3 Rounds is a three-part series. Writers select what they feel is the most important individual match-up in the upcoming playoff series and give it an in-depth preview. The second piece is a mid-series assessment of that match-up. In the final installment, we analyze how the match-up contributed to the outcome of the series. If our match-up isn’t the difference-maker, we’ll explore the match-up that DID make the difference.
So far, this epic match-up between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins has come as advertised: incredibly exciting playoff hockey.
Montreal has had balanced scoring from top to bottom (even Mike Weaver and Dale Weise have gotten in on the action) while goaltender Carey Price has held his own, out-dueling counterpart Tuukka Rask, especially with a monster 48-save performance in a game one, double-overtime victory.
For their part, the Bruins have had a bit of trouble handing the Canadiens. Despite outshooting the Habs in each of the first three games, they’ve been stymied by Price and a power play that has yet to hit the back of the net this series after going 6 for 15 against Detroit in round one.
To make matter worse, Rask hasn’t been his usual, reliable self. He’s allowed at least three goals in each game this series after not allowing more than two in any game against the Red Wings. He’s also yet to post a save percentage above .900 against Montreal, causing his post-season number to drop from a sensational .961 to a merely above average .933 after just three games against the Habs.
If you’re one for advanced stats, you’d say that Boston is due for a turnaround, that they’re bound to net a few power play goals before long, and that Rask’s relative mediocre play can’t last much longer. Rask’s performance in particular has been a sore spot for the Bruins, and a rather surprising one at that. However, the same x-factor I outlined in the 3 Rounds series preview has been the dominating story so far of this series, and one that the Bruins may be running out of time to fight against.
Subban Leading the Way
I’ve buried the lead long enough, so let’s get to the point: PK Subban is having an incredible series, and has propelled himself right into the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation. I mentioned before how there was some debate about 24-year-old Subban’s place among the elite defensemen in the game, but there appears to doubt now that he’s become a driving force for this Montreal Canadiens squad during the 2014 post-season, and especially if his level of play can propel the Habs into the Eastern Conference final.
In game one Subban was an absolute force, netting the series opening goal and then finishing the night with the overtime winner to go along with five hits in a game-leading 33:49 minutes of ice time. He picked up two assists the next game (in a losing effort) and a goal and an assist on the game’s first two goals in game three, good enough for six points in three games so far against the Bruins. Four of those points have been on the power play, which was a sore spot for the Canadiens in round one against Tampa, and has been a huge difference-maker here in round two.
However, he has been playing with fire, taking a minor penalty in three straight games, something that I warned about in the previous article. Thankfully, Boston’s power play has been inept, but it seems just a matter of time until he pays for one of those mistakes. Additionally, he’s not been great five-on-five, where he boasts a plus minus of -1. Offensively though, Subban has been clutch and leads all NHL defensemen (and sits fourth overall) in playoff scoring with 11 points through 7 games.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the adversity and distraction that Subban has had to struggle through. Following a game one in which Subban netted the game winning goal, a group of rather classless individuals went to social media with racist comments directed towards Subban. As unnecessary and offensive as those comments (which won’t be linked or advertised here) were, they really shouldn’t come as a shock. It’s something that Subban and fellow NHL players such as Joel Ward and Wayne Simmonds have had to fight against for most of their careers. In Subban’s case, it’s been water off a duck’s back, as he’s continued his high level of play while a media firestorm swirls around him.
Boston’s stud defenseman, 37-year-old captain Zdeno Chara, has not been as noticeable against the Canadiens. He was solid in game one, playing a herculean 32:25 of ice time, while shutting down Montreal’s top snipers Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty. However, he managed just two shots on goal in those 42 shifts, and didn’t factor into the scoring.
Game two was Chara’s best of the series, and perhaps his best of the post-season so far. He was a monster five on five, finishing the night with a assist and a +5, as he was on the ice for each of the Bruins goals in a 5-3 victory.
Unfortunately, if game two was his best, game three might have been his worst. While he continued to be effective against the Pacioretty line, Chara finished the night with just one shot and was a -1 in 24:33 of ice time. Overall against Montreal, Chara has just the one assist and five shots on goal. Granted Chara’s game isn’t all about offense, it’s clear that Subban’s dynamic play has had much more impact on the series thus far.
For a man who led the offense from the back-end in Boston this year, who is considered to have one of the most intimidating slapshots in NHL history and who is nominated for the Norris trophy yet again this season, that’s just not enough. Subban, a Norris winner in his own right, has had the upper-hand in this match-up between the two, and is the main reason that Montreal currently leads the series 2-1. Whether or not Chara can step-up and match the play of the man more than 12 years his junior, or if Subban will be able to maintain his exceptional level of play, may still ultimately decide the fate of this series.
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