The Boston Bruins are back to playing for Lord Stanley’s glittering prize- they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 for the first NHL championship parade in Boston since 1972, came up short in 2013 against the Chicago Blackhawks and now join the Windy City team as the only the second team this decade to reach the SCF three times.
How did we get here?
Tampa Bay and Washington both flamed out in the first round, opening the door for the B’s (or as old Blue Eyes used to croon “Luck be a lady tonight…”) to handily defeat Columbus and Carolina after battling it out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a second consecutive 1st-round seven-game barn-burner of a series. Out West, wagons like Calgary and 2018 SCF runner-up Vegas were knocked out in the first round as well. Not a bad draw when all is said and done, but no matter who you have to play- winning a championship is never easy.
Now, onto some thoughts on the players:
Tuukka Rask has been lights out. Seriously…lights. Out. .942 save percentage to continue to push his career postseason numbers to the top of the best in NHL history. There isn’t much more you can say about his sublime play other than the critics and haters have been sent into hibernation- he’s got one more mountain to climb, but if he can keep his play up, he’ll be deserving of all the accolades that have gone his way so far.
Patrice Bergeron is a first ballot Hall of Famer…so is Zdeno Chara. Neither has had to be the top player in the B’s lineup, but they’ve been effective (Chara less so, but never underestimate the value of an experienced leader who can eat up minutes when the games matter most), and when it comes to pure winning in the sport, they don’t come much more accomplished than Bergeron. His championship pedigree has few peers and his continued excellence at age 33 is a major reason why the B’s veteran core is so effective. Chara is doing what he does at 42 and it has all gotta end sometime, but for now- enjoy the ride.
Brad Marchand, following up his 100-point campaign with another productive 2-way performance, leading the team in scoring with 18 points in 17 games. Since 2016, Marchand’s production has put him into All-Star status, and his playoff heroics are no exception…all of this for a guy who is making $6.1M per year on the friendliest of team-friendly deals.
Torey Krug…played 27 minutes in Game 4 vs. Carolina, and it just might be the finest defensive effort of his career. He’s long been known as an offensive weapon, especially on the PP, but here at TSP, we’ve always felt that Krug’s defensive play has gotten the short shrift. He’ll never be a shutdown defensive stalwart, but to us, the argument that he can’t defend always reeked of laziness tied to his lack of size. Krug has a smart, active stick and has improved his positional play over the years, plus has a sterling work ethic. We’re now seeing it payoff six springs after he made a splash as a rookie in helping the B’s reach the 2013 SCF.
David “Mr. Playoffs” Krejci– joined Ray Bourque and Rick Middleton as the only Bruins in team history to score more than 100 career postseason points. Bergeron is right behind him with 99, but Krejci has always made his value known in spring, leading the team in scoring in 2011 and 2013. He’s got 14 points during this run- probably not going to catch Marchand, but has followed up his career-best tying 73-point regular season with another key playoff run. When all is said and done, Krejci may go down in team history as one of the most under-appreciated clutch players to ever don the Black and Gold.
Speaking of clutch- how about that Sean Kuraly…hashtag Clutch Kuraly! He made his first impression with the B’s with an overtime winner in the 2017 postseason against the Ottawa Senators, and he’s kept motoring along. The B’s have gone on a major run since Kuraly returned to the lineup for game 7 vs. Toronto (scoring a crucial third period goal to put the series out of reach). He can’t shoulder the offensive load in the top-9, but as a fourth-line cog, there aren’t many better in the league. He absolutely disrupted Carolina’s breakout and possession game in the waning moments of Game 3, preventing them from mounting much of a charge with the goalie pulled for the 6-on-5 advantage- you can’t put a price on that.
David Pastrnak has struggled at times in the postseason with up-and-down play and trouble handling the puck, but when he’s on, it’s hard to argue with the 38-goal, 81-point forward’s value. The 11-day break just might be what he needs to get his consistent offensive mojo back…
Matt Grzelcyk is coming into his own- he’s matched his season output of 3 goals already in the postseason, but it’s his solid defensive play and terrific boost to the transition to offense that are his bread and butter. The Townie is a Boston Cinderella story- he was at the US NTDP and Boston University when he watched his beloved Bruins reach the championship series, and now he has a chance to be a part of a winning legacy.
Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson…both trade deadline acquisitions have come up with very good 2-way play and important scoring when the team has needed it. Coyle had a monster game in the first game of the Columbus series, tying the game late then winning it in OT. Johansson tallied a crucial PP goal against Carolina to lead a come-from-behind victory. These two are the kinds of experienced, productive players that championship teams can roll out to hurt you when the big guns aren’t firing.
Charlie Pt. Deux- Chuckie McAvoy, that is… We’re seeing him elevate his play to another level and validate the feeling that he’s going to be the next big thing as a star 2-way NHL defender in Boston.
Brandon Carlo is a defenseman’s defender- he uses his big frame, long limbs and mobility to deny scoring chances and frustrate opposing forwards by keeping them away from his net. He’s not going to score much, but coaches trust D-man who do what he excels at. After being injured and missing each of the last two playoff springs, Carlo is demonstrating his pure value to the B’s.
Chris Wagner or Noel Acciari? Either way, the B’s have gotten strong play out of the 4th-liners. Wagner was getting his offense going when he laid out to block a shot late in Game 3 and injured his arm- he might be done, but Acciari, who had been out of the lineup to injury, slotted back in and provided the physical, grinding, (Leonard Nimoy voice) pure energy that he’s known for. Once again, Boston’s depth is key.
David Backes is in the first SCF of his career, and he’s made the most of sparing ice time since going back into the lineup for Karson Kuhlman. The critics were right- his cap hit and age have made it tough for the B’s to get prime value, especially in a 7-goal, 20-point season that saw him healthy scratched and often an afterthought. In these playoffs, he’s reestablished a warrior mindset and demonstrated selfless, leadership by example, giving the team every bit of what he has. They’re still standing, and Backes has made an impact/done his part (his 5 points are the most in 3 playoff seasons with the B’s)- few are respected more in the room than the veteran is.
It’s a testimony to Boston’s forward group that Jake DeBrusk is this far down the list, unintentional but this is a stream of consciousness post, and while the numbers aren’t great for him, his timely contributions and absolute exuberance when he does make plays has become a spring staple for the former 1st-rounder. That he’s not even 22 yet should put a smile on just about every B’s fan’s face- bigger things are coming.
Show of hands…who thought former (and unsigned) Arizona draft pick Connor Clifton would be making contributions during an extended playoff run? Turns out- Cliffy Hockey has been exactly what this team needed when Kevan Miller couldn’t make a return to the lineup this spring. And once again- the Boston scouts/management deserve a ton of credit for finding this kind of value on the open market…free chicken is the best kind of all.
It’s been a tougher year for Danton Heinen to meet the expectations he generated after a 16-goal rookie season, and his playoff production is akin to DeBrusk’s, but again- teams like Boston can weather stretches of unproductive play from their top-liners when guys like Heinen and DeBrusk are there to chip in. All of this from a guy who went from Tier 2 hockey in the BCHL to the NCAA to the AHL and now his first SCF in the span of less than 5 years. Not bad.
Joakim Nordstrom effective defensive forward without much fanfare. He’s the kind of guy who is probably going to find a way to score a big goal in the championship series- just watch.
Karson Kuhlman went from winning it all in the NCAA with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs a year ago, to earning some duty in Boston and starting out the postseason with the Big B’s. He’s another one of those tremendous bargain finds by the B’s, a perfect fit in style and substance and who will allow the team to move on from losses in free agency when middle-to-bottom of the roster forwards are offered more than what they are worth by other teams.
Jaroslav Halak hasn’t played a minute in the postseason, but he was brought in to limit Rask’s workload and keep him motivated and focused. The Slovak has done exactly that after playing 40 games during the regular campaign and putting up impressive statistics. This was the value many saw in Boston signing the veteran netminder last summer, and he delivered the goods to a tee.
It’s probably not the bang for the buck the B’s envisioned, but John Moore came through with a solid performance when the team had to sit Chara for Game 4 in Carolina. He can skate and play in a pinch…again, not what the team envisioned, but everyone is doing their part, and playing a role…albeit a small one in a run to the championship series is something Moore has to be happy about.
Steven Kampfer has also pitched in, scoring his first career playoff goal in game 1 vs. Carolina after McAvoy received a 1-game suspension for his hit on Josh Anderson of Columbus. For Kampfer, it’s deja vu all over again- he was a 2011 Black Ace and although didn’t appear for the B’s in the playoffs, skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup after Boston’s Game 7 victory with the other extras.
Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff of Kevin Dean, Joe Sacco and Jay Pandolfo are pushing the right buttons. Bob Essensa’s goalies have been superb. The team is always prepared to play, competes hard and has the structure to play in any situation. Sure, it helps that the coaches didn’t have to gameplan against a club like Tampa Bay, but them’s the breaks and with the B’s boasting the best record left of the remaining playoff teams starting in the second round, they’ve taken advantage. The biggest task remains ahead, but with talk of replicating game-day routines and a scrimmage to mitigate rust after an extended layoff, you can see that Cassidy and Co. aren’t taking anything for granted.
Finally, we look at the front office- from Cam Neely in the president’s chair, to GM Don Sweeney and AGM Scott Bradley and John Ferguson Jr, plus Ryan Nadeau and the unsung heroes (and happy to remain in the background) scouting staff on both pro and amateur sides- the team is in the position it is because of good decisions, effective signings and contract values and trades, foundational drafts (dating back to predecessors Peter Chiarelli and Mike O’Connell) and a vision that is paying off 4 years after Sweeney assumed the general manager’s duties. Not everything a GM touches turns to gold, but it sure seems like Sweeney’s been on a Midas-like hot streak, having learned from mistakes early in his tenure and doing a nice job of making minor trades at the right times to build an effective organization from top to bottom. It’s a team effort and the Bruins are where they are in large part because they just get after it- you rarely see them talking about it on TV or in print- but their scouts are everywhere and we’re seeing the fruits of their labors.
As the old saying goes- Victory/success has 1,000 fathers while defeat/failure is an orphan, but we’re seeing what special things can happen when people aren’t fighting for the credit.
Nothing is done yet, but it’s been an impressive journey thus far: 4 more wins to go.
Thanks, Kirk. Great stuff, as usual.