By Stu Hackel
When it comes to coaching in the Stanley Cup playoffs, you can’t underestimate the importance of making adjustments before and during games. That was a big part of the Eastern Conference Finals opener between the Bruins and Lightning, a 5-2 Tampa Bay win, and it will be also be a big part of Game 2 tonight in Boston.
Now trailing 1-0 in the series after being thoroughly outplayed for almost the entire game, Bruins coach Claude Julien has had two full days to mull over what he saw and fix it. He’s got lots to address: his team’s poor execution and inability to get much sustained pressure in the offensive zone, how to counter Tampa Bay’s various forechecking systems, and how to improve Boston’s special teams play. It seemed for much of Game 1 that the B’s were in over their heads. You can expect a better effort in Game 2.
The Bruins may be further hampered by not having Milan Lucic at 100 percent, and Patrice Bergeron may be out as well. The Boston Globe reported that Lucic didn’t take part in the B’s morning skate and was limping when he left the building on his way to the team lunch. Julien said Lucic would be in the lineup.
With or without Lucic at his best, the Bruins are going to have to figure out how to (as Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma is fond of saying) “get to their game” and that means putting the puck behind the Lightning defenders and establishing some attack zone time, as well as getting pucks and bodies to the net and making life hard for Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson. They’ll have to engage their physical game much more than they did in Game 1.
But that’s not going to happen often enough to make a difference if the Bruins continue having troubles in their own end. For one thing, the B’s will have to improve their reads of Tampa Bay’s forecheck and have some sort of plan for quick exits out of their own zone for when they recognize the Lightning are coming hard at them.
The coach who successfully adjusted for Game 1 was Tampa Bay’s Guy Boucher. He knew that the whole world was anticipating his team would play its 1-3-1 system, which it had used so well against Washington in the second round. But perhaps because the Bruins are not as fast as the Capitals nor as good with the puck, Boucher used a more aggressive forecheck to cause turnovers in Boston’s zone rather than trying to slow and cut the Bruins down in the neutral zone.
After the game, Julien said his team wasn’t surprised by that adjustment. “The one thing we know is they use the 1-3-1, they use the 1-2-2. They vary, period, shifts. They do that all the time,” he said. “Their goal is to try to throw us off. But we knew coming into the series they alternate and we were ready for that.”
Well, they may have known it was coming, but they didn’t act like they were ready for it. In Tampa Bay’s first period offensive explosion — three goals in 85 seconds that effectively put the game out of reach for Boston — two were caused by the aggressive forecheck, getting in Boston’s face deep in the zone with the B’s not having a good exit strategy to offset that pressure (or perhaps not having quick enough hands, feet and heads to execute the strategy).
Here’s the Lightning’s first goal, and it’s a good illustration of the B’s not being ready for what’s coming at them.
Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg chases the shoot-in, but Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie is right on him. Seidenberg tries to reverse the puck off the boards behind him and Downie, but there’s no one from Boston to pick it up. The only player there is Tampa Bay’s second forechecker, Dominic Moore. Seidenberg’s better option would have been to throw it behind the net where either his partner, Zdeno Chara, or the weak-side winger should have been. But it’s Tampa Bay that retrieves the puck and goes to work. Plus, Downie’s check on Seidenberg into the endboards forces him to lose his stick.
The Lightning pass it around, get it to the net and in the scramble that ensues, Seidenberg is forced to kick at the puck to get it away from the crease, but it goes right to Sean Bergenheim who opens the scoring.
The second Lightning goal (video) revealed a Boston team in shock: Brett Clark just skating unmolested down the ice past a quartet of Bruins and backhanding a shot past Tim Thomas. With that kind of support in front of him, Thomas has to be flawless and he wasn’t in Game 1.
On Tampa Bay’s third goal, Tomas Kaberle, whose play has been a huge disappointment for Boston, gets totally confused about what to do with the puck behind the net. Teddy Purcell strips it from him and pokes it behind Thomas.
Kaberle is most obviously at fault, but he doesn’t really have any safe options with Purcell bearing down on him so quickly. He is clearly not ready for that and neither are his teammates, who are not in position to get a quick pass in the face of the aggressive forecheck.
The Bruins’ power play has been a sore point all season and another area where they have to make changes against Tampa Bay’s outstanding penalty kill. Here’s an area where critics of Julien’s reluctance to make either pregame or in-game adjustments have a point. There are some very talented players on Boston’s roster, but they don’t do much with the man advantage. It’s been far too predictable, almost always shooting the puck in and not winning enough races to retrieve it. They’re going to have to vary their entries because Boucher has Tampa Bay ready for them. And when the B’s did get to the puck, they had difficulty maneuvering for good shots because the Lighting were in the shooting and passing lanes.
Some have called for Chara to be moved in front of the net on the power play — and his huge body would be a terrific distraction for Roloson and his defenders. But Julien prefers Chara blasting 100-plus mph slap shots from the point, which makes sense if they are resulting in goals. They’re not. They’re getting blocked or going wide when he gets them off.
After rookie Tyler Seguin scored a terrific goal later in the first period to give Boston a little life (video), many expected him to see some power-play time. Seguin was in the lineup because of Bergeron’s absence and was the best Bruin on the ice in Game 1, but he didn’t get any time on the man advantage and Julien, likely tired of questions about his power play, would not comment afterward on why that was the case.
But not only didn’t Julien use Seguin on the power play, he hardly used him at all, even though Seguin seemed like the only player in black and gold with live legs after the Lightning struck. Julien praised his performance after the game, but following his goal, Seguin was on the bench for 15 minutes before he saw the ice again. He played less than two minutes in the second period. Julien spoke between games about the need to bring Seguin along slowly, that he was a young player who could be overwhelmed on the big stage, and the coach pointed to the Flyers’ use of James van Riemsdyk, who Philly sometimes made a healthy scratch but now could be on the fast track to having a consistent impact.
On TSN, however, analyst Aaron Ward remarked that Julien likes to rely on experienced players. Ward, who played for him, called Julien “a great coach, but a stubborn coach.” Seguin certainly didn’t look overwhelmed in Game 1, but Julien wasn’t looking his way. It appears as if Seguin could see more ice if Bergeron remains out for Game 2. Seguin practiced with the power play units on Monday and perhaps Julien and his staff will elevate his minutes at full strength, too.
Of course, no one is an adequate replacement for Bergeron, whose three-zone play and faceoff prowess may not be available until the series shifts to Tampa Bay. Boucher said, however, he is preparing his team for Bergeron being in the lineup tonight, just as he did for Game 1.
One other change that would serve the Bruins well would be keeping their discipline. Johnny Boychuk’s roughing minor for throwing a punch in the third period was retaliation on Vinny Lecavalier (video), who had objected to Boychuk’s hit on Simon Gagne. The penalty led to a power play goal, but everyone knows the referees often get the retaliatory foul.
And the nonsense at the end of the game, when both Nathan Horton and Lucic took turns sucker-punching Moore and Victor Hedman (video), may appease some of the Bruins faithful, but Boucher will be happy to see it as well. Boston is risking more time shorthanded against a strong power play when it sends those messages. The league has suspended players pretty regularly for sucker punching during the regular season and it has made noises in the past about message-sending at the end of games, but it is far more lenient in the playoffs. Still, with Boucher saying he felt the NHL should look at those punches, you can bet Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman addressed it with league VP Mike Murphy. The next time, Boston may not be as fortunate to get away with only minor penalties and 10-minute misconducts.
No matter what fixes the B’s make, however, you can be certain that Boucher will counter with some of his own. He was a step ahead of Boston in Game 1 and so was his team. It will take a big reversal of form for the B’s to even this series.