Number cruncher : Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Bruins?

Tuesday, 29.04.2014 / 3:45 PM canadiens.com

MONTREAL – A stats-based look at what matters in the Montreal-Boston series.

There are many noteworthy attributes about the 2013-14 edition of the Boston Bruins, a team which finished first overall in the NHL with 117 regular season points. Despite their reputation, however, this year’s Bruins squad did not get to the top of the standings by out-hitting or out-brawling all comers. Looking at its roster, we see a club anchored by a well-balanced offensive core featuring five 20-goal scorers, a skilled and battle-hardened defensive unit and one of the best goalies in the world in Tuukka Rask. What we have here, then, is simply a very good hockey team with few weaknesses.

Fortunately for the Habs, they head into Round Two well rested and with the confidence associated with beating the Bruins three times in four tries this year. Here are the four difference-makers in what is sure to be a hard-fought series.

Cantankerous Canadiens

Did you know that, during the regular season, the Canadiens averaged 13.0 penalty minutes per game while Boston only averaged 10.8? All in all, Montreal finished the season as the fifth-most penalised team in the league, eleven spots ahead of Boston. The Bruins did finish the 82-game season with more fighting majors, but its 46-43 edge in that aspect is not as significant as the average observer would have suspected.

In terms of going shoulder-to-shoulder, the Bruins were ranked 12th in the NHL during the regular season, logging 2008 hits in 82 games. For their part, the Habs were 20th with 1722. That’s only about 3.5 fewer hits per game. If “an eye for an eye” becomes the name of the game at any point in the series, then Habs fans shouldn’t be too worried about their team keeping pace.

Playoff tough

When it comes to the postseason, an effective way to measure how tenacious and “difficult to play” a team is, is how well their star players can take a licking and keep on ticking. Like with an NFL running back, the greatness of an offensive-minded player is best measured with his ability to shake off a body blow while making a big play.

Through four playoff games against the Lightning, the Habs’ top five-on-five unit (Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Thomas Vanek, P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges) have 27 hits between them while being hit a combined 45 times. It may seem bad at first glance, but it’s worth noting that a player can only be hit when he has the puck; those players controlled the puck nearly 60% of the time during the first round victory over Tampa Bay. Especially noteworthy is the composure of Josh Gorges, who was targeted a team-high 16 times by Lightning forecheckers.

It’s a similar story for the Boston Bruins. Their best-performing five-man unit against Detroit (Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Reilly Smith, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara) was out-hit 29-46 in five games by the Wings.

Force on force

As the NHL’s number-three ranked powerplay team in the regular season, Claude Julien’s Bruins have been well-served by staying disciplined and provoking the other team into visiting the sin bin. A key part of Boston’s success on the man advantage is Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic’s ability to create chaos in front of the net, allowing Torey Krug and David Krejci to direct traffic from the point and opening up Jarome Iginla for his one-timer from the left sideboard. Quantitatively, this setup produced a prolific 56.9 shots per 60 minutes (fifth highest five-on-four shooting rate in the NHL) in the 82-game regular season and a league-best 78.4 shots/60 minutes in the first round against the Red Wings.

Meanwhile, the Habs have experienced success on their penalty kill in 2013-14 by also managing shot counts. The league’s fourth-stingiest PK team has only allowed 47.9 shots per hour while playing four-on-five in the regular season (eighth-lowest rate in the NHL) and limited the Tampa Bay Lightning to one goal on 5 shots at four-on-five in the first round.

Two-headed monsters

With the Canadiens playing some of their best five-on-five hockey of the season and the Bruins rolling along as well, a couple of timely goals could prove to be the difference between a pass to the Conference Finals and a trip to the golf course. As the last line of defense for the Habs, Carey Price has put up a fine 0.934 save percentage in five-on-five play this year (third among NHL starters). Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask has done even better for the Bruins, saving 94.2% of all shots faced at even strength to lead the league.

In conclusion…

If the Habs can stay out of the box, skate through the punishment and outshoot the Bruins by four every game (which will serve to bridge the gap between Price and Rask’s save percentages), then good things are about to happen.

Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.

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