The Boston Bruins Right The Ship As The NHL Playoffs Approach

The Boston Bruins have been on an up-and-down ride since winning the Stanley Cup last June. It was mostly up until late January. A publicized flap where goalie Tim Thomas declined to attend a White House ceremony honoring the team due to political differences with President Obama coincided with a tough stretch for the team. They lost 11 of 20, which is hardly a catastrophe in the course of a long season. Then came a complete meltdown where they lost four games by a combined score of 21-8, which has since been followed by a revival with seven wins in nine games and the clinching of the Northeast Division. TheSportsNotebook sizes up the Bruins and looks into the hows and whys of both their recent highs and lows…

Consistency is what marks this Bruins team as a contender. While Tim Thomas is a good goalie and played genuinely outstanding in the net last spring, it’s less about him than about the fact Boston simply executes better in straight 5-on-5 play than anyone else. There are no Top 30 scorers on this team. There’s no one in the Top 30 in assists (although in defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Tyler Seguin are close). But Nathan Horton, the team’s one really good offensive threat has been out with a concussion and there’s no sign of his return for the postseason. The power play is average, and while the penalty kill unit is good, it doesn’t rank as high, relative to the rest of the league, as the defense does in 5-on-5 situations. Hence, the Bruins won’t scare you, they’ll just wear you down.

But it was the B’s themselves who looked worn down in that four-game losing streak referenced above. Let’s take a quick run through the season nadir from March 10-15…

March 10: Washington (3-4): The one close game in this quartet, Boston fell behind 2-0 in the first period, countered with two of their own, but quickly gave two back in the second period.

March 11: at Pittsburgh (2-5): Three first-period goals got the Penguins off and rocking. Center David Krejici scored twice in the second period, both times from Seguin and Milan Lucic, but shots were overall pretty even and Thomas was eventually lifted for backup goalie Marty Turco.

March 13: at Tampa (1-6): Another first period meltdown, as the Lightning lit the lamp four times, with four different players doing the damage, and five others getting in on assists. Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton was hit with two penalties, including a five-minute major. As a Boston fan who’s watched more than my share of their games in recent years, I find it hard to believe that Thornton was acting alone, as it were. The team’s play, combined with penalties make boiling-over frustration a reasonable theory (or maybe I’m just attributing my boiling over frustration to the team, who knows).

March 15: at Florida (2-6): This time Boston waited until the second period to melt down, giving up three goals.

These games were mostly even in shots allowed, and none were all that high in penalties. From the slow starts to a struggling Thomas, not much was going right. It’s also worth noting that Thomas’ capable backup Tuuka Raask was (and still is) injured, limiting head coach Claude Julien’s  options for giving his starter some rest.

At this point, it looks like Ottawa’s going to win the Northeast Division and the always-calm Boston media is talking of the Bruins missing the playoffs entirely.  All that was needed was for stories of fried chicken-and-beer parties in the clubhouse and the Beantown media circus would have been in full throttle. Then the B’s turned it around, winning seven of nine. Let’s take another quick ride through this set of games…

March 17: Philadelphia (3-2, SO): What better time in Irish Boston than St. Patrick’s Day to get a turnaround win. The B’s solved the slow-start problems with a pair of early goals and finally won in the shootout.

March 19: Toronto (8-0): A little confidence, home ice and a bad opponent do wonders for the soul. Four goals in the first, all by different players and three more in the second make it an easy night from the outset. Team defense was the most impressive facet of the game, with the Maple Leafs getting only 13 shots.

March 22: at San Jose (1-2): San Jose gets an early goal to set the tone, maintains the tone with a 27-17 shot advantage and Boston doesn’t score until the last couple minutes.

March 24: at Los Angeles (4-2): On this Saturday night I was at a Buffalo Wild Wings’ in southern Illinois for a Fantasy Baseball draft trying to get them to put this game on. For some reason they thought the locals might care about the Bulls more. I missed a good game—it was 1-1 in the third, and Boston scored three third-period goals, as Thomas essentially willed the team to a win, as they lost the shot battle 42-26.

March 25: at Anaheim (3-2): Turco takes a turn in the net and comes through, as Boston leads it 3-1 with the Ducks just making it close late.

March 27: Tampa Bay (5-2): Like the rest of the league, Thomas and the Boston defense had no answer for Tampa’s Steven Stamkos, who scored both goals. Like the rest of the league, Thomas and the Bruins had answers galore for the rest of the Lightning lineup, dominating shots 38-18 and Chara sharing out three assists.

March 29: Washington (2-3): This was a GREAT hockey game. Washington had it in hand 2-0 before Boston scored twice in the final five minutes and was within one save of winning the shootout, before the Caps snuck one in the goal and then made off with the win.

March 31: at NY Islanders (6-3): Seguin scored and had two assists, and the Bruins opened it up late with four goals in the third period.

April 1: at NY Rangers (2-1): It was the Boston of last year’s playoff run, as Thomas put the team on his back, saving 33 of 34 shots and winning a battle with Henrik Lundqvist in a win that secured a third Northeast Division title in four years.

One thing that doesn’t come out in listing the highlights of individual games is that penalties are not a big part of Boston’s games—either for or against. Given the team’s ability to win at straight 5-on-5 hockey, that’s a good thing and the B’s should again benefit from what would presumably be let-them-play officiating in the playoffs. One thing that clearly does stand out is how important the first period seems to be. I think we can also tie this back to the Bruins being a true 5-on-5 team. They can’t fall behind because this is not an offense that has either a player who can just step up with a goal, nor can they count on cashing in their power plays. They just need an extended amount of team to play hockey and let things work themselves out—if they were a baseball team they’d have a staff of five pretty good pitchers, but no one that made you go “Wow.” I think we can also note how important rest for Thomas is. He’s no spring chicken anymore  and it’s been a long season and it was a very short offseason.

Boston will be the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, although Atlantic runner-ups Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have higher point totals, making the Bruins the fourth-best team in the East. That sounds about right. But the officials let the teams play, and consistency, not stars make the difference, the B’s can again make a deep run into the postseason.