Sunday, April 11, 2010

It is what it is... but what is it?

Two years ago the Boston Bruins entered the playoffs with a "young" team that had bought into coach Claude Juliens's defensive scheme but had great difficulty scoring goals. Most every game was won or lost by a single point. I remember the first shift by Dennis Wideman against Montreal. He was shaky and tentative. To tell the truth the whole team was like that. They lost that first game and the series, but only after coming back and forcing game 7. In the end that team had heart. They knew how to stick in there to win a close one.

Over the summer that followed Julien stated that they were now going to turn their attention to offense. Many people wondered just how they were going to do that, myself included. There was the usual nonsense about signing that mythical high-scoring free agent that changes the whole team, but GM Peter Chiarelli thought the team already had that kind of talent. He was right. Somehow the team that couldn't buy a goal grew into a goal scoring monster the next season. They finished with the best record in the East and only one other team in the league had more goals. To tell you the truth I still don't understand how they did it, although I think it had to do with speed on the breakout. In that regard Phil Kessel was an important ingredient. But he was only out there on one line, so it is difficult to explain how every line last year was so successful on the breakout. Unfortunately, that team was almost too good. They peaked early in most games and cruised to easy wins. And they peaked early in the season and cruised to the playoffs. My big concern going into the playoffs last year was what would happen when they met a good defensive team that knew how to play playoff hockey. To make matters worse they cruised past a Montreal team in the first round that couldn't keep up with them. But they met their match in Carolina, a team that for the first time shut that fast-break offense down. Having forgotten their ability to win a close battle the Bruins stumbled and ended up losing in OT in game 7. I'm pretty sure today that had the Bruins won that series they would have gone on to win the cup because the remaining teams couldn't bring what Carlina had brought to the ice.

After their relative success Chiarelli worked to re-sign the core talent that had made it happen. Unfortunately the very act of keeping that talent may have been what hurt the team this year via complacency.

As the 2009/2010 season opened I made a wish: "In my mind the perfect season for the B's would have more struggle to it, perhaps even finishing 3rd or 4th in the conference. Or maybe fighting their way up through the pack at the end. I'd like to see fewer goals and closer games." Well, I got my wish. The Bruins finished the season near the top in defense and dead last in scoring.

All season long we waited for the Bruins to pick it up. But they seemed to be just getting by. I titled my last post here "The Bruins are Toast" out of frustration. I thought maybe they would pick it up after the Olympics. But no, they didn't. I thought as the season was nearing a close and all the attention was on them in that big game against Pittsburgh that they would finally show some heart. But they didn't. It was hard not to give up on them. Yet somehow, just as we thought it would never happen, as it came down to the final stretch the B's finally came alive. Their run to make the playoffs at the end of this season was nothing short of impressive, particularly as the injuries mounted. Not only did they hang on to make the playoffs as other teams fell by the side, but they ended up in the sixth seed.

So where does that leave us going into the playoffs? The good news is that, unlike last year's team, this one is made for playoff hockey. They know how to win a tough close game. They know how to keep grinding away when things don't go in their favor. And they look like a team again--like it doesn't matter who you put in the uniform, you know you are going to get the same type of play and the same effort. That could be important, because the bad news is that they are really banged up. The B's are going to really miss Marc Savard, particularly on the power play, which has proven to be terrible without him. And just when the defense has started to roll--punishing and frustrating opponents and getting into the scoring--key defenseman Marc Stuart, Andrew Ference, and Dennis Siedenberg are all hurt. Siedenberg likely will miss the entire playoffs.

So, again I ask, where does that leave us going into the playoffs? I don't really know. I believe this team has the talent to win a cup. But I worry that too much of that talent is watching from the stands. I guess this is why they play the games. At the very least I expect the B's to play the role that Carolina played against them last year, spoiling the playoffs for a high-rolling team that won't know what hit them.

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