Going into the second-round series between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, betting markets and hockey experts had the Bruins as a moderate favorite. Depending on where you looked, it was priced at around -185 for Boston and +200 for New York, meaning most had the Bruins more likely than not advancing.
Instead, over the course of six games, the Islanders lived up to their reputation as a nightmare to play against. While not the most talented team in the league, New York plays a style that’s difficult to play against. Think of the Islanders’ style of hockey as an equalizer against more talented teams.
In the scope of the series, game one stands out as an outlier because it was the one time the Bruins were truly able to assert itself as an effective team in transition and overwhelm the Islanders with offense that it was actually able to convert.
At five on five in the series, the Bruins created more scoring chances in five of the six games. Generally speaking, play at five on five is an indicator of the team’s control of the game. If a team has more scoring chances than its opponent, that means it has the puck more often than not.
However, for the third straight season, the Islanders were able to win against a more talented team with less control of the puck. Bucking conventional wisdom in small sample sizes is pretty normal when it comes to hockey. The more playoff games the Islanders play, the more the team should reach its true performance level.
Remarkably, the Islanders keep winning in spite of steep odds for success. Unpacking the game six dismantling of the Bruins revealed a masterclass in preparation and strategy.
The Islanders’ style is like struggling against quicksand, the more a team is pressing to try and score a goal, the more the Islanders can force them into difficult plays. Those difficult plays directly resulted in multiple goals in game six.
The hard matchup game
As the team with home ice, the Islanders had the perk of last change during stoppages. While a majority of a player’s shifts will come “on the fly,” meaning during the flow of play while the puck is live, the ones during stoppages are a peek into the coach’s mind.
For Islanders’ coach Barry Trotz, he stuck to a hard matchup strategy where pretty much every time one Bruin line was on the ice, he answered with a specific line of his own. This decision manifested strong results, especially against the Bruins’ “perfection line.”
In the regular season, the trio of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand combined for a total of 165 points in a 56 game season. Going deeper, the three forwards generated 415 unblocked scoring chances to their opponent’s 208.
So, in the regular season, the Bruins’ first line created unblocked scoring chances at a rate of 2:1. In the series against the Islanders, games one through five were much of the same, the three created 64 unblocked chances to the Islanders’ 36.
In game six, the Islanders effectively neutralized the first line at five on five with its hard matchup. Trotz opted to roll Travis Zajac, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri as his perfection line stopper. Much to Trotz’s credit, his plan worked to, well, perfection.
In 7:12 of direct competition against the Bruins’ first line, Lou’s Lamioriello’s trade deadline acquisition line created five unblocked chances while only conceding five, created .48 of expected goals value to .34 and generated two high danger chances to one at five on five.
The Islanders’ team defense did a great job of forcing the Bruins to low danger areas of the ice or not letting shots get through at all, especially against Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand. Pastrnak was held to two unblocked chances, Marchand one and Bergeron three.
What about that second line?
Coming into the postseason, Boston’s trade-deadline-bolstered second line was supposed to be the missing link. For long stretches of the regular season, the Bruins’ offense couldn’t score at five on five and was dependent on its first line to carry the scoring load.
While Taylor Hall’s acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres for a bag of chips proved worth it in the regular season, in-game six, Trotz pushed the right buttons again. This time, rolling Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier against the aforementioned Hall, David Krejci and Craig Smith.
This was an interesting matchup decision because these two lines like to play a similar style because of the speed on the left-wing. Both Hall and Beauvillier are strong transition players who can create odd-man rushes with straight-line speed and open up space for their linemates.
But, since the Islanders control the neutral zone so well, the Bruins were unable to tap into Hall’s speed. This matchup produced the most lopsided results of any in game six from an underlying offense standpoint.
The Islanders created six unblocked chances to the Bruins’ three, .36 of expected goals value to .27, and two high danger chances to one. While that might not sound that lopsided, at five on five, that group of Bruins forwards only managed one shot on goal amongst its three unblocked scoring chances.
Exploiting last change
Ideally, with last change, a coach would like to hide his best players from the opponent’s best. On paper, this would give a team a clear matchup advantage, in-game six, Trotz got the Mat Barzal line out against the Bruins’ third line and it thrived against lesser opposition.
This isn’t a knock on Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle, pretty talented guys in their own right. However, Barzal is a truly special talent capable of taking over a game anytime the puck is on his stick. For game six, Barzal’s line thoroughly controlled play at five on five in a manner comparable to the other two matchups.
Granted, Barzal’s line had fewer minutes than usual because there were so many penalties in the early part of the game. However, in the direct ice time, Barzal’s line with Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov created three unblocked chances to the Bruins two, .31 value of expected goals to .23 and two high danger chances to two for Boston.
Style of Play
Remember how I described the Islanders as quicksand? This stems from the way the team plays when it's protecting a lead. It’s not easy to play with a lead, especially in the playoffs where officials will try and keep the penalty ledger relatively close.
Yet, the Islanders put on a clinic in defending a lead aggressively. The team didn’t collapse on its own goal and try to turtle its way to a narrow win. Instead, New York pushed the pedal to the floor and pushed the puck up ice in attempts to put pressure on the Bruins.
This all starts from the forecheck, against a Bruins team that was down two starting defenseman (Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller) and Charlie McAvoy for about six minutes or of game time after concussion spotters pulled him from the game.With inexperienced Boston defensemen in the game, the Islanders put pressure on them. Every single time the Islanders crossed the red line in the neutral zone, the puck got in deep below the goal line. With the forecheck engaged, Islander forwards forced the Bruins to make difficult plays.
As the visualization shows, the Islanders’ forecheck is centered around taking away easy plays and making the team attempting a breakout to make a high effort play to clear the zone. Over the course of a game, this sustained level of pressure leads to turnovers.On the goal above, look at how aggressively the Islanders push down the ice because they realize the Bruins are having a hard time moving the puck. Rask can’t change direction because of Beauvillier and Bailey then recovers the turnover in the corner before funneling the puck to a high danger scoring area.
With so much of the five-on-five play in the Bruins’ end of the ice, it’s only natural that the Islanders were able to impose its collective will on Boston. Defensive breakouts aren’t a flashy part of the game, but Boston’s inability to clear the zone was its undoing.
As the Islanders increased their lead, the Bruins were increasingly desperate to create offense. With no room to operate, this desperation fed into the Islanders’ aggressive forecheck and lockdown play in the neutral zone.
Compound this with the fact that Boston’s netminder, Tuukka Rask, was playing with a torn labrum in his hip and it’s pretty straightforward.
A hip injury is particularly troublesome for a goaltender because it’s such an important area of the body for lateral movement. With Rask’s hip not at 100%, his movement was restricted and it was probably the deciding factor in this series.
Some may begrudge the Islanders for their fortune in the playoffs so far. Running into two teams with goalie issues in the first two rounds is certainly something most organizations would kill for. Since goalie is the most important position, having an injured or subpar one in the opposing net helps.
However, the Islanders can only play who’s in front of them. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that since Trotz’s arrival three years ago, the Islanders have perfected their particular style of hockey. Slowing the game down, clogging the neutral zone, forcing shots to the outside and being annoying to play against takes a toll.
With the Islanders getting pucks below the goal line against a wobbly Boston defense, it forced inexperienced defensemen have to make difficult plays. With that menacing forecheck as the foundation for the series, the Islanders were able to make up the talent deficit at the forward position.
Then, with the added benefit of last change in an elimination game, the Islanders were able to play the exact matchups they wanted within the confines of a lights-out strategy.
The situation for an Islanders upset was favorable, but it was on the team to take advantage of the Bruins’ injury situation. Many a team has lost to a group of injured veterans that persevered in spite of physical pain.
Instead, the Islanders took it to the favorites and are in the conference final for the second consecutive year against the Tampa Bay Lightning. And yes, the Islanders will be considerable underdogs against a more talented team, for the third straight round.
Anyway, I hear Victor Hedman and David Savard are dealing with nagging injuries…
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