Friday, April 6, 2012

The Bruins End of Season Wrap-Up

The Bruins have had an interesting season. The opening few weeks were played with a pretty horrible Stanley Cup hangover, which I told everybody to not worry about. Then for a month or so everything clicked and the Bruins were the best team in hockey. Then a long period of average play, that left a lot of fans baffled. Then they woke up for the last month of the season and secured the second seed in the Easter Conference. So here is my wrap up of the second half of the of the 2011-2012 Bruins season.

Yep, looks like 5-on-3 to me.
The Decline: I can tell you the exact moment The Bruins began their slide into mediocrity. It was a Saturday afternoon. Vancouver decided to play their back-up goalie rather than Roberto Luongo. They were the best team in the West but still felt it was important to start getting their excuses lined up, complaining about the start time of the game and adjusting, like every NHL team has to do, often several times a season, to the time difference. If there is a Lex Luthor in the NHL it's the Canucks, and since the Bruins beat them for the Cup, the Bruins have taken on the role of Superman. Claude Julien said all the right things about it just being another game, about nobody getting a Stanley Cup afterward, but the Bruins wanted this one real bad.

The decline began, after Shawn Thornton had been jumped by every Canuck skater on the ice, and a few on the bench. The Bruins rushed to his defense, as every player on every team would have done. When the penalties were sorted out, the Bruins looked up at the scoreboard and found themselves killing a full two-minute 5-on-e. It is the most inexplicable call I have ever seen. (Close second involves the definition of “distinct kicking motion.”) And Milan Lucic had been incorrectly ejected from the game for leaving the bench, which added insult to injury as the replay clearly showed a couple of Vancouver players on the bench reaching over to get a few licks in on Thornton. (The only shots I'm pretty sure they'll ever, ever take at him.) Vancouver scored. The B's never got back on their game. It was clear Vancouver could not play with the B's five-on-five so they didn't. It was the first time in a long time, the B's let themselves play the other team's game, and it set them off kilter for months to come.

Marchand was, rightly, suspended for five games. There was a string of injuries and suspensions, Horton, Ferrence, Peverly, and scattered one and two game nicks, so the Bruins entered a stretch where they almost never played with their full team, making it hard to establish the timing and flow that made them impossible to beat in December. And, though the wins weren't coming in bunches, they were still coming. A lot of teams in the league would have loved to “decline” to .500.

The Bruins were rarely definitively outplayed. Even the 6-1 loss to Buffalo. If you told me seven goals had been scored, showed me clips of the game, and then asked me what I thought the score was, I would have guessed 4-3 someone. In that game, the Bruins would play 5-7 minutes of better or even hockey, then Buffalo would score. Rinse and repeat. This made the decline so frustrating and so difficult to solve. If your team is playing badly and losing, you can do something. But if you're team is playing pretty well and losing, that's an entirely different puzzle.

The Bright Spot: While everyone was figuring out what was going wrong for the Bruins, one thing was going very, very right. Though it wasn't showing up on the score sheet, Milan Lucic turned into an absolute force of nature. Not sure what the breakthrough was, but for the last couple of months he has been bending space time. He figured out how to use his strength and speed together, and now just skates through checks. There might be two or three defensemen in the league (and one of them is Chara) who can actually, physically contain Lucic, but everybody else pretty much just has to hope his centering pass doesn't connect. He's fore-checking better, he's back-checking better, and he completely controls the space he's in. If he turns it up for the playoffs and more of those centering passes start connecting, he could be a Conn Smythe contender.

Close enough to a high-five
The Trade Deadline: It's almost time to start calling Peter Chiarelli one of the best general managers in hockey. On the face of it, the Bruins work at the 2012 trade deadline wasn't remarkable. They picked up aging Brian Rolston from the also ran Islanders, and two defensemen you probably hadn't heard of. Mottau isn't anything special, but he's a warm body at a time when depth at defense is vital for playoff success. But Brian Rolston has 17 points in the 12 games he's played for the Bruins. And Greg Zanon might be the most impressive of the three, playing a lot like a bigger, stronger, Seidenberg. And what did Chiarelli spend to get these players? Honestly, nothing. Steven Kampfer and two guys in the juniors. Three NHL players, two of which have already contributed to the recent success, for a very talented but still not mentally ready Kampfer and two guys who may not even make it to the NHL. Horton, Peverly, Kelley. Now Rolston and Zanon. No matter what happens with the rest of the season, we all owe Peter Chiarelli a high five. (And have you seen this Krug, kid playing defense? He's got some real skills. And Chiarelli traded for Kudobin too.)

The Playoffs: The Bruins aren't the favorites this year, but there's no reason to rule them out. The essentially play playoff hockey all year and despite the injuries still have more depth, at least at forward, than most of the other teams. They still have Chara and Bergeron and Krechi and now Lucic. Thomas has been improving. Caron is beginning to reach his potential, and Rolston is already contributing more than you could have asked. They haven't played well enough for us to expect a repeat, but we didn't expect them to win last year either.

A couple other things about the playoffs. Though I probably won't get to see many of the games, I am really looking forward to the Pittsburg/Philadelphia series. For the first time in years, Philly actually has a goalie (or two) they can rely on. Crosby and Malkin are healthy. Hartnell is developing into a legitimate star. And they both, really, really, want to beat each other. It will absolutely be the best first round series the NHL has seen in a while.

And, I know the Rangers are 3-1 against the Bruins, but I want to see that as the Eastern Conference finals. All four games have been tightly played, entertaining games. The absolute best of contemporary hockey. Regardless of the outcome, seven games of Bruins/Rangers at playoff speed would be an absolute joy. Hopefully, at the end of the playoffs, I'll be able to post another one of these.

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