Thursday, April 14, 2011

Into the 2011 Playoffs; A Look Back at Recent Bruins History

The 2011 playoffs start tonight against the Montreal Canadiens. I thought it would be interesting to have a look back at how the Bruins got here and how this year's team compares to teams of the recent past.

The current Bruins era began in the summer of 2006 with the hiring of Peter Chiarelli as the new GM. Even before he began his official duties he put the foundation of his Bruins in place with the acquisition of Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. The Bruins were a clean sheet at that time. Owner Jeremy Jacob's referred to his team as being manned by "AHL Players." Chiarelli held on to a few core players, including Glen Murray, Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm, Mark Stuart, and P.J. Axellson. The former GM had left Chiarelli a present, although few realized its significance at the time, with one of his last official acts: the signing of Tim Thomas to an NHL contract. Chiarelli's choice for Head Coach was Claude Julien but he wasn't available. So Chiarelli hired Dave Lewis, the closest thing to Julien he could find at the time. There was a lot of young talent on the way up: goaltending phenom Tuukka Rask, Brad Boyes, Milan Jurcina, Phil Kessel and David Krejci. Some were still in the pipeline and others were debuting with the big club.

In that first season the new Bruins struggled. They failed to make the playoffs, finishing 13th in the conference with 76 points. They were 13th in goals for and 14th in goals against, with the second worst goal differential in the league (-70). The team had a horrible habit of coming our flat in the second period.

Tim Thomas won the 7th player award.

In my post mortem that season I said, "The biggest highlight for the 2006-2007 Boston Bruins was the shootout. Savard loosened things up with his rally caps. Sturm showed that he really had a scoring touch. Kessel shined, becoming the closer. And Tim Thomas, free of his teammates to go one-on-one with the best goal scorers in the league proved that he had the competitiveness to beat them again and again."

Things improved in Chiarelli's second season (2007-2008). In the summer coach Claude Julien became available and Chiarelli wasted no time replacing Dave Lewis with him. The other big move was to pick up Manny Fenandez, who most expected to become the Bruins No. 1 goaltender, although some of us knew better. In February Chiarelli traded Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman. Other new names to appear on the roster were Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, Jeremy Reich, Vladimir Sobotka, and walk-on Glen Metropolit.

That season the Bruins made the playoffs, finishing 8th with 94 points. Once again they were 13th in the conference in goals for, but they had become a respectable defensive team, finishing 5th in goals against. Tim Thomas beat out Fernandez as the starting goaltender. He and Chara were selected for the All-star game in February. The Bruins were the last team in the league to lose back to back games.

Tim Thomas won the 7th player award for the second year in a row.

The Bruins faced Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. They stumbled badly in game one in Montreal, often appearing overwhelmed. I recall Dennis Wideman in particular playing like he'd forgotten how to lace his skates, much less start a breakout. In the end the Bruins took it to game seven but lost 5-0.

Afterward I wrote, "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."

This was Glenn Murray's last season. It ended with an ugly buyout of his contract. Over the summer Julien claimed that the team, which was now sound defensively, would need to improve on offense.

Chiarelli's third season (2008-2009) saw more improvement. They finished on top of the eastern conference and second in the league overall with 116 points. Their offense exploded with a conference leading 274 goals and their defense remained solid, leading the conference in goals allowed. Their goal differential was +78.

Thomas and Chara were selected as all stars again. Thomas won the Vezina as best goaltender, Chara won the Norris as best defenseman, and Julien won the Adams as best coach.

This was also the year Lucic won the hearts of Bruins fans by fighting every tough guy in the NHL, and ultimately winning the 7th player award.

The Bruins faced Montreal again in the first round but swept to an easy victory in four games. In the second round they faced Carolina. During this series Milan Lucic emerged as a game changer. Carolina was a good defensive team with playoff experience. They shut the Bruins rolling offense down and the Bruins didn't seem to know how to respond to it. The Bruins lost in overtime in game 7 on a fluke bounce of the puck.

Afterward I wrote, "So who do we blame for this loss? Timmy? The D-man who let Walker in front of the net? I say, nobody. The Bruins played their best, but in todays NHL it's not like the 70's and 80's. No team can dominate to the point where they can expect to win it all, no matter how good they are. It takes talent, hard play, great coaching, and yes--luck, to win a cup. It was the Hockey Gods who decided this one, and I am good with that."

Over the summer Phil Kessell was traded to Toronto.

Chiarelli's fourth season (2009-2010) brought great expectations based on their previous success. But they got off to a terrible start, playing as if the games didn't really matter. Tuukka Rask replaced Fernandez as the backup goaltender. Both goaltenders suffered from the poor play of the team early on and neither played all that well. But it was Thomas who seemed to get the brunt of it.

One bright spot was beating Philadelphia in the Winter classic. Marco Sturm scored the winner in OT. Thomas made the U.S. Olympic team but was not playing well enough to be the starter.

The team had started to play better but unknown to the outside world Thomas suffered an injury. Rask emerged as the starter after that and played quite well. After a pretty dismal season a strong playoff push won them 6th overall with 91 points and another playoff berth. Somehow they had sunk to 2nd to last in the league in goals for, but they were still near the top in goals against. Their goal differential shrank to +6.

Late in the season Marc Savard was elbowed from behind in a vicious hit to the head by Matt Cooke of the Penguins. He was unable to return until late in the playoffs and he was not himself.

The Bruins faced Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs, beating them in 6 games.

In the second round they faced the Flyers. They won the first three games and seemed poised to win the series. But after that they seemed to lose their heart. Even though they both played, injuries to Savard and Lucic took their toll. Their rookie goaltender Rask played well, but lost his edge as the playoffs went on. In the end the Flyers made a historic comeback to win four straight and move on to the conference final. This was seen as a collapse of historic proportions by Bruins fans.

Chiarelli's fifth season (2010-2011) was solid. Savard tried to come back but his concussion sidelined him for the rest of the season and playoffs. Many new faces were added to the lineup, including Nathan Horton, Chris Kelly, Thomas Kaberle, and Rich Peverly. Rookie Brad Marchand made his mark on the team and won the affection of the fans by playing with heart and grit, winning the 7th player award. Tyler Sequin, the 2nd pick overall, showed signs of becoming a great player, but was not yet fully ready for the NHL.

After off-season surgery Tim Thomas returned to Vezina form and set the all-time record for save percentage in a season.

The Bruins finished 3rd overall in the conference with 103 points, 3rd in goals for and 1st in goals against.

Going into the playoffs this year, this is clearly Chiarelli's best team yet. It has the goaltending necessary to win a cup and it has finally achieved a good balance between offense and defense. Except for Savard they are healthy. Chara and Lucic will lead the team, playing with both hunger and heart. It looks like Horton, in his first playoff series, will as well. Expect solid play from Bergeron and skilled puck movement from Krejki. Being healthy has given coach Julien a means to build a fire under his underachievers, Ryder and Paille. And finally, a cup run usually depends on the lesser stars to step up. Marchand, Thornton and Campbell look ready to fill this role.

In short, only heart, desire to win, and perseverance stand between this team and the cup. That, and the Montreal Canadiens.

Bring it on!

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