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Possession perfectionists: Patrice Bergeron’s line continues to dominate everyone it faces

05.11.14 at 7:00 am ET
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With a little more than 10 minutes remaining in Saturday’s Game 5, and with the Bruins leading 3-1, Max Pacioretty appeared to have his chance. He grabbed the puck just inside his own blue line and turned up ice. The Bruins were in the middle of a change, and he had an open lane down the left wing — the opposite side of the ice as the Bruins bench.

Unfortunately for Pacioretty, the first guy over the boards was Patrice Bergeron. The Selke Trophy favorite made a beeline for Pacioretty, and within a matter of seconds, all that space Pacioretty appeared to have was gone. He was forced to settle for a long snap shot that Tuukka Rask kicked right to Bergeron.

Then Bergeron did what he’s done all series, and all season. He turned up ice, led a rush through the neutral zone, and helped set up an offensive-zone cycle with linemates Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith. Pacioretty and his linemates — David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher — didn’t sniff the Bruins zone the rest of the shift.

That shift perfectly encapsulated what Bergeron and his linemates do so well. They’re often called a shutdown line, especially in the playoffs. You hear about how they “take away time and space” and “keep guys to the outside.” Bergeron did both of those within the first five seconds of that shift.

What you don’t always hear enough about is what the trio did over the next 30 seconds of that shift. They don’t give up second and third chances. They get the puck and flip the ice. They cycle. They attack. They possess the puck and pin their opponents deep in their own zone.

In football, you often hear the cliche “The best defense is a good offense.” The idea is that if your offense keeps getting first downs and holds onto the ball, the other team’s offense can’t get on the field. The same applies in hockey.

Bergeron and his linemates shut down top offensive players, like Pacioretty, by not allowing them to have the puck. Yes, they’re also great at defending when those guys do get the puck, but they’re most effective when they’re able to keep those guys about 175 feet away from the Boston net.

“If you have the puck, they’re not going to have it and they’re not going to be able to create too many offensive opportunities,” Smith said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job keeping the puck down low in their zone and limiting their offense.”

This kind of dominance is reflected in possession stats. During the regular season, Bergeron, Marchand and Smith were three of the top nine players in the NHL in Corsi, which measures team shot attempts for vs. team shot attempts against when that player is on the ice. Bergeron, of course, led the way, as he ranked first in the league at 61.2 percent, and did so while facing opponents’ top lines and starting more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone.

All of that has continued in the playoffs. Bergeron and Smith are two of the top three in postseason Corsi (oddly enough, Tyler Seguin is also in that group) — both over 61 percent — while Marchand is a little further back at a still great 57.9 percent.

In this series, the trio has mostly faced the Canadiens’ top line of Pacioretty and Desharnais with either Gallagher or Thomas Vanek on the right wing. Its second most common matchup has been Montreal’€™s second line, which is centered by Tomas Plekanec and has most recently featured Vanek on one wing and either Michael Bournival or Rene Bourque on the other.

Regardless of which line they’ve faced or who’s been on the wings, the Bruins’ second line has continued to dominate. Bergeron has posted a Corsi-for percentage of 58.3 percent or better in all five games, and in Saturday’€™s Game 5, the entire line was over 70 percent.

“Bergeron and his line has been one of the best lines for us this year at playing against other teams’ top lines and doing as great a job as they have been,” Claude Julien said. “I know that I’m not really having a real hard match — there’s times they’re against [Pacioretty's line], it can be Plekanec. … But Bergeron and his line have been extremely good at that all year long.”

Of course, possession only means so much if it doesn’t translate to the scoreboard. Fortunately for Bergeron and friends, it has. The trio has been on the ice for six 5-on-5 goals for and just one against in this series. In other words, they’ve outscored whomever they’ve been matched up against by a goal a game.

A lot has been made of the Bruins’ third line demolishing the Canadiens’ bottom six forwards and third defense pairing, and rightly so. But sometimes it’s worth a reminder that Bergeron’€™s line dominates everyone it faces.

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