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This is Part 1 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we start with a team-level look a what happened.

We’re rapidly approaching playoff time, and I’m excited to be more than a side observer without serious rooting interest. Of the most likely Columbus matchups? I’m probably least pleased by the prospect of the Jackets facing the Boston Bruins. The perception is that the Bs are an unstoppable force in the Eastern Conference, that they have few real weaknesses. It’s the Bruins and then everyone else, says The Hockey News. And to date, that seems quasi-reasonable. As of this writing, the Bruins are the only Eastern team above 54% in 5-on-5 close Fenwick For %, bolstered by the likely Selke Trophy winner (and beloved possession monster) Patrice Bergeron, and possible Norris contender Zdeno Chara.

There’s also a perception that the Pittsburgh Penguins are the “top” team that lower seeds should be hoping to face. Rough play from Fleury tends to pop up, but the Pens’ Eastern Conference Finals “collapse” last year at the hands of the Bruins was described as a team-wide failure. We haven’t seen a fully healthy Pens team very often this year, but if recent playoff history means anything, we should write off Pittsburgh right now.

Allan Muir at Sports Illustrated paints a picture of the fallout and rationalizes the “why” immediately following the 4 game sweep in 2013. His 8th paragraph is a doozy, and seemingly an indictment of the whole Pittsburgh franchise.

These Penguins have consistently settled for less. Not because they don’t know where to dig, but because it probably never occurred to them they needed to. This is a team that continues to prize skill over will. Was that ever more apparent than last night? Watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trying to skickhandle their way through Boston’s smothering defense only to be rejected again and again offered the perfect allegory to their failings. Right to the end, the Penguins thought talent would win out. The Bruins were a team that thought team would win out.

Pretty brutal, no? If Muir’s to be believed, it’s that grit and defense that should bring the Bruins to the forefront again, and see the Pens dispatched by anyone who dares challenge their skill. Easy as that right? Bring on the Pens!

Of course, the lopsided first two games completely changes the narrative appearance of the series. Our minds are quick to recall 3-0 and 6-1 scores, big and obvious victories for Boston. We also remember the Pens only scoring 2 goals in the series. Surely, it’s all a clear vindication of the gritty team-type game. There’s no way the Pens can hope to succeed in with the Bs in their way, right? Heck, any team might out-will their skill-only style!

Except… it’s not so pretty for the 2013 Bruins, and the Pittsburgh stars were hardly kept under control.

The shot differential data reveals a troubling story for Boston. The table below shows (from a Pittsburgh perspective) the FF% at even strength and 5-on-5 close in all four ECF games.

Pens vs Bs FF

 

Well, huh. That doesn’t seem to match what we were told. I thought the Pens were smothered? How did they manage to generate so many shot chances, especially in their (supposedly) ineffective Games 3 and 4?

Some caveats: the first two games are impacted by score effects (Boston being up early and by a whole bunch, especially in that 2nd match). That makes it difficult to draw too many conclusions from those 5-on-5 data sets. 5-on-5 close gets us more information on the opening pair in Pittsburgh without score effects, so we get a glimpse (even if the sample is small).

Taken as a whole, the series does not look Boston-dominated. In fact, I think it’s pretty easy to argue that Pittsburgh was the superior team for the majority of at least three contests (except on the scoreboard, of course). Rather than the Penguins folding thanks to their reliance on skill, their skill managed to put them in a good place to win. In a vacuum, you’d want to build a team on the kind of shot differential the Penguins generated. It’s the long-term key to success.

The 2013 Eastern Conference Finals were not a funeral march for the Pittsburgh Penguins or their style of play. The franchise didn’t need to rebuild, abandon their stars, or abandon their coach. And in fact, they didn’t change direction.

Of course, there’s more to this story. The Penguins did lose, so the questions exist: who is to blame? Were the elite Penguin players really a gutless and ineffective group when forced to contend with the Bruins?

Part 2 of this series will look at what happened for some of the top skaters on each squad. Part 3 will try to explain why the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals and not the Penguins.

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