Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Wasn't (and Still Aren't) Worried About the Bruins

Things were looking a little grim for the Bruins. 3-7 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that is technically worse than the Islanders. But I wasn't worried. Here's why.

The Quality of the Teams They Beat: Those first three teams were the Tampa Bay Lightning, now with a record of 8-5-2 and still sporting one of the most complete forward lines in the game with LeCavalier, Stamkos, and St. Louis. Then it was the Chicago Blackhawks who are now first in their division with a record of 8-4-3 and had such a successful and intelligent off-season that some analysts (Barry Melrose at least) are thinking about them as Stanley Cup favorites. Then, of course they beat Toronto who had won their first five games and still lead the division. The Bruins went on to beat Toronto again, dealing them their first home loss of the season, and stopped Ottawa's 6 game winning streak before beating up on the Islanders. It wasn't like the Bruins collected wins against the dregs of the league.

They Were in Every Game They Played: With a couple of exceptions the Bruins played even or better against everybody. The “frustration” that everyone was talking about last week came from not winning games they deserved to. Whether it was goalies standing on their heads, fluky goals for their opponents, bad bounces, or a few key mistakes, the Bruins seemed to end up losing no matter how well they played. (OK, I was worried very briefly, after Ottawa, despite being beaten in ever aspect of the game, were ahead 2-1 at the end of the first period.) And to all you new Bruins fans, get used to this. For whatever reason, the Bruins under Claude Julien lose a lot of games they deserve to win. They make up for it, you know, winning the Stanley Cup and all, but in the moment it is face-radiatingly frustrating.

The Only Thing that Matters is Making the Playoffs. It has not been a good couple of years for the number one team in the Eastern Conference. It's been better in the West, but the top seeds have had their share of scares. Yes, home ice advantage is nice, and yes, you'd prefer to play a lesser team in the first round of the playoffs, but there hasn't been that much of a difference in terms of overall quality between 1 and 8, especially when some teams, no matter their overall quality, match-up well against other teams. (Bonjour.) The Bruins don't need to win the President's Cup to have a good shot at the Stanley Cup, they just need to get in.

Three More Reasons: Tim Thomas is still the best goalie on the planet. Zdeno Chara is still the shut down defenseman in the NHL and his puck skills have actually improved over the last three years. Patrice Bergeron is still the best all around, three zone, 200ft x 85ft, hockey player on the planet.

The Big Question the Bruins Need to Answer: What is the difference between Toronto and Montreal? The conventional wisdom is that Montreal's small fast forwards are the primary reason why the Habs have beaten the Bruins consistently over the last few years (but not when it mattered!) and there's a lot of truth to that. They're fast enough to out-skate the defensive structure and they seem to slip under and around Chara, Boychuk, and McQuaid. The only thing is Toronto has a couple of those small, fast forwards too. In fact, they might have the fastest of them all. Phil Kessel is the NHL's top goal scorer and he calls it a good game against the Bruins if he gets more than a shot or two on goal. So why do the Bruins lose to the Habs but beat (badly) the Leafs? My best guess: PK Suban and Carey Price. For some reason Carey Price plays really well against the Bruins. And, despite his reputation for wilting late in the season (wonder what percentage of Montreal games he's played over the last few years) he is a really good goalie, something the Leafs still don't have. And the Leafs don't have a defenseman who can skate the puck like Suban.

One Final Point: Holy crap Tyler Seguin! It's still early yet, but the improvement of his play off the puck is really encouraging. If he keeps improving, he could be the natural goal-creator the Bruins need to win a lot of those games that have slipped out of their grasp in recent years. And that line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Sequin could become one of the most dangerous in the league.

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