How John Tortorella beat the Bruins by letting Zdeno Chara beat the Sedins

John Tortorella’s big moment during Saturday night’s contest between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks came right after Bruins winger Reilly Smith made it 1-1 at 4:11 of the second period. Enraged by his team’s listless play coming out of the first intermission, Tortorella called a time out for the express purpose of screaming at his team. Watching the verbal assault, one had to hope that Tortorella was wearing his stretchy purple undershorts, because he seemed mere moments away from going full-Hulk.

The tirade appeared to have its desired effect, with David Booth burning down the wing and beating Tuukka Rask to restore the Canucks’ one-goal lead shortly thereafter. The team wouldn’t look back.

But while this is the moment most people will point to, since it was a stark, expletive-riddled departure from what Vancouver fans have grown accustomed to in a head coach, Tortorella did some other, more subtle work that deserves a look as well. Most notably, the way he managed a battle he couldn’t win: Zdeno Chara versus the Sedins.

Chara had one job in this game: shut down the twins. It’s the same job he had in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He did it then; he did it again on Saturday.

Don’t let their two-point nights fool you: the Sedins were invisible for most of the contest, and had they been all the Canucks really had, as they were in the 2011 Final, with Ryan Kesler skating around on a broken everything, the Canucks would have lost again.

The Sedins finished with one shot between them: Henrik Sedin’s powerplay goal in the third. And speaking of Henrik, with the elder Sedin on the ice, the Canucks generated just six even-strength shot attempts all night. Four were blocked. The other two were a missed shot by Daniel Sedin 44 seconds into the second period, and Yannick Weber’s goal early in the third.

Why were the Sedins so bad? Because Zdeno Chara is so good. For the first two periods, Claude Julien hard-matched his captain against Vancouver’s to great success.

The matching bears itself out in the shift charts, courtesy the aptly-named ShiftChart.com. Take a look at the first period:

Apart from the opening puck drop and two tiny blips that we’re about to get into, Chara’s shifts line up pretty much perfectly with the Sedins. In a few instances — in the 8th and 16th minutes — he’s over the boards as soon after the Sedins as possible.

The two blips you see are shifts where Claude Julien expected the twins to come over the boards and they didn’t. Daniel and Henrik’s first shift is at about the one-minute mark. Then there’s a short shift by the Canucks’ third line, which ends when the puck goes into the netting at 2:10. Thinking Tortorella’s going to go right back to the Sedins early, which is what Alain Vigneault used to do, Julien sends Chara out for the draw. But with last change as the home coach, Tortorella counters with a rare fourth line shift.

That’s a complete waste of a fresh Chara, so when the Bruins win the defensive zone draw and get the puck out, the big Slovak returns immediately to the bench. His shift lasts all of 12 seconds, and he’s not back until the Sedins come back over the boards to take a neutral zone draw after a hand pass at 3:21.

The other blip there is at 15:35, when Chara takes a seven-second twirl around the ice. What happened? The Sedins simply didn’t show up for their scheduled shift.

After taking the ice to start a powerplay alongside Ryan Kesler (that’s what the diagonal lines in the grid signify), the second unit, led by Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli, comes over the boards. The powerplay ends, and the third line gets a shift. Then the fourth line gets a shift. It stands to reason, then, that the next one should belong to the Sedins, especially since they’re likely to be fresher than the Kesler line, whose wingers finished the powerplay. So, on comes Chara.

But the Kesler line unexpectedly hits the ice instead. So off goes Chara, and he’s not back until he sees Daniel Sedin come over the boards a minute later. He’s so quick he even beats Henrik and Hansen.

Unfortunately, the Bruins get burned anyway, thanks to Hansen’s flukey goal from the neutral-zone, which deflects off Chara’s stick.

Safe to say that blight on Chara’s perfect first-period defence is hardly his fault, however, so Julien happily continues with a working strategy as the Bruins enter the second period looking to get the goal back:

Thing is, while Julien’s strategy remains the same, Tortorella has already made an adjustment — one that began during Zdeno Chara’s seven-second shift late in the first: less Sedin line, more Kesler line.

I think we can safely say that Chara is going to win a matchup versus the Sedins more often than not. The way they play, with those short passes and all that board work, Chara and his absurdly long, disruptive stick are basically their kryptonite. He can reach them both without moving. In other words, if you’re relying on the Sedins to beat Chara’s Bruins, you will lose. So Tortorella basically admits defeat in this matchup and decides to rely on the guys who aren’t being hard-matched against their unbeatable nemesis instead.

Kesler’s line leads the way; the centre’s even-strength icetime jumps from 3:47 in the first period to 7:11. For this night, at least, he’s the Canucks’ first-line centre. The Sedins, meanwhile, basically become the third line. Henrik finishes with just 15:58 of icetime, his third-lowest total of the season and his lowest in a winning effort. Chara, meanwhile, plays just 22:10, a full three minutes below his season average. It’s his fourth-lowest total of the year, and only once this season, in Boston’s third game of the year versus Colorado, has he seen fewer minutes in a game the Bruins lost.

The Canucks’ second and third lines feasted on the Chara-free ice in the second. Both lines generated a goal with Chara on the bench.

By the 34th minute, Claude Julien realizes he’s been victimized by a clever coach willing to throw the game’s biggest matchup into the trash — a stark departure from his predecessor, who was almost always willing to let his players figure it out, arguably to a fault — and the Bruins’ coach has to adjust.

At 14:02 of the second, the twins are tapped for a shift. Kesler comes off, and Henrik comes over the boards on the fly. Chara hits the ice eight seconds later and, along with his teammates, they pin Henrik and Kesler’s wingers in the defensive end for 20 seconds. Finally, Daniel comes over the boards, just as Roberto Luongo swallows a puck and holds it for a faceoff.

The full Sedin line is now on the ice, and Henrik’s still got more than enough gas for a complete shift with his brother. But Tortorella pulls them from the ice. Daniel has been out for all of three seconds.

Chara stays out, however, because the Sedins are barely playing anymore and he’s going to waste. Tortorella appears to be happy now just teasing Julien with their usage — oh, here they are… actually nevermind. Chara’s not much help to the Bruins’ comeback efforts from the bench, so Julien abandons the strategy.

As you can see from the chart, the Sedins’ next shift is their first away from Chara all night, and their final shift of the period marks the first time he goes off the ice as they come on.

In the third period, things remain the same. Tortorella starts with the Kesler line, and Julien decides to counter with Chara. Just as Chara’s wrapping up a 40-second shift, Tortorella gives the Sedins their first shift of the period, and for the second time in the entire game, Chara leaves the ice as their shift is beginning.

Instead of Sedin kryptonite, the twins get Dennis Seidenberg and Kevan Miller, who may as well be the Sedin yellow sun. 29 seconds after Chara sat down, they score.

If that’s Chara instead of Miller battling the Sedins along the boards, I’m willing to bet that the puck never finds its way to Weber’s stick. Either Chara fights both twins off in the corner, or he pokes the puck harmlessly to Ryan Spooner just as the official hops over it, or he knocks down Henrik’s pass to Weber.

Instead, the Sedins win the battle. Henrik makes the pass, and it’s out of Miller’s reach, much like the game becomes for the Bruins after Weber’s one-timer makes it 4-1.

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Harrison Mooney is the co-editor of Pass it to Bulis at The Vancouver Sun. Have a tip? Email him at harrisonmooney@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter!

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42 comments

  1. John
    December 17, 2013

    Honestly, I’m liking Torts more and more as the season goes along.

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  2. Paul
    December 17, 2013

    One of the best articles you have ever written.

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    Rating: +104 (from 106 votes)
    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      December 17, 2013

      Agreed, I think this level of in-depth analysis is perfect for your altogether nerdy following, Harrison. Really interesting!

      I think the upshot is something that you actually did allude to, which is that the best way to neutralize an unfavourable matchup is to use your lineup depth to your advantage. As the Canucks scoring seems to have materialized out of nowhere recently, this bodes well for the team as they try to strategically counter other teams’ defensive methods.

      I have also actually quite enjoyed the coaching change this year, as Tortorella clearly is more than just a handsome face with a loud voice.Recently it seems like he’s found a couple of line combinations that work for him (Ke$Ha line has looked excellent together), so let’s hope for a continuation.

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    • J21
      December 17, 2013

      Agreed — it’s stuff like this that makes PITB such a fascinating read, even beyond the humor. This is an incredible analysis that you would never find in the mainstream media, at least not to this level of detail. Very impressive.

      Except for this:

      “Unfortunately, the Bruins get burned anyway, thanks to Hansen’s flukey goal from the neutral-zone, which deflects off Chara’s stick.”

      That’s not “unfortunate,” guys. :P

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  3. Blueliner
    December 17, 2013

    Wow! What an analysis! I would’ve never realized Torts could be implementing a strategy this complicated just to get Julien to not play Chara against the Sedins!

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  4. Brent
    December 17, 2013

    So next time we face Chara in the playoffs we pull a Tanya harding on him so he can’t play? Or we just have some scoring depth, like we seem to have right now?

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    • Harrison Mooney
      December 17, 2013

      Scoring depth seems like the more reasonable option. This is the difference a healthy Kesler makes — and could have made in 2011.

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      Rating: +35 (from 35 votes)
      • Lenny
        December 17, 2013

        Yeah it’s all about potent secondary scoring, isn’t it? If the Kesler line wasn’t so effective humpty dumpty would’ve kept Chara out there with the twins.

        The chart that one of you did modelling after the Jets chart showing the effectiveness of each Dman. Is there one for the Bruins out there?

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      • Brent
        December 18, 2013

        Darn, I guess you are right. I was looking forward to Daniel sneaking into Chara’s hotel room with a key lifted from one of the house keepers and whacking him on the knee with a collapsable baton. Then fleeing in his yoga pants and going for a latte while the police looked for a weight lifter dude in a hoodie. Too bad, but it would make a good movie.

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      • shoes
        December 18, 2013

        Excellent breakdown, Mr. Mooney. And that was exactly how the Canucks were playing until Kesler got hurt in 2011. The difference in the Boston series that year, was the Sedins spent too much time in the penalty box for getting crosschecked. If they had not lost discipline and allowed themselves to be crosschecked by the big guy, things might have been different in certain games, but Keslers health was the straw that broke the camels back.

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  5. James W.
    December 17, 2013

    Brilliant insight here. This ought to be in the paper.

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    Rating: +27 (from 27 votes)
  6. Sakynesh
    December 17, 2013

    I really enjoy this kind of analysis. Thanks for doing this. Good one. Hope to read more stuff from you.

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    Rating: +13 (from 15 votes)
  7. arjay
    December 17, 2013

    with all that dedicated coverage perhaps torts should have split up the twins? Theres a challenge for your next article, Harrison……..btw, that was some great analysis…any chance your paper retires the resident troll soon and makes you guys “Scribes-in-Chief?” I know thousands…ok, hundreds….ok, already, the dozens who read his yellow journalism would stand up and cheer.

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  8. Kit
    December 17, 2013

    Nice charts, Harrison! (Girls love charts)

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  9. Charlene Fairchild
    December 17, 2013

    Well said… I’d been thinking about this very topic. Think outside the box and don’t play by their expectations. I love your write-up AND I love what Torts is doing.

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  10. Andre
    December 17, 2013

    Coach Breakdown, a new series at PITB.

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    Rating: +22 (from 22 votes)
    • Pavo
      December 17, 2013

      Hear! Hear!

      This most definitely ought to be a regular feature.

      So that when we inevitably start ripping on Torts, we can at least come across as informed :) !

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      Rating: +10 (from 10 votes)
  11. Chris
    December 17, 2013

    I agree with the comments. This is exceptional journalism and analysis. Great work PiTB — keep it up.

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  12. Dani
    December 17, 2013

    Fantastic article, Harrison. I really liked it a lot. I had to listen to the game on the radio – it’s very difficult to watch TV when you’re sit on babies – so I didn’t get to see any of this. Your analysis was fantastic and now I really can’t wait until I get a chance to watch it on GCL.

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  13. Shade of Blue
    December 17, 2013

    Harrison, did that comment yesterday about the writing styles on this blog — Daniel thinking hockey first and you thinking humour first — get to you? Here you come back next day with this terrific piece of analysis! You and Daniel are really raising the bar for quality commentary…

    Oh, and the “stretchy purple underpants” bit was hilarious — glad to see the emphasis on hockey didn’t mean dialing back on the humour!

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    • Harrison Mooney
      December 17, 2013

      Haha I already had this piece in mind when I got that comment. But akidd was right: Daniel and I tend to approach our writing from opposite ends of the spectrum, just as a matter of preference. I like to think we’re both pretty versatile, though.

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      • akidd
        December 17, 2013

        versatile, indeed! i was just making sweeping generalizations there…cuz you asked i suppose. great article, though! and fwiw, i did quickly scroll up to the top to double-check who wrote it, what with all that thorough analysis and all. and charts. so… you kill penalties too!:)

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        • Harrison Mooney
          December 17, 2013

          It is pretty funny that Daniel and I switched roles the day after you nailed us like that.

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          • akidd
            December 17, 2013

            haven’t read the xmas decorations article yet. will get to it later. am looking forward to it. i hope it didn’t come across as ‘nailing’ anybody. we all have different shades to our thing. i guess it might be a bit rude to say, “you are like this, and you are like that.” sorry about that. sometimes you just hit ‘send’…when maybe you shouldn’t. ahhh…anonymity.

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            • Daniel Wagner
              December 17, 2013

              Ha, don’t feel bad about it. Harrison and I thought it was funny and more than a little accurate. No worries.

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              • akidd
                December 18, 2013

                cheers!

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  14. Lemming
    December 17, 2013

    This is why, in following the Canucks, I only read a couple of blogs anymore. This is truly great analysis, and on top of that, incredibly interesting. I love the idea that Tortorella is actually taunting Julien a bit with the matchups. I hope we start seeing this more, because having these two great lines is what allowed the Sedins to score over 100 points in the first place. Teams had two deadly lines to defend against, and couldn’t just hard-match the Sedins for the easy win.

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  15. steveB
    December 17, 2013

    The absolutely perfect palate cleanser to the unpleasant after-taste that was the Milan Lucic debacle.
    Thank you!

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    • Harrison Mooney
      December 17, 2013

      No kidding. I wanted to write this thing yesterday and then that nonsense went down. Flergh.

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      • tj
        December 17, 2013

        Glad you did. I had to go away from the blog for a few days, I hate to admit.

        But to return to this beauty of a piece… Worth it. Thank you. It’s top-notch analysis. Riveting.

        I had recognized there was a clear match-up, and when folks were whinging about the ‘invisible Sedins’ during that game, I figured it had something to do with Chara. But this points out something so much deeper and fascinating about the game Torts plays. No wonder the guys respect him. They’re an intelligent bunch of guys, so they must really love this chess-match approach for a change.

        I’m sort of giddy. Like I get when I want to watch next week’s episode *now*.

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  16. leighisflying
    December 17, 2013

    I have always loved your blog, but this article demanded a congratulatory post! Thank you so much for the brilliant commentary, the humour and the chart.

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  17. Kenji
    December 17, 2013

    Very interesting! Part of me wonders if this was in any way accidentally great coaching – you know, to do the comparison over time – but I sense that it was intentional.

    Tortorella has fooled me. I thought of him as an old-time coach of the “motivation” school (e.g. death glare, spittle, arm waving) period. He reinforced this by saying that he doesn’t know advanced analytics and that he doesn’t really emphasize complex systems. I thought he would just come in and yell at the guys and that’s really it.

    I am sure that he does yell at them plenty. But he also seems to have installed a pressure-the-puck mentality, smart switch-offs on the wall, a couple of breakouts that seem to work well, and is, by this account at least, a heckova good bench manager, putting the right guys out at the right time.

    I also think that Tony Gallagher is right in that it is a shame that Kassian is not being used in a more offensive deployment with the Sedins. But maybe Torts is working on that, teaching Kassian so that he can be ready for that assignment. An assignment that I think is inevitable. Burrows and the Sedins have been a unit for years – a great unit – but thoroughly scouted and clearly shutdown-able in the real season. Kassian would add a new element of reach and just plain menacing demeanour to that line which might confuse defenses.

    Anyway, great article Harrison, a pleasure to read it.

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    • peanutflower
      December 17, 2013

      Maybe Torts has everyone fooled…

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  18. Jason
    December 17, 2013

    This is such good analysis

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  19. Peachy
    December 17, 2013

    Echoeing the many words of praise. Best article I’ve ever seen on Passittobulis, and you guys just posted an article devoted to Christmas sweaters.

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  20. PB
    December 17, 2013

    Really excellent article. Not only in terms of the coaching strategies and available talent now but as a much needed antidote to the myths that have grown up about 2011. And I love the humour, wit and especially the non-sequitor links from PITB, as much as the analysis. Far better done than pretty much anyone else out there. Now to read a IWTG that makes that awful Wild game seem actually interesting…

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  21. tom selleck's moustache
    December 18, 2013

    Superb article, Mooney. It reminds me of a story I read Harry Neale tell about a similar situation when he was coaching the Canucks: it was at home against Montreal and it was all tied up at the end of regulation. He talked about noticing how they only sent out their top line when he sent out this; so he decided to try just sitting them for the overtime period. Evidently, it worked as the Montreal coached never played their top line and the Canucks ended up winning with a score from one of their depth players. But the funny thing was that, apparently, he got a call from Scotty Bowman that evening, who was watching that game and, no longer a fan of the organization, was all over Neale’s improvised strategy and especially thrilled that it led to the end result.

    Anyways, I always appreciate this in depth stuff from you guys and the way you break these things down for us. Keep up the great work.

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  22. Lauren
    December 18, 2013

    This was an exceptional piece in what is quickly becoming my favourite Canucks blog. The sharp humour, wit and Canucks, no, hockey knowledge is an absolute pleasure to read. Even when it’s about a certain whiney Vancouver boy no more.
    Keep it up!

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  23. PD
    December 18, 2013

    Damn fine stuff, Mooney. Damn fine.

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  24. AllanD
    December 18, 2013

    I didn’t get around to reading this for a couple days, but excellent article Mr. Mooney. I’d love to read more like this.

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  25. Salty
    December 19, 2013

    Good read, thanks for the analysis.

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  26. elizabeth
    December 19, 2013

    Nice post you have here. Great analysis! I enjoyed reading it.

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