Thursday, April 24, 2008

A New Beginning

I missed the first half of game seven. I hear the B's did well in the first period, but by the time I tuned in the Habs were already dominating. People talk about momentum, but when it's a close game or close series, momentum in hockey is often a see-saw affair. Although I had hoped for victory, my hockey instincts were telling me that it would be the Hab's turn in game seven. But as we say goodbye to the Bruins, for once it feels less like an end than a new beginning. I only wish the summer were shorter. I'm going to miss this team.

It was an amazing and entertaining journey, from game 2 in Phoenix, which I was able to attend, to game seven in Montreal. Before the season my major concern was whether any coach could bring this rag-tag group of players together. But it didn't take Julien very long to settle that question; on the long opening road trip he forged a team. Time after time all season long this team was tested: a lopsided loss, a key player out, but always they stood up, shook it off, and came back as strong as ever. Every time they fell back on bad habits or were rattled, they bounced right back. The B's were the last team in the league to lose back to back games. And it must be said that the Bruins suffered a league-leading 364 man-games lost to injury, often to key players, yet they soldiered on.

And to those who thought the B's just squeaked into the playoffs in the eighth spot, think again. The fight for the bottom 4 playoff spots was the most intense I have ever seen. It lasted weeks and was win or die nearly every game. When the dust had settled some very good teams were left watching from the outside. None of the teams that made it cared what the order was in the end; getting in was all that mattered. The final standings were so close from top to bottom that had the Bruins simply won more than half their regular season games against Montreal, the Bruins would have finished first in the conference and it would have been the Habs in the 8th seed. That's how much the domination of the B's by the Habs meant to both teams. Against the rest of the NHL the Bruins actually had the better record.

I can't recall the last time I was absolutely certain that this team played all the way to its potential, leaving nothing on the ice. Everyone associated with the Bruins should be very proud.

And as for Montreal, I never felt during the season that the Bruins players "got" the rivalry. They didn't feel it in their guts. But now I am sure they do. And they have also proved themselves against them. I am very much looking forward to the Habs-B's games next year!

There were many individual achievements along the way as well. Tim Thomas finally proved himself beyond the shadow of a doubt, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Chara put to bed any ideas that he is not worth his salary or not up to the leadership role. Marc Savard proved that he could still be among the NHL assist leaders on a team that was near the bottom in goals scored and which had only two 20+ goal scorers and none with 30 or more. He somehow managed an assist on one out of every three goals scored this season. I still have not been able to figure out how that's even possible. Sturm and Kobasew took turns doing exactly what they were expected to do. Metropolit played every game like it would be his last and his example on the ice kept the team moving forward. Ward too was an example on the ice, always playing physically. Perhaps more than any other Bruin it was Ward who was missed most when he couldn't play.

And the kids! There is so much talent coming up from Providence, and even more in waiting. Lucic, Nokelainen, Sobotka and Kessel. Looch seemingly was born an NHL player. Kessel just kept improving, rising to every challenge, steadily getting better and better. There is so much talent that Chiarelli is facing an embarrassment of riches: who to keep, and who to move? Because surely they are reaching the point where they can't keep everyone.

I don't wish to dwell upon it, but it must be said: the one big disappointment of the season was Glen Murray. What happened to him this season is a mystery. He has a long record as a sniper, but this season the goals did not come. It is true that he has slowed a bit, but he was never really the fastest skater. He proved he could still slip into the open spot in the slot, and with Savvy setting him up it should have been a huge year for him. I kept waiting for him to shake it off, but the goals never came. He finished the season with 30 points and a -4. In the playoffs he was a fifth wheel--finishing with no points and -3. It pains me to say it, but for everyone's sake, if the B's can buy him out they should.

Peter Chiarelli has done a great job. He has slowly and steadily improved the team. I was upset with the way Dave Lewis was treated last year, but it is hard not to see how important Julien has been to the team, and snapping him up was the right thing to do when he unexpectedly came available. And it is true that I had hoped for the acquisition of a power forward last summer and believed that Thomas would end up the starter no matter what. So I wasn't exactly happy about his picking up Fernandez. But even this wasn't a terrible move because Thomas responds to competition and he can't play every game. If they go with the Thomas/Fernandez tandem next year it can only be a positive thing.

Lastly, and most importantly, I can't say enough about Claude Julien and the rest of the coaching staff. They were the wellspring from which all good things came; it was they who made it possible for the team and the players to shine. Well done!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Montreal drops the puck: Priceless

Warning: sleeping bear awakened by the drop of a puck. 

What great fun!  What a great gift for the fanbase.  I have a grin five times wider than usual this morning. 

And now the pressing question is this: is Price rattled?  Or will he and the Habs bounce back?  

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kessel Talk

I've been hearing a lot about how the B's should put Kessel into the lineup. But I'm with Julien on this one. Here are Kessl's plus-minus stats for the regular season games against the Habs this season:

-2, -1, -2, -2, 0, -1, -2, -1 = -11

Not only has he not done well defensively against the Habs but he hasn't scored on them either. If those numbers tipped toward the positive at the end of the season I'd think seriously about putting him in the lineup, but that's not the case. Sitting out is probably good for his "character" anyhow.

A couple of other thoughts going into tonight: I expect Julien to change things up with new line combinations. And if they can just get the power play going, that alone could tip this game in their favor.

Unfortunately the last game was probably the best possible outcome for the Habs. They didn't do anything to wake the sleeping bear; they didn't make it angry nor did they embarrass it. Unfortunately, my prediction is that the sleeping bear will not awaken tonight... unless something huge happens.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bruins Lose (Ground)

It's easy to look at the B's loss in game four and see a tight one goal game that could have gone either way. And that wouldn't be all that far off the mark. But after having watched this team play for 150+ games in the last two seasons I saw something else--something disheartening.

As they have consistently done all series the Bruins came out flat in the 2nd. Not terribly flat, mind you, not so flat that they gave up more than one goal. But it was still flat. I spent the whole 2nd period waiting for it to be over, hoping the Habs didn't score more than one goal. What disturbs me about this is that it's the pre-Julien team, with its bad habits and losing ways, rearing its ugly head just a bit.

But with the 3rd period it only got worse. They waited too long to bring it. I have to give a lot of credit to Montreal here, because they turned the tables on the Bruins and beat them at their own game. And I also give Chara high marks for leadership. When he carried the puck into the zone he was saying, "Come on guys, time to bring it!" And for a moment it seemed to work. But only for a moment. And what happened to the energy line of Metro, Noke and Schaefer? They just sort of faded away, and with them the Bruins hopes of making a real series of it. It was like everyone just did what they were told and played a strong defensive game while they waited for Savvy or Sturm to tie it up. But it doesn't work that way, at least not for these guys. Unfortunately this not knowing when to turn it on and take a game away is another hallmark of the pre-Julien team.

But in a sense I know I am over-analyzing this game. The coach no doubt told them to stay disciplined and they did. And I can't say enough about how brilliant Carbonneua's game plan was, adopting a defensive style of play. I just wanted to see more desperation and fire, particularly in the 3rd. It would have felt more like they went down fighting.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bruins Win Game 3

Wow. Can I say that again? Wow! The Bruins victory last night was oh, so sweet. Those of us who have followed this team closely all season know just what it took to get to this spot. I am so happy for those guys! Even if they don't win another game this year, this OT win will be one to remember and to build forward from next season. And to see Wideman go from scared witless in game 1 to that awesome backhand pass to set up the winner... well that's why I'm an avid hockey fan.

For those who didn't see the game, here's how the OT went: it opened with the ice tilted heavily toward the Bruin's end. Montreal had them on their heels and the only thing that kept them in the game was Tim Thomas standing on his head. Big save after big save. They just kept coming. And then it happened. A few players started to take the game back. Nokelainen. Schaefer. Metropolit. Those are the unsung heroes. Metro took the puck right to Price twice in a row, blasting right through a defender the second time. The momentum started to swing. And when a dump in took a huge bounce the B's charged into the offensive zone, drawing a penalty. Thomas skated off and Savvy skated on in his place and smelling blood the B's went right for the jugular. But they never would have had the chance if Thomas hadn't played like the elite goaltender he is.

Now I have to get something off my chest that I have waited a long time for: I knew this day would come. I knew it from late in the 2005/2006 season. I knew it when some jerk taunted me relentlessly when I said Thomas was an elite goaltender in every way that mattered. I knew it when the childish dolts who post at a certain "Rumors" blog adopted the mantra, "Tim Thomas is not a true No. 1 goaltender." I knew it when I read a story by some nitwit who claimed that O'Connell signed Thomas out of revenge when he realized his days were numbered. I knew it when PC picked up Fernandez this summer and many fans assumed he'd be the No. 1. I knew it all along: Tim Thomas is the best thing to happen to the Bruins in a long time. And the irony is this: Tim Thomas was the best signing Mike O'Connell ever made.

So to all of the Thomas doubters I say, "Bite me!"

Game 2: Some LittleThings Others May Have Missed

I've read in two different places that in Game 2 Tim Thomas let in a softy. I watched the goal in question in slow motion and in hi-def and I am convinced the puck was tipped. It grazed the blade of Gorges stick right in front of Thomas, changing the trajectory without slowing it down. The puck didn't get deflected much, but it was enough. Regardless, if you wanted to place blame it would be better placed on Alberts who knocked himself off his feet and got caught way up ice. And come on people, get real. Anytime a shot is taken when an opposing player is left all by himself driving right to the front of the net you simply cannot hang it on the goalie.

The other thing I haven't read about game 2 is how the B's started the second period so badly. There were matching minors as the first period ended, so the second period began 4 on 4. Whether it was a miscalculation or miscommunication I don't know, but the B's played the 4 on 4 like they were on the PK, going into a passive box in front of their net. I was already yelling at the TV before the goal was scored because you could see it coming from a mile away. Apparently Julien miscalculated. It just goes to show how razor thin the margins are for the Bruins defensively. They aren't likely to score more than three goals on any game, so two defensive letdowns and they may not be able to recover.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Game one of the series with Montreal was exactly what I expected. I hoped for more, of course, but had I been forced to make a detailed prediction before hand that's pretty much what I'd have come up with. This is why I didn't want the B's to play the Habs in the first round this season. It isn't difficult to see how this first playoff game for a young inexperienced team, played in a roaring Bell Centre against a team that has owned them all season, would send them reeling. It would have been a miracle if they'd won that game.

It was obvious that the Bruins played poorly all night in their own zone and everyone else has already written about it. I'll just add that Dennis Wideman in particular had a terrible start. He was totally off his game right from the first shift, bobbling the puck in his own zone, making poor decision, getting out of position, losing the puck at the opposing blue line on the PP, and letting Habs fly right past him into the zone unhindered. It was painful to watch. I kept yelling "Aw, no Dennis!" at the TV. What is his nickname anyhow? And why don't I know it?

But I did think the Bruins looked good on the PK. And until the Habs scored their 3rd goal the B's were doing that thing where they slowly take away the momentum of the other team in a grinding fashion. And if you take away the first two "gimme" goals the Habs win 2-1. So take heart, Bruins fans. It's a long series and nobody should have expected a win in the first game.

So now it starts in earnest. Lets hope the B's all pat themselves on the backs and say, "Wow we played in a playoff game!" and then decide their next goal is to win one.

As an aside, I read what Kevin Paul Dupont had to say in this morning's Globe and I am left bewildered. What did he expect? Hasn't he been paying attention? I think his tirade was out of place and poorly informed. He seemed angry that the Bruins didn't suddenly revert to, say, the 1972 team in the locker room before the game. I've been meaning to say this about KPD for some time, so here goes. I think he's a dinosaur. I've been reading him for years and once upon a time he seemed to have an inside track. He'd predict a trade and it would happen. It was like he had Sinden's or O'Connell's ear. Or they tipped him off to their moves or thinking ahead of time. But when management changed he became just another observer. Witness his claim that the B's were going to make a move before the trade deadline this year... and then his excuses afterward for why it didn't happen as he had predicted.

Not only does he no longer have the inside track, but he doesn't even seem to be paying attention. Toss in his ugly cynicism and I no longer see a reason to read him. Sadly there are bloggers out there who cover the B's better than KPD does. Here are two: Gerry Bourdeau and The Bruins Report.

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.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

It's the Habs

According to the Bruins web site their first round opponent will be the Montreal Canadiens. The very thought of playing the Habs in the first round has been haunting me for weeks now. As a long-time Bruins fan I knew it was inevitable. This is the way it always was and always will be. The Habs and the Bruins in the playoffs. When I read the news I wasn't surprised, but I still felt an uneasiness in my stomach.

I know that the Bruins found some success against the Habs a decade ago, but I have a longer memory. I remember 1971 when the Habs stepped in the way of a repeat Cup win. And I remember too many men on the ice in 1979.

I have a short memory too. I recall 2000 when the Habs beat out the Conference-leading Bruins in the first round. But more than anything I have the painful memory of 2004 where the Bruins led 3 games to 1, yet somehow allowed the Habs to intimidate their way to a series win. We didn't know it at the time, and it took several years to run its course, but that game seven marked the end of an era for the Bruins.

And now we have a new team; a new GM, a new coach, and new players. So how will this new team stack up against the Habs? What will history tell of this era and the greatest rivalry in Hockey? If the regular season is any indication, it doesn't look good for Bruins fans. Montreal won all eight games this season, garnering 16 points in the process to the Bruins 1. To put that in perspective if you take away those 16 points the Habs end up in 11th place and out of the playoffs. If the Bruins had taken half the games in the season series, the Habs would have ended behind the Bruins in the standings.

As far as I'm concerned the Bruins have already had a successful season. They not only made the playoffs but they did it like Bruins, leaving nothing on the ice. When they needed to score or needed to win, they did. They are a team that has really already won a playoff series, with four wins and three regulation ties in their seven game playoff run. Every one of the points was critical and they got the job done.

I like Claude Julien's outlook on the playoffs: he said they have nothing to lose against the Habs and everything to gain. He's right. Should the Bruins upset Montreal in the first round it will be a historic victory that Bruins fans could savor for years to come.

But can the Bruins beat the team that they have lost ten games in a row to, going back to last season? I think the answer is yes. They could pull it off. Montreal is bound to come out a little cocky, which would work in their favor. And the Bruins did manage a regulation tie in that last game. The tide could be turning.

But I have to tell you that I am not optimistic. Why? Because the Bruins have fought for a playoff berth all year. That was their goal. They worked hard and faced down adversity to do it. Like I said, they already won a playoff series just to get there. But when they had much of the eastern conference in their rear view mirrors late in the season and the chance to move up in the standing, what did they do? They went into a slump. When they played their last game after making the playoffs what did they do? They lost.

My fear is this: the Bruins have already achieved their goal for the season. With nothing more to play for I am sadly predicting a loss to Montreal 4 games to 1. The Bruins surprised us all with their character this season. Let's hope I am wrong and they surprise us again. Should they beat Montreal, I believe that only Detroit would stop them from winning the cup.

But I must admit to an even bigger fear. Every home game against Montreal this year has been filled with large numbers of loud Habs fans. The prospect of seeing Chara booed in the garden during the playoffs--that is not something that I would enjoy one little bit.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Bandwagon Jumper's Guide to the Boston Bruins (Part 1)

"I gave up on the Bruins when they traded Joe Thornton."

"I gave up on the Bruins because Jacobs was too damned cheap."

"I gave up on the Bruins because the one time they made the playoffs they let Montreal make asses out of them."

"I gave up on the Bruins because they sucked after the lockout."

"I gave up on the Bruins because they were a bunch of over-paid pussies."

If you have ever said something like this then I have very good news for you. Those of us who stuck around after the lockout to see what would happen (all three) have this to report: the Bruins are back!

This guide is for those who gave up on the Bruins but are considering taking another look. I'll be bringing you up to date so you can impress your friends with your encyclopedic knowledge of the new team.

But first, some historical reality. Jacobs really was cheap and it really was a bad thing for the team. You weren't imagining it. But then something crazy happened: Jacobs drove the league into imposing a salary cap. Now with the salary cap in place he can no longer complain about his rich friends driving player prices up with their own money to boost their egos. The Bruins currently spend at or near the cap so the cheapness of Jacobs is no longer a factor. I know you wanted a new owner, but I'm here to say that it no longer matters.

In retrospect it's obvious: Mike O'Connell was a poor manager. That combined with Jacobs' unwillingness to spend the big bucks doomed the Bruins to mediocrity. His teams tended to have one good scoring line and little grit. They could put up big numbers in the regular season but come playoff time they didn't have what it took. Sure, they'd have one guy on the team whose only job was to have a fight. But that is no substitute for playing with the toughness that Bruins fans have come to expect. It was fake and ultimately unsatisfying. O'Connell's greatest achievement was for the Bruins to be humiliated in the first round of the playoffs by the Habs...

This one may be more difficult to swallow: Joe Thornton never really fit in. What he brought to the team was a lot of regular season goals and external validation; there was a buzz around Thornton from all around the continent. We could all bask in his glory. Yet even with all his potential Boston expected too much of him. Joe Thornton should never have been made Captain based on his promise alone. And he should never have been expected to be Neely or take his game to the next level in the playoffs. That's just not the player he is. Losing Joe was a sign of how poorly O'Connell managed the team. It was O'Connell who set Joe up for failure long before he traded him away.

But in case you hadn't noticed, Mike O'Connell is gone too. And Jacobs no longer has the need to be cheap. And despite being one of the biggest stars in the NHL, Thornton still has yet to be a leader or a force in the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins were begun again. And in the last two years they have built a new team that plays hard, physically, and with enormous heart. Peter Chiarelli has played it smart and patiently, making small moves that have incrementally made the team better. And the team in Providence is chocked full of talented, well coached future stars.

This year in particular it has all started to come together. The team is full of leaders, young and old. They stick up for one-another, dropping the gloves when necessary. Even PJ Axelsson dropped his gloves this season! They play with confidence and pride. They have a coaching staff who keeps them on an even keel and gives them a framework for team success. You get the feeling watching the Bruins these days that it doesn't matter who is in the lineup. The coaches could take the Baby B's and get them to the NHL playoffs through sheer grit and teamwork. I'm here to tell you that finally, this is Bruins.

And this time you can believe it.

Next time: we'll meet the team.