Saturday, March 31, 2007

Above the Quiet There's no Buzz

"Years of silence, not enough
Who could blame us giving up?

Above the quiet there's a buzz
That's me trying" -- Nick Hornby

While that might well describe the team effort this season, it brings to mind something else: the Bruins buzz. There isn't any. Not even the tiniest whisper.

There was a time when the Bruins were on every hockey fan's mind, regardless of where they lived or who they rooted for. They were everyone's team. Some hated them, most loved them, and everyone was talking about them. The buzz was deafening.

At the time we all knew it was special. Some may have realized it would one day pass. But few would have predicted that it would one day fade into near silence.

Even the worst team in the league gets people talking, if only about how bad they are. But the Bruins now live in that nether world of obscurity between 8th place and the bottom. As far as the hockey world is concerned, the Bruins are simply forgotten. How else can you explain how one of the top five most talented and exciting players in the world, third in points behind only Crosby and Thornton, didn't make the cut for the all-star game? If you think about it, that's rather extraordinary.

The thing is you can't make the all star game without at least a little buzz.

Look at Pittsburgh last year. There was enormous buzz, even though they were pretty bad and rumored to be moving. People watched them just to see Sid the Kid. But nobody, and I mean nobody--watches the Bruins unless they bleed black and gold.

I don't usually play wannabe GM unless it's NHL '07, but I'd like to see some buzz. I know PC is working toward a Sabres kind of team that rolls three scoring lines. It seems he dreams of fast forwards swirling into the offensive zone and overwhelming the defense with their speed. And that may yet come in time. But until then, we need some buzz. Until then, we need something to get people talking about the Bruins again.

I think that thing could be a high-scoring first line. We already have two of the pieces. With Savard at center and Murray on right wing, all we need is a big-time, high-scoring power left winger. If we get one line scoring at league-leading levels--and with Savard we can--that would cause some buzz. And that buzz might spark the team. And that spark might bring back some pride. And with pride this team can make the playoffs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Embarrasing Win in Ottawa

With most Bruins fans either getting ready for baseball or talking about next year, I thought I'd write a few words about the Ottawa game. The Bruins are following the classic struggling team form by rebounding from a string of losses in important games to beat a hot team, now that the pressure to succeed is gone. Of course, every win from now on in only hurts their draft position, which is pretty funny. Unless you are a Sens fan! Losing to the Bruins at home must have been rather embarrasing!

A couple of notes:

I miss Muzz and PJ. Sometimes I look at the roster and think, "who are these guys?"

It was nice to see Chara smile again.

I think Wideman has really come along in the last few games. He's been hitting more than I expected and he seems pretty good at it.

MacDonald has been a very pleasant surprise. After how poorly Toivanen and Finley fared when thrown into the Bruins defensive grinder he's been impressive!

Jeremy Reich. Wow. Can we order three more of him, one for each line? Please?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Post Mortem Part 1 -- The Bad

With the season all but over I've been doing some reflecting. I recently read with interest what Ference had to say to the Herald on March 22. I listened to Kevin Paul Dupont expound. What they both said seemed to gel with what I have been thinking myself.

First to the question I have been struggling with: is there really anything wrong? Many say that's obvious given the fact that they didn't make the playoffs or even mount a halfway decent attempt at a playoff run. But for a team that is new from top to bottom, much like an expansion franchise, it really isn't fair to expect the playoffs in the first year. So again, is there something deeply wrong?

A lot of the less patient fans began griping about the Bruins way back in the fall. The goaltending isn't good enough, they said. York and Dempsey sucked, they said. I advised patience, particularly about the goaltending. Since then we've seen a lot of games and we've seen a team that struggled badly early-on improve. Thomas went on to prove he is a very capable No. 1 goaltender who can steal games, although not every night. The power play and penalty kill are two areas where the coaching staff has definitely had a positive impact. The power play in particular has really excelled. This team began the season quite capable of taking 5 penalties per period. That number has come down. So it is tempting to simply say this was a rebuilding year and that next year will be better. But again, is that a reasonable expectation or is there something seriously wrong?

The game that summed up the season for me was the last home game against the Habs. The Bruins came out on fire in the first period, dominating physically and emotionally. Kessell and his line scored the first goal out of pure hustle. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the season, which looked flaccid in comparison. Chara finally used his size to stand up players at the blue line and didn't hold off on the boards like he was afraid to hurt someone. In fact, their second goal came moments after he made a huge hit in the offensive zone. Finally, the Bruins had awakened! Perhaps in time to make the playoffs (a long shot), but definitely in time to beat the Habs at home, which should always be a moment of pride for any player who dons the spoked B.

But as the second period started the edge slowly came off their play. The hits became less brutal. The hustle faded. The tide turned and by the 3rd the Habs were dominating the play.

As the guys on Mythbusters would say, "Well there's your problem!"

Since before Christmas we've heard Dave Lewis sing the same song. The players have to pay the price. But by and large they never did, or at least when they did, they didn't do it consistently. Looking back, it was like each player only felt he had to prove himself for a period here, and a shift there. But when, I ask, did the team ever prove itself? The answer is they never really did. And that I believe, is two problems: inconsistent play from every player (except Thomas, Savard, Murray and Axelsson). And a lack of pride in, feeling of belonging to, and ultimately a responsibility to--a team.

So back to the question, can we expect these serious problems to be solved by this time next year?

Fans have been complaining about Lewis starting early last fall. I've heard the complaints so many times: he doesn't let the kids have a chance to play, he doesn't keep the lines together consistently, he instructs the team to go into a defensive shell at the wrong moments, he benches players who are playing well in favor of those who aren't, and he doesn't use his time outs properly. Many fans read these things so often they stop questioning them, accepting them as fact. But I think those complaints are all nonsense. If true we'd have to believe Lewis is completely stupid and knows half as much about hockey as the typical fan. I don't think that very likely. In fact, considering that he identified the main problem with this team months ago, I'd say he knows exactly what he's doing. In fact, I think many of these things fans complain about are signs of Lewis struggling for ways to motivate and hold accountable the players. But after a full season the bottom line is: it's not working!

I don't know whether or not Lewis can make the players accountable next season or not. It's up to Chiarelly to decide that. If Lewis sticks around look for the gloves to come off the coaching staff next season. Look for real accountability. Look for stars like Bergeron to sit on the bench. Look for the players to be bitter about the way the coaches treat them. If by Christmas we are still seeing spotty efforts by individual players then in my opinion Lewis will have failed.

As for the team problem, I doubt any coach can fix that--not in a year or even two. Before the beginning of last season when Bruins fans were excited about their new team, I read a comment by a journalist (I forget who) that at the time infuriated me. He said that the, "Bruins have forgotten how to win." I was incensed because how could a team that had been rebuilt from top to bottom be categorized like that before they even had a chance to play? I think I see now what he meant and he was right. What I failed to realize is that winning as an institution isn't something that any random group of people can accomplish out of the starting block. Learning to be a winner takes time and effort and continuity. So of course they have forgotten how to win.

In my opinion, the downfall of this team began with the loss to the Habs in the first round in 2004. It was the culmination of O'Connell's work and it wasn't good enough. Then came the lockout, where the strategy of the owner was to gut much of the team and start over. The final nail in the coffin was the "new NHL" with its promise of players free-wheeling around unhindered, a low contact high-scoring affair like an all-star game. No team bought into the "new NHL" like the Bruins did. A premium was placed on speed and skill. The players themselves, particularly Joe Thornton, bought into it. Much of this "new NHL" was a mirage, even in its first year. And now that the "new NHL" once again looks very much like the old one, where emotion and courage and grit and physical play can still trump skill, the Bruins will have to get bigger and badder again in order to get back their winning ways.

The fact is, Jacob's lockout strategy destroyed our Bruins. They are gone. That link to successful teams of the past is broken and will never come back. They will have to find a way to forge a new culture of winning, and unfortunately that could take many years.

Next time: Part 2 -- The Good

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Throttle

I've been thinking about the 2006-2007 Bruins and although they have come a long way since the start of the season, overcoming a host of problems, it seems to me that they have consistently been plagued by one major difficulty throughout: throttle control.

No team can play every shift of every game at 100% throttle for 82+ games. There are natural ups and down during the season, and during each game.

I often wonder if individual players don't know, somewhere in the back of their minds, that if they go flat out every shift that they run the risk of sitting out much of the season with injury.

So when do you coast a bit? And when do you turn it on? As a team fighting for a playoff berth, as a team fighting for momentum in a game, and as a player.

Early in the season this was an obvious problem during games. They lacked confidence in everything from the system to each other to their place on the team and it really showed. One of the ways it showed was that they were clueless as a unit when to take it to the other team. Another way it showed was their reaction to another team turning up the heat on them, often utterly collapsing when pressed in their own zone. And another was their reaction to truly getting beat; I don't think it was coincidence that their big slide happened after the Nashville game. After the game the coach seemed perplexed. He said that they had played well. Yet they clearly had their asses handed to them! I think that game led to a team meltdown.

As the season progressed they got better during games, sometimes taking it to another team when behind, and collapsing less and less in their own zone. But I think the problem is still there, it just isn't as obvious.

When the season started they'd come out at 75% throttle for two periods and then try to turn it up in the 3rd. But they soon discovered that it was often too late by then. Then they went through a time when they'd dominate the other team in the first period, only to give up the lead in the other periods. Unable to go 100% all the time, they seem to me to always be searching for that opportune moment to turn up their throttle.

Despite all the talk about momentum and coming out desperate in the first period, the Bruins came out just a bit tentative against both the Caps and the Rangers. They were able to fight back against the Caps, but the Rangers are a much better team. Why didn't they come out at full throttle? Why didn't they stand up on the blue line? Playing defense isn't rocket science! Just be brutal when the other team enters the zone! Poke checks are nice, but you sometimes have to make them pay the price.

From here on out it should be easy. Full throttle all of the time, from start to finish. And when a player enters your zone, for God's sake throttle him!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Lesson in New York

I think the reason the Bruins lost tonight was (tongue firmly in cheek) because the Rangers scored seven goals and the Bruins didn't score any. Ba-rump-bump.

I can't really say I was all that surprised. I knew going in that the Bruins can expect real trouble from the Rangers. And the Islanders. And the Thrashers. And the Flyers.

I know that any of the die hard complainers still paying attention will likely be very bitter, blaming Chara, the effort, the coaches, the GM, etc. I thought they gave it a good try. But you don't always win. The Rangers are one of those teams that are much better than they often play, and this night they brought their best.

I've looked at this season from the beginning as a rebuilding effort. Like Lewis I saw them someplace between 7th and 12th place at season's end. There have been so many lessons learned (and a few that weren't). The question in my mind is, can the Bruins learn how to suck it up and beat the Rangers on their next (and last) try? I'll be interested to see.

Meanwhile we have the Habs on my birthday! Incidentally, it will be Robert Gordon Orr's too. I've always said that any win against the Habs is as good as a first round playoff victory (or at least it feels as good). So here's hoping I'm not disappointed!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Huge Win

Forget about the Caps having lost 8 in a row. Forget about how they were playing for nothing, long since out of the playoff race. This was a team that smelled blood on the Bruins and they wanted the kill and they wanted it bad. It seems a silly thing to say, but this game had playoff intensity. The B's came out hitting and the Caps hit right back. The B's took it to them in the offensive zone and the Caps took it right back.

And the puck kept going into the Bruin's net.

I was downright angry at the end of the first. Not at the players or the coaches, but at the Hockey gods who seemed to take some perverse pleasure in putting the Bruins behind the eight ball. With every missed pass, missed shot, and bounced puck I became angrier. Kolzig was standing on his head and looked unstoppable. I kept thinking, is this how the season ends?

It was the end of the second and the Bruins were on the power play, down 2 goals. The crowd was roaring as they set up in the zone. I thought, "Here it is. This is when they will score and get back into the game." And no sooner had I thought that when the Caps broke free and scored a shorty! It's all over right?


If there were a Stanley Cup for shootouts, the Bruins would be a contender. With the feisty goaltending of Thomas and the Rally-Cap inspired goal scoring of Sturm and Bergeron they are a force to be reckoned with. Add their secret weapon Phil Kessel and they are almost unbeatable!

That's one game down, twelve to go; 2 of 20 points likely required for the playoff drive. As with all the big wins this season, this game stands by itself in my mind. No matter what the next game or the rest of the season brings, right now, tonight, the Bruins are winners.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

By the Numbers

I've run the numbers for the Bruins chances to make the playoffs with 13 games left:

Projecting to the end of the season based on present performance starting at 7th place:

93 NYI
90 CAR
90 TOR
89 NYR
88 MON
84 BOS
83 FLA

If nothing changes the Bruins will finish 12th. So is it too late for the Bruins? Ignoring the likelyhood of playing well for the moment, is it even possible for them to make the playoffs? The answer is yes. The 8th playoff spot can likely be had with 91 points, which would mean the Bruins would have to pick up 20 points in the remaining 13 games. That works out to going 10-3. And how likely is that given their record this year? The Bruins went 10-3 during a stretch in November/December so
it really is possible, although I'll leave how likely it is up to the reader. The key thing to look for from the Bruins in the closing 13 game stretch is 3 losses. If they lose more than 3 games it is unlikely they will make the 8th spot.

There are two other factors I haven't considered here: the play of the other teams in the hunt and the fact that the Bruins are going to play two of the teams in front of them, something which can work very much for or against them depending on the outcome. The Bruins play the Canadians three times and the Rangers twice. That's five key games, of which they need to win at least three. Taking both games against New York would all but guarantee passing them, assuming the Bruins do reasonably well in their other games. I've heard it said that for the Bruins to make the playoffs other teams would have to do poorly, but that's not yet the case. Their future is still in their hands.

There is no question in my mind that the Bruins have the talent to win these games to make the playoffs, and even upset Buffalo in the first round. We've seen flashes of a great team all season long, but only here and there. We've basically been waiting for them to get their act together from the beginning. If they finally do it, they can do great things. Otherwise it'll be an early tee time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

If the Bruins Made the Playoffs

We may not get the chance to see the Bruins in the playoffs this year. So here's a simulation of what we will likely otherwise miss:

Game 1: they come out befuddled and confused and play poorly. Timmy is hung out to dry by the D. They spend the whole game in the box, including two 5-on-3's that come when Chara shoots the puck over the glass on the PK. It's a humiliating 4-1 loss.

Games 2 and 3: they look like a champion, working hard, playing good strong defense, and scoring loads of goals, including an OT winner. Timmy plays strongly. Both games are wins. Fans start to think they might actually win the series...

Game 4: this is the game they forget to show up for. An embarrassing loss 7-1 in which we see Timmy relieved in the second period after giving up 4 goals in the first. Some dolts think its his fault, but most realize that his team let him down.

Game 5: They play a strong game, maybe the strongest of the series. Timmy stands on his head! But they lose by a fluke goal early in the 3rd when a puck bounces off of Ference's skate. It's a hard loss 1-0.

Game 6: They give it a good effort, but don't play their best. Their play isn't exactly bad, but there's no passion from anyone. It's a 4-1 loss.

There's always next year!