BOSTON — After every victory, the Boston Bruins award a U.S. Army Ranger jacket to their player of the game. He receives it from the last man to earn it. The jacket fits whoever wears it in the dressing room for two reasons: One, it honors the military motto “Rangers lead the way.” Two, it is camouflage.
On this team, the leaders blend in.
Who got the jacket Monday night after the Bruins dominated the Chicago Blackhawks in a 2-0 victory, taking a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final?
Goaltender Tuukka Rask, who made 28 saves and recorded his third shutout of the playoffs? Captain Zdeno Chara, who collided with teammate Milan Lucic in warmups, took stitches to close a cut in his head before the puck dropped and played his usual shutdown defense? Center Patrice Bergeron, who scored on the power play, won 24 of 28 faceoffs and played his usual shutdown defense? Daniel Paille, the grinder who scored for the second straight game?
None of the above. Chris Kelly, the veteran whose first-intermission words and second-period goal woke up the Bruins in Game 2, gave the jacket to …
Seidenberg didn’t record a point. He wasn’t even on the ice for a goal. But on a night when the Bruins didn’t allow the Blackhawks room to breathe, let alone score, the veteran defenseman played more than 25 minutes against top players, blocked a game-high six shots and tied for a game-high four hits. That’s why.
“That’s my job,” Seidenberg said. “I haven’t really been scoring, doing anything offensively. I better do that stuff. It’s fun. I enjoy playing tough minutes and doing the little things, just like everybody else in this room. We all thrive in tough games.”
[Related: The great Marian Hossa Game 3 injury mystery]
The Bruins are thriving now. Starting with their epic comeback in Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs – rallying from a 4-1 third-period deficit, winning in overtime, cheating death – they have not lost in regulation. They have gone 11-2 with their only two losses coming in OT.
In the Eastern Conference final, they faced the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins, who had the top offense in the NHL in the regular season. They allowed only two goals in four games. They allowed Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal and Kris Letang no points. None.
Here in the Stanley Cup Final, they face the star-studded Blackhawks, who had the second-best offense in the NHL in the regular season. They allowed four goals in a 4-3 triple-overtime loss in Game 1. They allowed a goal early in Game 2 when badly outplayed in the first period. But since? They haven’t allowed a goal in 122 minutes and 26 seconds – the equivalent of more than two regulation games.
They have killed 27 straight power plays, too, going back to the second round.
“We’re playing the best hockey of the season right now,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “That’s what you’ve got to do to give yourself a chance to win a Stanley Cup.”
The Bruins do not always play their best. We saw it down the stretch, when they seemed worn out by a jam-packed schedule. We saw it in the first round, when they blew a 3-1 series lead against the Leafs. We saw it in the first period of Game 2 in this series. At times, Julien has called them “Jekyll and Hyde.”
But at their best, they are a machine – a meat grinder. Especially on a night like this, when the ice was so bad Seidenberg compared it to sandpaper, they make it rough.
When the Blackhawks lost star scorer Marian Hossa to an upper-body injury right before the game, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville scrambled. He tried all kinds of combinations. He had his best players on three separate lines at one point. He finally tried Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together behind by two in the third.
What could he do? Split them up, and someone would run into Chara, a winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, and someone else would run into Bergeron, a winner of the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. Put them together, and they might run into Chara and Bergeron both.
“I was as surprised as anybody else,” said Julien of Hossa’s absence. “But to be honest with you, there wasn’t any changes in our game. … We don’t make our game plan based on an individual.”
They don’t make it based on an individual on their team, either. They don’t just have Rask or Chara or Bergeron. They have a deep, balanced, disciplined, committed group. Center David Krejci is the playoffs’ leading scorer with 23 points, but he said: “I’m going into every game with the mindset to play good defensively.”
Julien can roll four lines – or three now, because he’s missing key fourth-liner Gregory Campbell, who broke his leg blocking a shot against the Penguins, got back to his feet, kept fighting and finished his shift. He has everyone playing his system. The Bruins come back hard defensively. They support each other. They box out. Try to find a passing or shooting lane, and a stick or body is often in the way. Try to get to the net, good luck.
[Watch: Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask bleeps it up during TV interview]
As good as Rask has been – and he has been good enough so far to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, like Tim Thomas did in the Boston net in 2011 – his teammates have put him in position to succeed. They keep lots of shots to the outside. They keep his vision clear. Rask doesn’t allow many rebounds, absorbing pucks into his body or directing them away, but when he does, there often isn’t an opponent able to cash in. Somebody clears the puck. Crisis averted.
“They’re backchecking, having layers, so when somebody makes a mistake, you have somebody covering up,” Julien said. “We’re blocking a lot of shots. The commitment is totally there. Throughout a whole season, it’s not easy to have that full commitment. But I think when you get to this stage, players start feeling it. They go above and beyond. That’s what you’re seeing from our team right now.”
You’re even seeing it from Tyler Seguin, the 21-year-old who was drafted second overall in 2010 and has been known as a soft, offensive player. Though he hasn’t been producing much offensively, he has been skating and driving deep in the Boston zone, trying to do his part.
You’re even seeing it from Jaromir Jagr, the 41-year-old who made his legend winning MVP awards and scoring titles. Though he doesn’t have a goal in these playoffs, he has shown creativity with the puck – he set up Bergeron’s power-play goal Monday night – and won battles along the wall. Despite his natural tendencies, despite his personal frustration, he has bought in.
“I like to make plays all the time, don’t dump it in, sometimes not make the safe play,” Jagr said. “I’m used to making plays all the time. So guys here, they always make the safe plays. They’re always good on the defensive side of the game. These are the things I have to get used to.”
It’s easy to get used to winning.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Paille, Bergeron lead Bruins over Blackhawks to take 2-1 series lead in Cup final
• Photo gallery: Stanley Cup Final action on and off the ice
• What We Learned: The problem with the NHL Awards? The voters
• San Jose Sharks' Logan Couture isn't going anywhere