Patrice Bergeron might be Boston's most important player
Patrice Bergeron is probably going to have his hands full in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and it seems like he's more than capable of handling the tough assignments.
When the Boston Bruins open up their first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night they're going to face a new challenge that they didn't have in the four regular-season meetings.
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom.
All of the previous Boston-Washington matchups this season took place while Backstrom was sidelined with a concussion following an elbow from Rene Bourque. When the 24-year-old pivot is in the lineup, the Capitals are a very different (and significantly better) team. The player that's going to get the lion's share of the minutes against him and his top linemate, Alex Ovechkin, will most likely be Boston's best shutdown center, Patrice Bergeron.
"I think it's not just about me, I think it's about really the five-man unit on the ice," said Bergeron on a conference call on Monday afternoon when asked about his potential assignments. "Every time guys like [Backstrom] or Ovechkin are on the ice, it's always about the full unit. I should say six players with the goalie. I think we all need to be aware where they are on the ice, ready to look around us for the guys that don't have the puck, because they're that good and they're going to make those plays. It's about finding the guys on the ice, making sure we play as a unit, talk and communicate on the ice. That's about it."
Also: making sure the puck stays away from Backstrom and Ovechkin.
After falling short of being a finalist for the Selke Trophy last season (and the year before), which goes to the NHL's best defensive forward, Bergeron should be, if there's any justice in the voting, one of the favorites to take home the award this season. And if there's a player in the NHL that's up to the task of matching up against a 1-2 punch like Backstrom and Ovechkin over the course of a seven-game series, Bergeron is the type of player that should be able to handle it.
The biggest advantage Boston has over the Capitals heading into their opening round matchup is that the Bruins have been a significantly better team all season during five-on-five play by any objective -- perhaps even subjective -- measure. Whether they be traditional metrics (goals scored vs. goals against) or advanced metrics (Fenwick ratings), it doesn't really matter, and a lot of that starts and ends with Bergeron and his ability to not only play against the toughest competition in the toughest situations, but also his ability to, more often than not, come out on the winning end of that matchup.
At over 59 percent in the faceoff circle, the only player that won a higher percentage of his draws this season was Chicago's Jonathan Toews. You like plus/minus (personally, I don't, but a lot do)? Bergeron was the best in the NHL.
In terms of his on-ice Corsi rating, the measure of total shots directed at the opponents (shots on goal, missed shots, blocked shots) vs. the total shots directed at your own net, Bergeron was second in the NHL, which shows the type of dominance the Bruins experienced over their opponents when it comes to puck possession when he was on the ice. And all of that happened despite Bergeron starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, usually against other teams' top players. After Pavel Datsyuk and maybe Toews, there probably isn't a better two-way center in hockey that can not only handle a shutdown role defensively, but also finish as one of his team's leading scorers.
A lot of attention in this series will be paid to Ovechkin, Backstrom, Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas (probably for reasons not related to hockey), but the biggest difference-maker in the series just might be Bergeron and his ability to control the game in the toughest of situations.
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