When the NHL initially released its 2013-14 schedule, Lightning fans immediately took note of the team’s first two opponents. Boston and Chicago. Last year’s Stanley Cup Finalists. And both games for the Bolts would be on the road.
The Lightning have now gotten through those two games and emerged with a split. Beyond the final results, though, what was most striking was how the Bruins and Blackhawks play. Before the season started, many NHL experts felt that Boston and Chicago were again two of the best clubs in the league. Not an especially bold statement; after all, they were last year’s Finalists. But until the games begin, one never knows for sure. Now that I’ve seen the 2013-14 version of each, however, I can confirm that notion – the Bruins and Blackhawks are two of the best clubs in the league.
What makes these two clubs so good? Is it that they have better players than the other teams? It’s true that have terrific players, but there are elite players on most, if not all, NHL rosters. Is it that they never have an off-night? No. All teams have those games in which they’re not at their best. Last Thursday, for example, the Bruins made some key plays against the Lightning that were the difference in the 3-1 Boston win. But as a whole, I’ve seen them play better.
Ultimately, what separates the Blackhawks, Bruins and other top clubs from most of the rest of the league is a relatively simple component; they play extremely well as a team. The five skaters on the ice move in concert, so that the team operates like a well-oiled machine. As a result, they are smooth on breakouts, suffocating in their defensive zone coverage and capable of making the right decisions at the right time in all three zones.
Sure, there are differences between Boston and Chicago. The Bruins are a physical club and thrive on pounding the opposition. The Blackhawks are a masterful puck-possession team and make it difficult for the opposition to get the puck back from them. But even though the nuts and bolts of their system play might be different, the clubs are similar in how well they execute those systems.
So the next question is: how they did they reach this level of excellence in their team play? Not too long ago, both teams were cellar-dwellers. In the 2006-07 season, the ‘Hawks and Bruins both finished last in their division. And that disappointing season didn’t come out of the blue for either club. Chicago hadn’t made the playoffs since 2002. For Boston, 2006-07 was the second straight season placing last in its division. But the following year, the tide began to turn. The Bruins made the postseason as the eighth seed and the ‘Hawks narrowly missed the playoffs. Both clubs kept improving. By 2010, the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup Champions. The Bruins won the Cup the following year. Last season, they met in the Finals.
The common denominator has been that both clubs have drafted well, developed their prospects and provided organizational stability. Claude Julien took over as Boston’s head coach at the start of the 2007-08 season. Joel Quenneville has been the ‘Hawks head coach since early in the 2008-09 campaign. The core of both teams has been playing under the same system, with most of the same teammates, for years. Hundreds and hundreds of games doing the same thing, over and over again. For new players to the organization, there may be a brief adjustment period, but it’s easier to acclimate when everybody else already knows exactly what to do in every situation.
That was what struck me seeing these two teams this week. They execute their system so consistently. The Bruins, as I alluded to earlier, weren’t as crisp as they often are (and the Lightning, who did a lot of things well in that game, deserve credit for contributing to Boston’s overall performance). But once the Bruins got a 3-1 lead early in the third period, they battened the hatches. The Lightning had a much harder time generating any sustained pressure because the Bruins didn’t allow them any time or space. It was an extremely impressive display.
The ‘Hawks, in the words of their goaltender Corey Crawford, “played a near-perfect game” against Tampa Bay. Fortunately for the Lightning, they received great goaltending from Ben Bishop and used a third period momentum surge to score the two goals they needed in the game. But, as Quenneville said afterwards: “If we play like that, we’ll (usually) find a way to get two points.” He’s right – and they usually do.
If we look at the Boston and Chicago examples as a template, the Lightning seem to be on the right track. They’ve drafted well over the last several seasons. They’re taking the time to develop those prospects. Jon Cooper is going to implement his system and will work to ensure that making the right decisions on the ice becomes second-nature for his players. The Lightning saw this week how it’s done at the highest level. They’ll be working to reach that level themselves.
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