The NHL was a different place in 2002. Goals and shots were as low as they’d been since the 1950s, and it wasn’t rare at all to see teams held under 20 shots on goal in a game. In fact, the 2001-02 Bruins — one of the better defensive teams in the league — held opponents under that mark 13 times.
But things have changed since then. The rule changes following the lockout in 2004-05 helped open the game back up, and although we’ll probably never get back to the eight-goals-per-game days of the 1980s, we’re at least seeing more shots and chances than the pre-lockout days. And we’re certainly not seeing teams hold opponents under 20 shots on goal as frequently as we used to — the 2011-12 Bruins, a top defensive team just like the B’s squad 10 years before, did it just four times.
All of that information sets up this: over the last two days, the Bruins have held their opponents under 20 shots on goal in back-to-back games for the first time since that 2001-02 season (April 11 and 13 of that season, to be exact).
It’s a feat that in today’s NHL would be impressive at any time. But for the Bruins, it’s even more significant considering it followed Wednesday’s debacle in Detroit, when they surrendered six goals on one defensive breakdown after another.
“We want to put that game behind us,” Zdeno Chara said. “You’re going to have a game like that where everything is off. Hopefully there’s not too many of them. But after that game, we really wanted to focus on how we were going to play defensively, and more focused on us than the teams we play. Don’t get me wrong — we want to respect their strength and whatever they do well, but mainly we want to focus on how we’re going to implement our game plan.”
A lot goes into a great defensive effort like the two the Bruins had Friday and Saturday. Obviously the defensive-zone play has to be great. Defensemen have to pressure the initial rush and not allow easy entries. They have to get in shooting and passing lanes. And they have to make decisions with the puck that lead to quick, clean breakouts. Forwards have to backcheck and do their part to help in all those areas as well.
But the offensive-zone play is just as important. You’re not going to allow too many shots if the puck is consistently down in the other end. Those offensive-zone possessions start with either a clean entry or a dump-in to an area one of your forwards can get to. Once you’re in, it’s all about good rotations, constant movement and battling for rebounds to create second and third chances.
Needless to say, the Bruins have done all of that over the last two games, and they’ve done it for a full 60 minutes. Given the advantage in shots on goal (28-19 against the Rangers, 36-14 against the Blue Jackets), it’s not a surprise that these were two of the Bruins’ best possession games of the season. They registered 64.0 percent of 5-on-5 shot attempts against the Rangers and 63.8 percent against the Blue Jackets (according to ExtraSkater.com) — two of their top three marks of the season. On Saturday, they also had the benefit of six power-play opportunities to help boost their shot total.
“We’re moving the puck up the ice quickly,” Claude Julien said. “We’re playing more of a north-south kind of game where we’re putting it in deep and putting it in areas where we’re able to recover it, and managing the puck in the offensive zone means you spend more time there. … Our guys were on the puck and that’s part of working together and moving the puck around and managing it.”
The Bruins won’t continue to hold teams under 20 shots on goal, because that just isn’t realistic. But they can continue to be a very good defensive team, because they had been all season before the Detroit disaster.
And scariest of all is that virtually none of this has anything to do with goaltending, where the Bruins have an advantage over pretty much everyone they play.