Bruins’ defensive masterclass vs. Canucks a big step forward

Bruins’ defensive masterclass vs. Canucks a huge step in right direction originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON — The Vancouver Canucks entered Thursday night’s showdown at TD Garden atop the NHL standings and boasting the sport’s most prolific offense.

The Canucks ranked No. 1 in goals scored and No. 6 on the power play. Their lineup is incredibly deep, featuring nine players who have scored 10-plus goals. One of those players, star center Elias Lindholm, was acquired in a blockbuster trade last week. Quinn Hughes leads all defensemen with 64 points in 51 games in what could be a Norris Trophy-winning season for the American star.

So, yeah, these guys are pretty good.

But you wouldn’t have come to that conclusion by watching Thursday night’s matchup in Boston, where the Bruins won 4-0 in a game that had a lot of similarities to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final losses that will haunt Vancouver fans forever.

Put simply, the Bruins put on a masterclass defensively, completely dominating the Canucks right from the opening puck drop.

The B’s allowed a season-low 17 shots. The Canucks’ 19 scoring chances are the second-fewest they’ve had in a game this season. Boston’s penalty kill, which has only been slightly above average of late, was phenomenal, highlighted by two shorthanded goals, including one from Brad Marchand just 32 seconds into the game.

The best way to beat a high-scoring opponent is shutting down its best players, and the Canucks’ stars were noticeably silent throughout the night.

Elias Pettersson, who’s one of the best centers in the sport, was held without a point and didn’t tally a single shot. Lindholm also was scoreless without a shot. They were both on the ice for all four of the Bruins’ goals.

“These are big-time games,” Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet told reporters postgame. “(Brad) Marchand and (David) Pastrnak are great players, and they showed up. We got to have that kind of thing. Now, listen, it’s our first (regulation) loss in I don’t know how many games, 13 or 14 , so I can’t get too critical. But these are big games, so you’d like to see a little bit better from some guys. The shorthanded goals are really something you cannot do in big, critical games. You just can’t.”

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Hughes played a horrendous first period, highlighted by a weak effort defensively on Boston’s second goal.

“They’re obviously a team that knows what it takes to win,” Hughes told reporters postgame. “They don’t shoot themselves in the foot. They force you to make bad plays or bad passes, and they’re very disciplined. Credit to them, they stuck to their game. But also we can’t give them two shorthanded goals, and then the two goals we gave them in the second period were kind of our own mistakes.”

What worked so well for the Bruins defensively against the league’s most explosive team?

“Making sure we got above them. Kept them in front of us,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said. “Any time a team has to go through you to get to your net, it makes it a lot harder for them to generate offense.”

What the Bruins did defensively Thursday night is how they have to play the rest of the season if they’re going to be successful.

They won the majority of the 50-50 puck battles. They were in sync with each other all night, particularly on the penalty kill, which was a perfect 3-for-3. They gave the Canucks no time and space with the puck. They clogged shooting lanes, forcing the Canucks into 11 shot attempts that missed the net. The B’s also blocked 16 shots and didn’t give up many odd-man rushes.

Overall, the Bruins did all of the little things, combined with strong effort, that are required to shut down an opponent that has all kinds of firepower.

“I cared about how tenacious and aggressive we were going to be mentally, and go out and try to force the issue,” Montgomery said. “I thought we did that, and I think our penalty kill led us.”

The Bruins still have plenty of room to improve defensively. They rank 22nd in shot attempts allowed, 24th in shots on net allowed, 18th in scoring chances allowed and 21st in high-danger chances allowed (all at even strength), per Natural Stat Trick.

But Thursday’s performance was absolutely a step in the right direction, and it should offer a blueprint to how the Bruins need to play defensively the rest of the season, especially in the playoffs when highly skilled teams such as the Maple Leafs, Panthers, Rangers, Red Wings and Lightning are likely to stand in their way of getting to the Stanley Cup Final.

“I was very impressed with (our defensive performance),” Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark said. “We said beforehand that it wasn’t tolerable to do what we did last game, and the guys really took it to heart.”