Stanley Cup Final: Momentum among the keys to winning Game 3

Monday June 17th, 2013

A single turnover can swing a game, as Boston's Torey Krug and Chicago's Brandon Bollig well know.
Harry How/Getty Images

During the fifth inning of ESPN's Sunday night telecast of the tilt between the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves, during which Atlanta had many chances to score but only led 2-0, color commentator Orel Hershiser noted, "This game has a very Bruins-Blackhawks first-period feel to it."

Not every baseball viewer is as hockey-savvy as Hershiser, who as a kid played defenseman in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and, after his family moved from Buffalo to Cherry Hill, N.J., for a youth team sponsored by the Philadelphia Flyers. He was right to compare the one-sided first-half nature of the two games and the slim lead held in each.

The first 20 minutes, especially, of Saturday night's Stanley Cup Final Game 2, after which the Blackhawks led the Bruins by a 1-0 count despite outshooting them 19-4, was so skewed in Chicago's favor that Boston's Jaromir Jagr later commented, "If somebody would watch the first period, I would've said, 'Oh, give them the Cup right now.'"

It was not hyperbole. That's how dominant the Blackhawks looked.

But Hershiser's comparison broke down with the end results. The B's survived the early Chicago tsunami and reversed the flow of the game to win 2-1 in overtime, but the Braves tacked on a run and held San Francisco scoreless the rest of the way. So the Cup final shifts to Boston for Monday night's Game 3 with the series tied 1-1, and you now have to wonder what the Blackhawks' squandered opportunity means for them with the next two games to be played in a building where the Bruins have won five of seven this spring. Looking back at the 2011 Cup final vs. Vancouver, the B's were stunningly prolific on home ice, outscoring the Canucks 17-3 while going 3-0 at TD Garden.

Momentum is fleeting

Of course, we also had to wonder what the Blackhawks' hard-fought 4-3 win in the third overtime of Game 1 would mean to the Bruins. And don't think for a minute that it didn't play a major part in how disoriented Boston was at the start of the second game, as well as how charged up the Hawks were. Whatever momentum exists in the Stanley Cup playoffs from game to game is usually evident only at the start of the next outing, until something happens to shift things the other way. Then, the momentum is often spent and must be regained. So don't be surprised if Boston comes out with extra jump in Game 3. Perhaps it can be sustained, but don't count on it, Bruins fans. Momentum shifts are what hockey is all about, especially when teams are as well-matched as these two.

"You know your opponents are going to get their turn," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said on Sunday. "You're going to have to defend and play in your own end."

MUIR: Five things to look for in Game 3

The Blackhawks had their way, and countless chances to score a second goal (one was waved off), for much of the first half of Game 2. "I thought we had the right start, "Quenneville said. "Had a great first period. Did everything we wanted except get to two."

Here's Patrick Sharp's tally that give the Hawks their 1-0 lead and the immediate aftermath, including the disallowed goal:

Between the lines

The stats told only part of the story, but they were telling nonetheless: In the first 34 minutes, Chicago took 23 shots on goal to Boston's six, and if you factored in blocked shots and shots that missed the net, Chicago took 46 to Boston's eight. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was all that stood between annihilation and a fragment of hope.

In the video, you can see how easily Chicago cruised through the neutral zone. It was like that the entire first period, with Boston offering little resistance. What happens between the blue lines is the key to how these games go. Whichever club wins the battle there controls the pace of the game and can impose its will on the proceedings.

Big little things

It's a hockey truism that a team as overpowering as the Blackhawks were in the first half of Game 2 had best make the most of its opportunities because you only get so many. A mere 1-0 lead coming out of that fury is perilous because the victim of such an onslaught only needs one goal, one breakdown by an opponent, to get back on even terms. If that happens, all that early superiority suddenly becomes empty and turns meaningless while the team that had been getting stomped grows instantly confident, even emboldened.

In this case, the critical breakdown came with just over five minutes left in the second period as the Bruins pressured on the forecheck. Sharp tries to settle things down by carrying the puck out of danger behind his own net and looking for an alternative escape route on the other side. But Boston defenseman Andrew Ference pursues him and stays right on his back to the goal line where teammate Tyler Seguin picks up the coverage. From the far side of the net, speedy Daniel Paille rushed in to cut off Sharp's path, beating Hawks defenseman Michal Rozsival, who was trying to assist Sharp, on the inside. Paille grabs the puck, comes out the other side and takes a shot that Corey Crawford stops. But Bruins center Chris Kelly, crashing the net, fires home the rebound:

The perfect switch in coverage by Seguin, taking over from Ference and sticking with Sharp, became a little play with big results and that's what coaches mean when they talk about the importance of paying attention to details during the playoffs. From Ference's pinch to that switch to Paille's steal to Kelly crashing the net, it was excellent teamwork by the Bruins and an example of how they can impose their will.

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Striking a spark

Besides tying the game, 1-1, that goal had two big implications. First, it was the handiwork of Boston's depth forwards and, as we mentioned after Game 1, the Bruins needed to get some secondary scoring. They did. When you look at the first two games, the secondary players, not the stars, have provided the winning margins. It's too soon to say if that's a coincidence or if it's going to be a trend for this series, one in which the best players cancel each other out or get shut down by whoever is checking them, and the team with the better depth players wins the Cup. It bears continued monitoring.

Secondly, Bruins coach Claude Julien cobbled that line of Paille, Kelly and Seguin together at the start of the second period and it gave Boston real depth on the attack, the kind the fourth line of Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton had provided earlier in the playoffs. But Campbell's broken leg also broke that line and, despite Julien's attempt to get something going by slotting in Kaspars Daugavins, it didn't result in quite the same chemistry. Elevating Paille to the third unit produced something that was clearly missing in Game 1 against Chicago: a depth line that could match the speed of the Hawks' depth forwards. This new trio gives Boston exactly that. Paille, Kelly and Seguin play a fast game and their working together has changed the balance of the competition in a series that, in addition to goaltending, seems to be all about speed and counteracting it.

KWAK: Paille emerges as hero | MUIR: Game 2 report card

From that point, the B's skated with more purpose and confidence. They had already tightened up their play in the neutral zone, compared to the start of the game, closing the gap between the forwards and defensemen, and allowing Chicago less room to attack with speed. Boston now controlled the action, not as decisively as the Hawks did earlier, but it was the better team and it had the best chances in overtime. After the 34 minute mark, the shot attempts were roughly even, 41-40 in their favor, but the Bruins got 22 shots on goal compared to Chicago's nine, which reflects how the game changed.

An exclamation point on the new line came in the extra frame when the trio produced the game winner on this play, off a turnover by Chicago fourth-liner Brandon Bollig -- whose beefy presence in the line at the expense of speedier Viktor Stalberg has now been reversed by Quenneville for Game 3.

The fatigue factor

Until that moment, the overtime was another session of trading chances, but the third period had been a sloppy affair, with puck possession so iffy and turnovers so rampant that the game at one point resembled volleyball. Including the Game 1 marathon and the additional 13-plus minutes of Game 2, the teams played the equivalent of three matches in the space of two and the quality of the action declined.

Will that decline continue on Wednesday evening and beyond? If it does, which team would benefit? These are questions we may be forced to ponder after Game 3.

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