also the Bruins’ tact before playing Pittsburgh.
Believe me, the Bruins know what they need to do to the Blackhawks’ defense, and they intend to pound away.
All of which puts a lot of pressure on Chicago’s blue-line corps to quickly turn pucks around and launch the transition game in a hurry -- before there are Bruins players busting down their door.
“That’s what makes our D-corps good, is by moving the puck quickly to our forwards and getting our forwards moving with speed, getting the puck to them in good situations,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “I think there’s a challenge there, whether they’re going to sit back or whether they’re going to forecheck, we still have to get the puck to our forwards and try to get them in good areas with the puck.”
It’s about timely precision.
“We have to connect with passes, we have to come with speed, we have to play our game,” Seabrook said. “It’s worked throughout the season and throughout the playoffs. When we play our game, we have an opportunity to win."
Yes, but let’s remember which team Boston just shut down. The Penguins boast just as much offensive skill as the Blackhawks.
“They’re a big, strong, physical team, much like L.A.,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said of the Bruins. “They can skate, they can move, they can make plays just as any team in the league. It’s going to be a tough task. You see what they’ve done in their playoff run now, shutting teams down. The way they’re playing well defensively, it’s going to make for a tough series.”
This is where it’s going to be interesting to see the chess game between Bruins coach Claude Julien and Hawks bench boss Joel Quenneville. Will there be wrinkles in each other’s game plan to help get an edge in this all-too-important facet of their matchup?
If so, Julien was careful not to reveal too much Tuesday.
“Well, I don't think it's necessarily about slowing them down and sitting back, trying to take away their ice,” Julien said. "It's more about making sure we close quickly. I think that's what we did against Pittsburgh, we tried to close quickly.
"At the same time, closing quickly is one thing, but having numbers back -- we know they've got a great transition game. We certainly have to be aware of that.”
The Hawks know what’s coming. They feel they proved against a rugged championship Kings team that they can take a hit to make a play. But that doesn’t change who they are.
“It doesn’t really change the preparation; we still have to stick to our game plan and play our game,” Hawks veteran center Michal Handzus said. “We can’t look too much to our opponent. We got here because of our play. We have to play to our strengths. Obviously, there will be adjustments along the way, but we still have to have our main focus on how we’re going to play.”