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.
- – - – - – -John Tortorella, Zdeno Chara