Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 2011 Boston Bruins Post-Season

Here is a series by series breakdown of the 2011 Boston Bruins post-season.

Montreal: Depth vs. Speed

As I said before the post-season began (and as many other people also argued) Montreal's team speed presented a major challenge to the Bruins. Even though the Bruins comfortably won their division, they had a losing record against Montreal. Early in the series it looked like that speed was in fact going to kill. But the Bruins won all three of the overtime games played, including game 7 and that difference allowed them to get past the speedy Habs. Ultimately, the Bruins dominance in OT came down to team depth. The Bruins could roll 6 defensemen and 3-4 forward lines, while PK Subban was on the ice pretty much non-stop and the Habs only really played 2-3 forward lines. So when it came time to put an extra 20 minutes on the clock, the Bruins had a lot more energy left than the Habs and that evened out the speed. In the end, the Habs just didn't have enough players to beat the Bruins in a 7 game series.

Looking Forward for Montreal: In some ways, I really want to like Montreal. When not whining and diving P. K. Subban is one of the most exciting players to watch. Subban is probably the best three-zone defenseman in the league after Dustin Byfuglien. I also think Carey Price is a great goalie. And when the defensive core comes back from injury, the Habs should be an early favorite to contend for the Northeast division or even the Eastern Conference. But the Montreal fans seem to boo Carey Price more than Boston fans, even when he helps a depleted team to a 7 game series against a much better opponent. Subban occasionally embarrasses himself invalidating all the nice things I want to say about him. And speaking of embarrassing themselves, Montreal's reaction to Chara's hit on Pacioretti was perhaps the most ridiculous arrangement of human emotions I've seen recently. Let's hope no one got hurt while the emergency phone lines were tied up. Then again, in the same way that Red Sox vs. Yankees is good for baseball, a vibrant Bruins vs. Canadiens is good for hockey, so maybe there is a good side to this antagonism.

Philadelphia: 54 Saves

Even though they finished higher than the Bruins in the standings, I was glad to face Philadelphia rather than Buffalo in the second round. Much like Montreal, Buffalo gave the Bruins problems all season with their good team speed, and, in the playoffs especially, I would rather the Bruins face Boucher than Ryan Miller. (Really anybody other than Ryan Miller.) Philly essentially spotted the Bruins the first game with a sluggish, totally uninspired performance. Very few teams get through an entire playoff run without a bad game or two and the Bruins were just lucky to get one of Philly's bad games.

But the Flyers came to play in Game 2 and dominated every Bruin except one: Tim Thomas. The Flyers hit harder, skated faster, passed better and won every aspect of the game except the one that counted. Thomas plays anything less than a miraculous game, the series is tied 1-1, and the entire nature of the playoffs could have changed. The Flyers never recovered. They played the next two games like a team that didn't think it could win, and, as a result, it didn't.

Looking Forward for Philadelphia: You can't win a Stanley Cup without quality goal tending. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of the Vezina Trophy finalists were in the Finals. A team doesn't need the best goalie in the league to win, but a team does need consistent quality play from the goalie. So even though Philly should make the playoffs next year, or even win the division again, Boucher hasn't shown himself to be good enough to lead his team to the cup.

Tampa Bay: The Save and the Perfect Hockey Game

I wish this series was the Stanley Cup Finals. The teams played hard, with respect for each other and the game. You know there is something good going for a team when their young superstar goal scorer shrugs off a slap-shot to the face. With the way Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis and the rest of the team played, it's not hard to see why the St. Petersburg Times Forum is constantly packed. I'm not a fan of southern expansion teams in the NHL, but I became a fan of these Tampa Bay Lighting.

If Tim Thomas gets a statue outside the Garden, he posed for it in Game 5, and it would be oddly parallel to Orr's. The Bruins were holding on to a 1-goal lead, the Lightning were storming the net, and suddenly Steve Downie had the puck on his stick 2-feet from a wide open goal. Thomas dove across the net and, in a season where he made jaw-dropping save after mind-blowing save, made the greatest save of his career, getting his stick on the shot. In a lot of ways, the Bruins got to the finals on that save.

Game 7 might have been the best hockey game I have ever seen. Every other moment or so I found myself muttering some permutation of “Good play.” The game absolutely flew by, the way a really good party flies by. There were simply no mistakes. In playoff games and especially in game sevens, referees usually call fewer penalties, but their reluctance to make a call was not the reason no penalties were called in the game; there were no penalties called because there were no penalties committed. And the lone goal wasn't some lucky bounce. Roloson didn't give up a soft one, Tampa Bay didn't make a bad change, a defenseman didn't blow his assignment; it was just the one moment when the great offensive play was greater than the great defensive play. The handshakes at the end. Thomas and St. Louis meeting at center. Thomas's joyous interview at the end. Only the cup was missing from one of hockey's great moments.

Looking forward for Tampa Bay: Much like Philly, the biggest question for the Lightning will be in goal. Roloson had a good run but it was clear near the end that he was running out of gas. But with Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos, there's no reason to expect a Tampa Bay-less playoffs next year.

Vancouver: Get the Duck Boats Ready

So I've heard that if you can't say something nice about somebody, you shouldn't say anything at all, so I have something nice to say about Vancouver. Just later. Unfortunately, one of the legacies of this Stanley Cup Finals will be the on-ice and on-microphone conduct of the Canucks.

It started with Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron and getting away with it, only to be followed by Maxim Lapierre taunting Bergeron the next game, after the league decided not to suspend Burrows. There's always a bit of gamesmanship in hockey, and had Lapierre stuck his fingers in say, Brad Marchand's face, it would have been one thing. But Patrice Bergeron is one of the classiest most professional players in the game. The Bruins eventually responded in kind in terms of taunting, so I don't suppose they end up completely on the high ground, but if I remember the playground correctly, despite what the teachers might say, it does matter who started it.

Then there was Aaron Rome's hit on Nathan Horton, a YouTube Video of which I will not post here, because it turns my stomach to watch. The easiest way to characterize the hit, might be through Alain Vigneault's statement—in that the hit was the opposite of what Vigneault said it was. Obviously, the coach of the Canucks isn't going to insult his own player, but the blame the victim assertion that Horton was “watching his pass” is both unprofessional and, well, factually incorrect. Right after he passed the puck Horton did glance up, and in seeing no one in front of him, put his stick on the ice, started to drive to the net, and looked back at Lucic who had the puck. Horton looked up, Rome was just too far away for him to maybe even see him, let alone expect a hit to come from him. Vigneault also called the hit “a little late.” In the NHL, a hit is late if it occurs a half-second after the player has passed or shot the puck. Rome's hit on Horton occurred almost a full-second after Horton passed the puck. “Almost twice as” is quite a bit different from “a little.” And even without that, it was still directed at the head, which is the kind of hit, I'm told the NHL is trying to eliminate. The Bruins responded with an 8-1 demolition of the Canucks.

And the Canucks started diving. It seemed like every goal mouth scuffle featured a Canuck throwing his head back as if he'd courageously taken a slapshot to the face or curling over like he'd been cut nape to par. Burrows's antics with Lucic on the faceoff.. Sedin's bending and flopping around Chara. The referees, however, were having none of it, and by game 5 or 6, the Bruins could pretty much do whatever they wanted to Canucks in these scuffles.

I don't think I need anything to add about Luongo's comments. They're going to follow him for the rest of his life.

And you'd think in Game 7, on their home ice, and with the hockey world beginning to doubt them, the Canucks would focus on playing the game, and many of them did. But twice, Canucks took blindside runs at Bruins defensemen, Higgins on Chara (and you really have to mean it to elbow Chara in the head) and Hanson on Ference. After all the work both teams put in to get where they got. It was just sad to see. (Can you imagine the tone I would have taken about this if the Bruins had lost?)

For the Bruins, the Stanley Cup Finals were about playing their game no matter what shenanigans the other team pulled. Solid team defense. Thomas making saves when that defense broke down. Shut down penalty killing (the Bruins ended up with more shorthanded goals (2) than the Canucks had power-play goals (1)). Toughness. Team depth. (How about that fourth-line in Game 7) Opportunistic goal scoring. It was about treating Mark Recchi to the perfect retirement, making sure Nathan Horton's and not Aaron Rome's name was on the Cup, and rewarding one of the greatest goalie seasons with a sip from the cup.

Looking forward for Vancouver: Vancouver has a lot of questions to answer, a lot of character questions. Even their fans, who might disagree with my interpretations of certain actions, will wonder where were the Sedin twins went, what happened to the power-play, and will Luongo recover from a very shaky performance? The only real character demonstrated in a Canucks jersey was done by the fans in the Rogers Arena who stayed through, stood during, and cheered for the awards ceremony. I'm not sure the Garden faithful would have done that if Game 6 had turned out differently. The Canucks have a very talented team, but in some ways, they embarrassed themselves in the finals.

Looking forward Boston: In the salary cap era, dynasties may be a thing of the past. But the Bruins core talent is young and under contract. Patrice Bergeron, (who I contend might be the most complete hockey player in the game right now) for example is only 27. And whenever Tim Thomas finally calls it quits, Tuukka Rask has already shown himself ready to be an everyday starter in the NHL. The Bruins will have some decisions to make in the off-season, but whatever happens, next year's team won't look that much different than the one that hoisted this year's cup. In some ways they could even be better; if Kampfer continues to develop he will contribute far more to the team than Kaberle did, for example. Repeating is no longer realistic, but if any team is poised to do it, it's this Boston Bruins team. Welcome to a new golden age.

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