Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Bandwagon Jumper's Guide to the Boston Bruins (Part II)

I've been a Bruins fan for a long time and I haven't been this excited about the team for many years. I love this team. For me it's not just about expecting them to win a cup for me. I enjoy vicariously following this family of eclectic and interesting people as they struggle for success. In part II of this series we will have a look at the Bruins stars.

At 6' 9" Bruins captain Zdeno Chara (defense #33) is the tallest man to ever play in the NHL. He's so big that when he checks people they just sort of disappear under him. Sometimes opposing players look like caged animals along the boards, the bars being his arms and legs. "Big Zee's" stick is so long it's said the the NHL dropped the maximum stick length rule to accommodate him. For a big man he's fast, although he can't exactly turn on a dime. But with that long reach and his smarts even the fastest players don't usually get by him. "Zee" is also renowned as a fitness fanatic who spends 6-7 hours per day training in the off season and is an avid cyclist. This season Zee had 51 points in 77 games, was second in scoring among NHL defensemen with 17, and was +14. He's the primary cog in both the power play and penalty kill and usually logs more minutes per game than any other Bruin. Last season he logged more minutes than any other player. This season he was a first-team all star and has won the NHL's hardest shot competition two years in a row.

Late in the season the Bruins played a critical game against the red hot Washington Capitols, who were making a strong run from behind in the standings and had defeated the B's in their previous meeting. Even though it was weeks before the end of the season the team knew that they had to win that game. Near the end of the first period Zee let go a big slapper from the point during a power play. He winced and headed down the tunnel. The report was that he had his skates off and would not be returning. But as the third period opened, with the B's down a goal, there was the Bruins captain on the bench. Late in the game he launched another of his huge slappers for the tying goal and the Bruins won in overtime. It turned out that he had a dislocated shoulder and missed several games afterward. After that I doubt that anyone who was paying attention will ever again claim that big Zee isn't a leader.

Center Marc Savard (#91) is said to be one of those guys we all knew in school who was always laughing and easy going, yet whenever he played any kind of game he always had to win (and usually did). "Savvy" is the guy who came up with Rally Caps for shootouts where all the players on the bench would turn their helmets around. It made them look rather silly, but it also loosened everyone up. When the Bruins did it last year they had huge success in the shootout.

Savard is known as one of the best playmakers in the NHL today. He's incredibly creative and never seems to do anything the same way twice, which can stymie opposing players and linemates alike. As a rookie with the Rangers he roomed on the road with Gretsky. Later with Atlanta he had a personal high of 97 points. In each of the last three seasons he's put up 60+ assists. This season he finished 3rd in the NHL with 63. Yet even with his big numbers there has been a knock against Savard: his defensive play. He's been on the minus side of the plus-minus for most of his NHL career. But this season was a breakout year for him defensively that saw him helping out in his own end at critical times. He finished the season +4.

Savard was an all-star this season and scored the winning goal for the Eastern Conference.

Goaltender Tim Thomas (#30) is one of those guys that people either love, or love to hate. He won the Seventh Player Award two years in a row yet he has been maligned by some Bruins fans. A common refrain last season was, "Thomas is not a true No. 1 goaltender." And apparently the Bruins GM agreed, at least to some extent, because his big move last summer was to sign free agent goaltender Manny Fernandez. But as I and others predicted "Tank" Thomas rose to the challenge with an amazing start to the season. At one time last fall he was ranked as the top player in the NHL by TSN. Timmy won the starting job long before Fernandez went down with a season-ending knee injury.

An incredible competitor, Thomas simply doesn't care how he looks. All he cares about is stopping the puck, sometimes flopping about in a most unseemly manner. Maybe it's because I've been a fan of goaltending for a long time--long before anybody thought to say there was a "right" way to play goal--but I saw greatness in him from his first game wearing a spoked-B. My favorite goaltender growing up was Tony Esposito. In those day fans were thrilled by goaltenders literally standing on their heads. Every goalie had his own unique style and that was celebrated. Tim Thomas has some of that in him, but today people expect all their goaltenders to play in the same conservative way and he doesn't fit the mold. But in the end, this doubting that he has consistently overcome in his career may be the very thing that has propelled him to greatness.

What Thomas lacked last season was a solid backup. Timmy is just too intense to play every game for long stretches at a time. He tires mentally. The late addition of Alex Auld has finally brought the Bruins (and Thomas) the quality backup they needed.

Thomas was an all-star this season and finished with 28 wins and a 2.44 GAA. His GAA would have been much better except that the Bruins gave up a few blowouts late in the season when it seemed the entire team failed to show up to play. Even then, his 0.921 shot percentage was the 4th best in the NHL.

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