It has been said over and over that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult of any of the major sports championships to win. Not all hockey cliches are true, but this one makes a lot of sense if you consider the spike in physical play and shot blocking, the every-other-night schedule and the wild increase of minutes and shifts for star players. The role of stars becomes bigger and the absence of important players is magnified. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Bruins missed Patrice Bergeron mightily.
The Bruins' center did not start the series due to a mild concussion. Bergeron has two goals, 10 assists, 12 points and is plus-7 during the first two series of the playoffs. He averages 0.73 career points per game (337 in 456), and in 42 career playoff games he's kept up the pace scoring 32 points in 42 games or 0.76 per game with a plus-19.
Before Bergeron was injured in Game 4, he averaged close to 30 shifts per game during the playofs including playing 41 in an overtime game against Montreal. He also took more than 20 faceoffs per playoff game, winning 64.2 percent. More importantly, the center won 21 of 29 faceoffs while short-handed. Only Ryan Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf have taken a larger percentage of their team's faceoffs than Bergeron (36.6 percent) during the playoffs.
In Game 1, David Krejci went just 3-of-18 on faceoffs. Rich Peverley won six of 16 in the circle. The lack of faceoff success carried over to Boston's already-struggling power play. Krejci played 3:21 and took (and lost) a large number. Krejci went 0-for-4 on faceoffs in the defensive zone and 1-for-6 in the offensive zone. Peverley went 1-for-7 in the offensive zone. Versus analyst Jeremy Roenick pointed out that Boston was unable to get a hold of the puck to set up their power play offense.
After Game 1, Boston coach Claude Julien agreed with Roenick's assertion: "I've said that before we even played the game that it's so important to start with the puck," he said. "When you don't win as many draws as you're used to, you're backpedaling a little bit and those lost draws, and we know how quickly they counter. It certainly didn't help our game tonight."
With Bergeron out, rookie Tyler Seguin stepped in
sort of. Coach Julien only gave the young forward 11 shifts and less than 10 minutes of total ice time despite his scoring a goal and assist. Seguin only scored 11 goals this season, but many of them came about through his outstanding skating ability and hands. Unless Julien doesn't trust his rookie on the defensive side, it's hard to justify only playing him 11 shifts when Seguin appeared to be one of the stronger skaters for the Bruins. If Bergeron is out for the entire series, it seems reasonable to expect more ice time for the young forward.
Julien doesn't really have any better options than to try his hand with the rookie. Chris Kelly had just one point in the team's series against the Philadelphia Flyers and while he is a strong third line forward, Kelly averages just 0.37 points per game in 487 career games. In 24 games this season with Boston after being traded from the Ottawa Senators, the center scored five points and was minus-1.
"We felt Kelly was the guy that is going to step into that position here," Julien said. "And you look around and say 'what else can we do with these things?' And we moved the guys around a little bit. But you have to live with those losses and just because you lose a game doesn't mean it's because of that."
Gregory Campbell is similar to Kellyhis value is in playing a physical, shutdown game, not in scoring points. Campbell scored 29 points in 80 games this season for Boston. To compete with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins have to get more from their center position. Seguin may not have lit up the scoreboard this season, but he has the talent and raw skills to offer far more than Kelly or Campbell.
The Bruins will have to change their game to have any chance against the Lightning. They will have to lean heavily on Tim Thomas and rely on shutting down the neutral zone, playing to the strengths of Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell. That, and pray that Patrice Bergeron comes back.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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