On beating Montreal

When it comes to the Boston Bruins, there aren’t many collective boogey men out there that have caused more angst and consternation than the Montreal Canadiens.

Over the years, when the Habs have been great, Boston had no chance. When the Habs weren’t so great, Boston still found ways to lose (Steve Penney, anyone?). Even in 1979, when the Bruins had a team that nearly matched up with the threepeat-and-going-for-four Canadiens, they not only lost a grip on a game they had all but won, but did so in such devastating fashion that the sports psyche scars of that overtime defeat (and of course- the Habs went on to win a fourth straight Stanley Cup in a walk over the Rangers) still remain for those old enough to remember it.

That’s why last night’s 4-1 win over the flailing sans Carey Price Habs feels so good for Bruins fans (and I would add, more than a few Canadiens fans who have seen enough of coach Michel Therrien).

Goals by Max Talbot, Patrice Bergeron (on a nifty play by David Pastrnak before beating Mike Condon on a wraparound), David Pastrnak (another wraparound) and Brad Marchand (empty net) gave Tuukka Rask plenty of offensive support. However, it was the Finn’s 38-save brilliance last night that secured the victory, just the fifth of his career against Montreal (15 losses).

By itself, the win doesn’t mean a whole lot. Sure- it kept the B’s in a playoff position (Tampa bumped them out of third place with their win) and pushed Montreal into 10th place in the Eastern Conference. With  nearly half a season remaining, no one should be planning any victory parades or playing a funeral dirge for the Canadiens just yet.

However, the victory- any victory against Montreal- has a much deeper meaning for the Bruins and their fans.

The B’s haven’t been good enough to sweep their big, bad rivals from Montreal this season, but unlike last year, they’ve managed to secure a couple of important victories against them on the road. Even if the B’s haven’t found a way to beat their nemesis at home, just winning games at this stage is a moral victory and prevents continued malaise and an inferiority complex that has long been more of a fixture on the Boston side of the rivalry than the other way around.

Leigh Montville, who penned unforgettable columns in the Boston Globe when I was growing up, actually wrote the single greatest piece I have ever seen written on the Bruins-Habs rivalry not for the Globe, but for Sports Illustrated way back in 1988.

He wrote it as an ode to the decades of ignominious failures of the B’s at the hands of the Canadiens, and it came out before the Adams Division final series that year. For those who might not remember, the Bruins had been bounced from the playoffs by the Habs from 1984-87, but dug out of an 0-1 hole to win the next four games and close out the stunned Canadiens at home in the Montreal Forum thanks to a pair of goals by Cam Neely and Steve Kasper (in what was arguably his finest hour as a Bruins player) along with some major heroics in net from Rejean “Reggie” Lemelin, who made Patrick Roy look mortal at the other end of the ice.

But before that 1988 series victory, the first the Bruins had achieved since 1943, happened- Montville described the two teams in his April 25, 1988 column titled “No Gain, Just Pain” thusly:

The Canadiens have always worn the top hats and lived in the house on the hill. Superior. Grand. Elegant. How many NHL teams have been called elegant? How many players? The elegant Canadiens. Their fans arrive at the Forum, the basilica of perspiration on St. Catherine Street, dressed in coats and ties, for a night of opera on ice, penalty announcements in two languages, s’il vous plait. The Montreal teams have been built on grace and speed, continental cuteness. The Flying Frenchmen. Drawing-room hockey, served on a white linen tablecloth. Elegant.

The Bruins have always been the poor relations. A collection of Al Capp characters, woofing and scratching and emerging from that dogpatch home on top of a train station. Elegance? Punch you in the mouth, you say that again.

The Bruins have reveled in their bowling-shirt earthiness. Hockey was a hard hat job for them long before the introduction of the helmet. They play in the smallest rink in the NHL and have tailored their team and dispositions to fit this environment as surely as the Red Sox have looked for right-handed boppers to hit baseballs over the left field wall at Fenway Park. Want to play at Boston Garden? Bring your elbows.

Montville used one of the true icons of Boston Bruins fandom- the late, great play-by-play man Fred Cusick to help underscore the tale of woe and provide an amazing perspective of a rivalry that he saw unfold in all it’s gory detail until the B’s broke through in 1988. That Cusick was able to witness (and call) Boston playoff wins in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994 before he retired in 1997 helped remove some of the sting of some memorable defeats earlier in his career. That Cusick passed away before Boston beat Montreal en route to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship is as much a tragedy that the celebration of a life so well lived can allow.

Here, Montville further expounds on the B’s-Habs history through Cusick’s lens:

“The year we should have won was 1971,” Cusick says. “We were better. Much better. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and all of those people. We won the first game, 3-1, then were ahead 5-1 midway through the second. I remember doing interviews between periods about possible opponents in the next round. That’s how certain it was. Then Montreal started scoring goals and won the game 7-5. And Dryden was a rookie and he made some big saves and…still we should have won.

“And then 1979. Too many men on the ice. That was the other one. That was the one no one will ever forget.”

Six men on the ice. Sixty men on the ice. How many men on the ice? The story has become legend, the number swollen, in less than a decade, the highlight (lowlight) of the entire streak, stowed in the same, sad Boston footlocker as the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs and the home run that the Yankees’ Bucky Dent hit into the screen on a fall afternoon. Who was the extra man on the ice? Terry O’Reilly? Mike Milbury? Stan Jonathan? Don Marcotte? All of the above? Any of the above? Sometimes, in the retelling, it seems as if there were a brass band on the ice, every member wearing a Bruins uniform. Six men. 60 men. 1,000 men, doing close-order drill as coach Don Cherry barked commands from a step-ladder. Who loses a game, a series, because too many men are on the ice?

There were 74 seconds left. The Bruins were ahead 4-3, seventh game, in Montreal, a minute and 14 seconds from ending the streak. Six men on the ice? The penalty was called: the Bruins had a crowd on the ice far too long for any official to miss. Then there was Guy Lafleur firing the tying the goal on the power play. Here was Yvon Lambert in overtime, taking the pass from Mario Tremblay, drilling the puck past Bruin goalie Gilles Gilbert.

“I want to cry for every one of these guys,” goalie Gerry Cheevers, a backup that night, said in the Boston dressing room. “Each guy I see makes me want to start crying all over. I just feel so sorry for all of them. They just tried so hard. I’ve never seen a team try so hard.”

“What bothers me is that my 12-year-old son was watching the game,” captain Wayne Cashman said. “I have been telling him forever that hard work always pays off. Always. What do I tell him now?”

You get the message.

The Boston-Montreal rivalry means something. It always means something.

Whether they’re playing a “meaningless” exhibition game in September, a regular season contest in November, a much-hyped Winter Classic match on New Year’s Day or the two teams are embroiled in a white-knuckle, winner-take-all seventh game of a playoff series. Things broke Boston’s way in 2011, but in 2014, not so much.

This is what makes the history between the two clubs, enriched by the genuine dislike that each generation of the B’s-Habs rosters have one another, so special.

24 Stanley Cup wins to 6. That’s how the ultimate scorecard reads.7 of those 24 Cups the Canadiens won came at the expense of the Bruins in the final series. The B’s have never beaten the Habs in a Stanley Cup final, and unless the NHL’s structure changes, they never will. However, Boston fans can smugly talk about 1993- that’s the last time the Canadiens hefted hockey’s silver chalice, and the 22-year drought is the longest in club history. Until 2011, Boston could only look forlornly to 1972- a championship won without beating the Canadiens. The B’s lost to Philly in ’74 then in back-to-back years in ’77-’78. They then ran into the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, getting swept in 1988 and trounced in five games in 1990 after winning the President’s Trophy.

What do Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Milt Schmidt, Brad Park, Terry O’Reilly and Gerry Cheevers all have in common?  As players on the Boston Bruins, they never beat Montreal in a single playoff series. Not once. If you know anything about the history of the Boston Bruins, then you know each one of those players is firmly enshrined in the franchise’s pantheon of heroes and yet- individually and collectively- none were ever able to shake hands with the Canadiens at center ice as the victor.

When you get down to it, no team has been responsible for more collective heartache by those who love the Boston Bruins than the bleu, blanc et rouge. Much like Yankees-Red Sox, the ledger is tilted heavily in favor of the other guys, so Boston fans have to savor the wins however they get them.

In retrospect- last night’s win was barely a blip on the radar for most hockey fans. Even for some of the younger Bruins fans who grew up in the better times, when Boston was winning more playoff series against Montreal than they lost, last night’s win wasn’t too much of a big deal. But for those of us who can remember, those of us who greeted the bridge between spring and summer as the ending of the Bruins’ season at the hands of the Canadiens, Boston’s 24th win of the 2015-16 campaign meant something. It always does.

Montville started that favorite column, once a symbolic cross of what it meant to be a fan of the Boston Bruins, with the following passage:

The uniforms have not changed. The people have not changed. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. There are 1,000 guys named Pierre and 1,000 more named Guy and Jean and Boom Boom and Rocket and Pocket Rocket and all the rest. No change.

Things have changed since 1988. The B’s have won 7 of 12 playoff series against Montreal. There are no Pierres or Guys or Jeans on the 2015-16 version of the Canadiens, but Max and Pernell Karl-“P.K.” and Carey and Brendan and the rest of the rogues who carry on the legacy of the Flying Frenchmen still give the Bruins more than they can handle.

Enjoy the win for now and then turn the page.

At least until the next time these two teams meet.

It is sure to matter.

EDIT–

Here is one of my personal favorite Bruins-Montreal moments: Boston Garden November 1989. Was a senior in HS and saw this game with my dad- what a finish!  So much going on here: Bruins down 2-0 in final 2:25 of the game, three goals by Boston in 57 seconds by Ray Bourque, Cam Neely and Glen Wesley. The late Pat Burns behind the Habs bench (Mike Milbury for the B’s) The aforementioned Fred Cusick and Derek Sanderson with the call:

“Ludwig fell down…”

 

 

Bruins beat Sabres & Leafs to show moxie, but the’D’ does not rest

The losses were piling up on the road trip, but the Boston Bruins stopped the bleeding with big wins in Buffalo and at home Saturday night against Toronto to salvage a tough stretch and keep teams behind them in the standings at bay.

Saturday’s 3-2 victory was especially heartening, as the B’s saw a Brad Marchand go-ahead goal with under 13 minutes remaining in the final frame get wiped out on a coach’s challenge that ruled the play offside. After contending with some pretty one-sided officiating all night that play seemed to convince the skeptics that it wasn’t Boston’s night, but the Hockey Gods smiled down on the TD Garden, and a Martin Marincin gaffe allowed for Marchand to pot the winner with under a minute remaining in regulation to break a 2-2 deadlock.

The referees- Dave Jackson and Justin St. Pierre– made me feel at times like Professor Terguson from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School. The role put comedian Sam Kinison firmly on the map with his “Oh, Ohhhhhh!” battle screech from the mid-80’s until his death in a car accident in 1992. The officials last night brought out the absolute worst that is the two referee system in hockey- two guys who just seemed to make inconsistent, subjective calls at whim while players like Nazem Kadri disgraced the game by flopping to the ice anytime a Bruin touched him without being held accountable. I guess I should not be surprised given Jackson’s reputation, but if this is the kind of effort the fans can expect- then why bother, NHL? Just put the teams out there and let them decide everything themselves- you wouldn’t get much more bang for your buck than what those two did last night. And with that, I cede the floor to Professor Terguson/Sammy K.

The win put Boston back into third place in the Atlantic Division, just one point ahead of Tampa Bay (51-50…hey- that’s an old Van Halen album!), who will play the division leader and Sunshine State rival Florida Panthers this evening. The B’s also stayed ahead of the hated Montreal Canadiens, who hurled 49 shots at Brian Elliott but lost in overtime in a game in which the Blues brought back goaltending legends- Mike Liut, Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur for a pre-game recognition ceremony. Interestingly enough, Elliott’s 46 saves were the most at home by a Blues goaltender since…you guessed it…Joseph. And to top it off, Elliott was wearing a special tribute mask to Joseph with the same paint job that the former NHL great wore in St. Louis from 1990-93, before he adopted the ubiquitous CuJo rabid dog visage that decorated his headgear for the remainder of his career. But I digress…

This Bruins team is a game bunch of players who put in a good effort on most nights even if their hard work isn’t always rewarded with a win. For the past several weeks, they’ve been without center David Krejci, but Ryan Spooner rose to the occasion by playing like the  2nd-line pivot that many of us felt he had the potential to be. With Krejci close to returning, that’s good news for the B’s but the issue with this club is not the scoring as much as it is a lack of a viable championship-caliber defense. Unless Don Sweeney and his scouts can figure out a way to bring someone in, then fans can expect that this is about as good as it will get.

Tuukka Rask has shown that he has more than enough talent and experience to carry the team at times, and Jonas Gustavsson has been the serviceable backup that the team hoped Niklas Svedberg would be a year ago. However, without a balanced defense, the Bruins are a middle-of-the-pack team, and even the most optimistic of observers aren’t blocking off their calendars in May and June for an extended playoff run.

The B’s are doing about as well as they can, even playing above their heads for stretches of the season. However, the elephant in the room is the current makeup of Boston’s defense. The team knew this would be a sticking point when Sweeney traded Dougie Hamilton last June, and the 22-year-old has certainly not taken that next step that seemed a given just seven months ago, but make no mistake: the loss of Hamilton opened up a void that the GM was simply unable to fill and we’re seeing that with a 23-16-5 record and 4-5-1 in the last 10. The B’s are losing games that during the Claude Julien era they wouldn’t have in previous years, by losing leads because they depend too much on their goaltending and forwards to cover up for a group of players that works hard, but lacks the talent and ability to match up effectively against some of the NHL’s better offenses.

Zdeno Chara is the easy target for fans, frustrated by the fact that father time is catching up to him at age 39 (in a couple of months) and hoping against hope that Sweeney could make a trade for new blood using him as capital.

Here are just a few reasons why that isn’t going to happen: 1. He has a no-trade contract and a wife expecting twins in 60 days. Even if he wanted to play for a contender, it is highly doubtful Chara would even consider putting Tatiana Chara through the turmoil such a move would put his family through. That reason alone precludes serious consideration of any others, but here they are: 2. His best years are clearly behind him, and if you are a Boston fan, do you really think that another team would give the B’s the kind of value that improves the team today? If your answer to that question is yes, then I would submit your position is pretty unserious and you might want to learn a bit more about how the NHL works. I don’t say that to be arrogant, it’s just a fact. 3. There is simply no other defenseman remotely close to assuming the role Chara has on this club. It’s easy to declare he should be traded while Boston can get something for him, but with the NTC and a diminishing body of work, the return isn’t going to justify the net effect of such a move, which would be to elevate Torey Krug or Dennis Seidenberg to the top spot, a role neither player is suited for or capable of at this stage in their respective careers. Even when not producing the results that fans seem to have taken for granted in the decade Chara patrolled the Boston blue line, he’s still an integral part of the roster and Julien’s system, whether we like it or not.

Besides, assuming Chara asked out and wanted to be dealt (which he doesn’t at present) there is no shortage of teams that would want to add him, but those clubs aren’t going to give up a premium young roster player in return- that defeats the purpose of adding Chara to a contending team’s lineup in the first place. The best the Bruins could hope for is a young prospect along the lines of a Colin Miller, but more realistically, the trade partner team would give up a 1st-round pick for him, and that’s about it. If you want an improved Boston team in the present and immediate future (next year) that scenario doesn’t help. You can probably make a good trade on NHL ’16 involving Chara, but this is real life so just stop with the video game mentality, please.

But getting away from trading Chara for a second- the future Hall of Famer is worth far more to the Bruins than he is most anyone else. It would be one thing if the B’s had a legitimate young colt waiting in the wings and approaching the time to take over as the No. 1 defender on the Boston roster. Right now, Sweeney and Co. don’t have that player. They don’t even have a clear-cut No. 2, leaving Krug to take  on more of that role, but with very little help around him, as the rest of the defense corps in Boston right now is at best a group of 5/6, bottom-pairing guys. That situation places enormous pressure on Chara and results in his minutes being much higher than they should be at this stage of his career.

So, to close out the thoughts on Chara- he’s clearly not the player he once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy answer to just trade him and be done with it. He can still be effective in the right situations because of his size, reach and experience, but his lack of foot speed and declining skill set means that the team that employs him as a top defender cannot rely on him to perform like the dominant No. 1 he was in his prime. That’s sad, but the team and fans, at least in the short term, must come to terms with that fact and look for options that include Chara for now, because with that NTC and a lack of a viable marketplace at present, he isn’t going anywhere.

Krug has earned his way this year as a very good No. 3/4 at the NHL level. He does all the things you want from a puck-moving defenseman, making a brilliant neutral zone pass to spring Patrice Bergeron for the first of his two goals. Krug also put on an impressive display of skill during the second period when he stickhandled through the Toronto defense and deked Jonathan Bernier out of the Leafs net before losing the handle at the last second. However, he saved his best for last when Rask got caught out of his net and lost the puck to Tyler Bozak, who flipped it back to P.A. Parenteau. Krug’s instant recognition of the unfolding play allowed him to go right to the crease and cover for Rask. He dropped into the butterfly and absorbed Parenteau’s shot (that would have broken a 2-2 tie late in regulation and likely crushed Boston’s spirit).

When we talk about how Krug can’t physically outmatch the bigger, stronger forwards but that he needs to play smart defense, there is your exhibit A. He could have chased the puck and tried to make a play on it himself, but he had the hockey IQ and situational awareness to cover the cage with Rask out and made a game-saving stop while doing a pretty passable impression of the former Vezina Trophy winner in the process. Krug is Boston’s best defenseman after Chara- if he was about 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he’d be that ideal heir apparent that Boston so desperately needs. As it stands, Krug’s tremendous character, competitive drive and ability mean that he is worth getting locked up after this season and if it were up to me, I commit the expected $5 million he’ll command on the market to do so- he’s worth it, and the team can’t afford to bank on unknowns like Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara or even Brandon Carlo right now by allowing Krug to follow Hamilton out the door.

Against Toronto, we saw flashes of what Joe Morrow could be, but we also witnessed the likely effect of not playing every night, as he mishandled pucks and turned them over in several instances when a better decision to move the puck out of danger would have been smarter. The more I watch Morrow, the more evident it is to me why Pittsburgh and Dallas both decided to trade him. He’s a complementary player- not someone who is likely to develop into a top-3 NHL option. Morrow’s impressive skills are clearly evident when you watch the way he can carry the puck and will jump into the rush, but he looks like more of a specialist than a heavy lifter, and that’s a shame.

C. Miller has the best potential of all the youngsters at the pro level currently, but he’s not a player who can play unsheltered minutes and expect to instill confidence especially late in close games. There’s a valid argument to be made that Chiller should be in the lineup over Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, especially with Adam McQuaid out, but he gives away toughness and size, even if the difference is so trivial that it seems inconceivable that the Boston coaches would not use him more. Trotman is big and mobile…he can make the crisp first pass and it showed last night with a helper on Bergeron’s second goal. He doesn’t have a big NHL upside, but he’s a serviceable player. With more physicality in his game, he might get more recognition than he does.

Dennis Seidenberg is a warrior, and I’ll always respect him for what he did for the Bruins when they traded for him in 2010 and a year later, he was one of the stalwarts that helped bring Lord Stanley back to Boston. However, he’s playing far too many minutes for what he can bring to his team on a consistent basis. He was solid against Buffalo and Toronto, but those are two clubs behind Boston in the standings- when up against the higher-end teams like Washington and St. Louis, DS44 struggles with containment and coughing up the puck under pressure from the ferocious fore check those clubs can employ. If he was contributing on the bottom pair, that would be one thing, but like Chara, too much is asked of him.

Ditto Kevan Miller- as good and hard-nosed a guy that you will find, but who is simply being asked to do too much and play too many minutes. It’s too lazy to just point to him and say he’s unworthy as an NHL defenseman- that’s simply not true. However- the issue is with the role the B’s have him in. Like Hal Gill in the early 2000s when Ray Bourque was gone and Chara was several years away from signing as a free agent, Miller is in over his head. It’s a shame, because as a bottom pairing D- he’d be a fan favorite. He was when he first showed up in the 2013-14 season with a younger, better cast around him and went out and rocked opponents nightly. He didn’t just forget how to play- but you can’t expect a role player to evolve into a top-2 or 3 option if he isn’t suited for it. And so, that’s what we get with No. 86- a nightly adventure wherein we wonder what exactly we will get when he’s out there. That’s no way to set conditions for success, but given the team’s current state of affairs, it’s what we’re left with.

So- to wrap up. This defense is a gritty, gutsy group that does the best it can with the talent it possesses. Adam McQuaid is the embodiment of this defense both as a tough, rugged, character guy who gives you every ounce of what he has, but also as a limited talent who pays the price for his physical style and is asked to do more than he is capable of. It isn’t a lack of want to for the Bruins defense, but in pro sports, heart and will can only take you so far- if the other guys are more talented and have more of them, then your ability to separate from the pack is greatly hampered.

This B’s defense deserves credit for trying, but the NHL is a cold, results-oriented business. If teams won because of effort or grittiness, then the Buffalo Sabres would have won a Stanley Cup by now.

The Bruins have some potential help coming in the form of youngsters like Grzelcyk, Carlo, O’Gara…Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon look like they could infuse the roster one day with the blend of skill and ruggedness needed, but none of those players are ready. So Sweeney’s challenge is to try and find a player who can not only help now, but be the bridge to a better future than just staying in the middle of the pack and therefore not getting as good a chance at drafting and rebuilding that the league’s doormats get.

Thoughts on Boston’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers

In a familiar refrain, the Boston Bruins dropped a close game late in regulation to the New York Rangers when a Jesper Fast deflection beat Tuukka Rask with less than two minutes left to break a 1-1 deadlock.

Despite the lack of offense, it was an uptempo game with both teams trading some good chances, perhaps none better than Max Talbot’s doorstep shot that Henrik Lundqvist somehow got his skate on while pushing left-to-right and essentially falling prone to the ice while his legs kicked up into the air in a fashion similar to a scorpion’s tail.

All in all, the B’s had just one goal by Jimmy Hayes (his 10th and set up by Ryan Spooner) on a heavy shot from high out in the slot to show for it. As was the case last year when Boston’s offense was among the league’s worst, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the goaltender to play a near-perfect game between the pipes.

The loss represented a missed opportunity- the Bruins carried the play in the second period but had only the one goal to show for it. As the cynics suspected, it was the Rangers who managed to capitalize when Claude Julien shortened the bench later in the third period, moving Landon Ferraro into David Pastrnak’s spot only to see defenseman Keith Yandle’s point shot sneak through when Fast got a piece of it and the puck changed direction.

We’re past the moral victories stage at this point of the season- every point counts and this is a game the Bruins should have had. To look for silver linings out of this one doesn’t get them any closer to the playoffs.

And, now- some thoughts and observations.

Designated scapegoat Kevan Miller had a rough night, on ice for both goals against and standing around when the winning goal was scored instead of clearing the much smaller Fast out of the crease. Miller has born the brunt of much fan angst and it is understandable- the undrafted free agent and former University of Vermont and Berkshire School captain has made some glaring mistakes throughout the season that get magnified because the puck has ended up in the net. However, much of the reason Miller is struggling is because he’s been put in a position to fail. The rugged, hard-nosed defensive defenseman is a serviceable 5/6 D when used correctly. Unfortunately, a lack of personnel and injuries have meant that the B’s have been using Miller as a 2/3 D for most of the year and he is simply not suited for that role- he’s in way, way over his head. This is not to absolve him of his errors- he’s had problems with his decisions and in basic execution, with gaffes that have cost the B’s in several instances, most notably in Boston’s 6-3 home collapse to Buffalo a few weeks ago. However, for anyone to think that Miller is not an NHL defenseman is a bit harsh: if he was on the bottom pairing and played somewhere around 17 minutes per night as opposed to the 20+ he’s been pressed into, there’s a good chance he’d be pretty respected because he plays the game hard, tough and works hard. Alas, for Miller, he’s limited and not capable of carrying the load, making him a magnet for fan frustrations. It happens to someone every year.

I wonder if Tuukka Rask has been checking the internet (10 years ago I would have said the Yellow Pages) for the numbers of good lawyers in Boston. He could sue the team for non-support after last night. He wasn’t able to do much on either the Fast winner or Derick Brassard’s rebound goal to tie it early in the third frame. But, Rask did what every good goalie must- gave his club a chance to win it.

Would like to see Julien give Pastrnak more of an opportunity to be a difference-maker late in games. Ferraro was not a terrible option to move up into his spot last night with a 1-1 game on the line, but the waiver pickup has cooled considerably since his first month as a Bruin.You live and you die by the talent you have, and when your team has only scored one goal in some 55 minutes of action, I’m not sure taking out the one guy who is arguably your most gifted scorer makes sense when you are trying to secure at least one point. Julien has coached 900 career NHL games, so there’s a reason he’s behind the bench and I’m not, but it’s about time to take the shackles off of No. 88. It’s really saying something about how woeful Boston’s offense was last night when Zac Rinaldo is in the conversation as your most effective forward. I don’t mean that as a slight because he’s been a pretty decent fourth-line option this season, but with just one goal and one assist- he is who we thought he is.

Frank Vatrano and Tyler Randell took a seat as healthy scratches last night after both being in the lineup against Ottawa Saturday night. Vatrano has a bright future ahead of him, but if this is to be his lot in life going forward for the rest of the season, then I suspect Butch Cassidy would love to have him back on the team in Providence. The undrafted free agent from Western Mass. has been a revelation, and his speed, dynamic shot and hustle are exactly what this Bruins team needs, but he had just 10 AHL games under his belt before going up to the big show, so there is more room for development on the farm rather than eating popcorn at press level.  Just saying.

Keith Yandle is a Milton, Mass. guy and former Cushing Academy star who had been linked to the Bruins in rumors for a couple of years before Arizona traded him to the Rangers last year at the deadline. There’s been some real grumbling in circles about how Alain Vigneault has used him this season, and let’s be honest- defense was never really Yandle’s strong suit. That said- with time ticking down and his team needing a play, they got one when his point shot was tipped in for the winner. He’s not the player a lot of people thought he would be early in his career when he showed signs of developing into something special, but a team like the Bruins sure could use him in a No. 2 role right now. Yandle only has two goals (on 88 shots) but his 23 points lead the Rangers from the blue line. He’s still a good offensive presence, even if the defensive side of his game isn’t there. He’s an unrestricted free agent this coming summer and will cash in- the question is where, and for how much/long?

Hayes netted his 10th goal last night, which puts him on the same pace as last year, when he established a career high 19 goals. It’s the inconsistency that has bothered Hayes this season, however- he had a brutal November, enduring a nine-game pointless streak at one point, and he went without points in nine of 12 December games. However, with his big body and soft hands, he’s capable of bringing more to the table. Last night’s goal was a rocket of a shot- scored from out near the tops of the circles when Hayes does most of his damage in close near the paint. He’s a good kid and wants to do well. I criticized him the other night because he stood around while Patrick Wiercoch worked over Vatrano after the diminutive forward crashed the Senators net. I felt that some kind of response- not necessarily fighting Wiercoch but at the very least, trying to restrain him so that Vatrano could extricate himself- was warranted, but many feel that he was right not to intervene and risk a penalty late in regulation of a tie game. Even if I don’t like it- that’s a fair assessment and with the way the NHL’s referees call games nowadays, any kind of intervention would be risky. That said- if Hayes is not going to bring much of a physical presence, then he’s got to keep scoring because he won’t be doing much else for this team.

It’s been a quiet couple of games for Patrice Bergeron (he was beaten by Mats Zuccarello on Brassard’s tying goal) and Brad Marchand since the latter returned from his three-game suspension. The B’s need those two to get it going.

Ryan Spooner continues to play well in David Krejci’s absence. Later this week, I’ll do a post dedicated to him and address some of the things he’s done behind the scenes to make himself a better all-around player, along with the help he’s gotten to get him there.
And that’s it. The B’s are 1-1-1 on their current road trip. They’ve been a good away team this year but they’ve got to find ways to get more points in the final two games at Philly and Buffalo before returning home Saturday to take on the Leafs with an ever-tightening Eastern Conference.

 

Final Buzzer: Stone OT goal powers Sens in 2-1 victory

The game was theirs had things been a little different for the Boston Bruins Saturday night in Canada’s capital city.

After young guns Mika Zibanejad and David Pastrnak traded goals in the first two periods of play, not another puck got past either one of Craig Anderson or Tuukka Rask until the 3-on-3 overtime period. Loui Eriksson had two glittering chances to give his B’s the extra point but could not cash in. Denied on a breakaway early in sudden death, he rang a shot off the post during a 2-on-1 break, and Ottawa took it the other way, finishing off the play to secure the home victory.

The winning goal came off the stick of Mark Stone, who had previously scored a pair of goals when Ottawa beat the B’s in the same building a few weeks earlier. Give the Senators forward credit- after Erik Karlsson’s shot hit off of Rask’s crest and bounced away from him, Stone gathered it up and attempted a wrap around goal. Rask somehow reached back in time from the left post to get his goal stick up against the far post to deny Stone’s initial bid. Unfortunately, with Eriksson behind Stone and out of the play, along with Colin Miller slow to react and put the body on the Senator player, Stone was able to corral the puck after it bounced off Rask’s stick paddle and flipped it up and over the goalie to end it.

Zibanejad’s first period tally, his eighth, was scored on a jailbreak rush after C. Miller’s shot attempt was blocked and Ottawa worked it back the other way. Karlsson slipped a pass to Zibanejad in the B’s zone after he broke in all alone and the Swede made a nifty deke before lifting the puck into the open side.

Pastrnak’s goal came on a deflection in the second frame, when he worked the puck around to Patrice Bergeron, who gathered it on the left half-wall and then passed back to Zdeno Chara at the point. Pastrnak rotated over to the slot in front of the net so that when Chara’s shot came in, Pastrnak was able to get a piece of it with his stick, making sure he made contact below the crossbar to make it a 1-1 game with his third marker of the year (in 12 NHL games).

That left it to the two teams to trade chances, with both Rask and Anderson holding down the fort until Stone finished off the B’s. Ryan Spooner and Senators forward Shane Prince (acquired with the 2nd-round pick in 2011 that Boston sent to Ottawa for Chris Kelly, btw) had particularly effective chances but neither player could find the back of the net.

 

Final Buzzer: B’s exorcise Devils for 3,000th win

The Boston Bruins ended their two-game losing streak with a convincing 4-1 win on the road against the New Jersey Devils Friday, getting goals from Frank Vatrano, Ryan Spooner,  Jimmy Hayes, Colin Miller. For Boston, it was the 3,000th win in franchise history- second all-time in the NHL behind the Montreal Canadiens (3,283).

The Devils got another valiant effort in net from Massachusetts sons (sins?) Cory Schneider (Marblehead) with xx saves and a second period goal from North Andover’s Bobby Farnham, but once again- the lack of offense sank the Devils,as his sixth tally was all she wrote. Jonas Gustavsson got the start for the visitors and made 19 saves for the victory as the B’s started out their five-game road trip on a positive note.

Vatrano scored early, converting a rebound from C. Miller that Schneider kicked out in front of the net. The Boston rookie swooped in and gathered the puck, lifting it over Schneider’s right pad for his sixth goal of the year.

Spooner added to the lead in the second period, making a pair of his patented 10-2 skating moves after Zach Trotman sealed off the play along the right boards to prevent a Devils defender from getting to the puck and clearing. With Spooner moving across the blue line and his hips open, he was able to wrist a shot on net. Matt Beleskey screened Schneider, allowing the puck to slip past him inside the post for what would be the eventual game-winner.

Hayes got a late-period power play goal when he tipped Zdeno Chara’s point shot  into the net for his ninth goal of the year.

C. Miller closed out the scoring in the third period when he blistered a smoking slap shot through Schneider’s five-hole. Dennis Seidenberg made a perfect pass into the wheelhouse that allowed Chiller to get all of it, and it looked every bit like the power drive that won Miller the hardest shot competition at the 2015 AHL All-Star Game.

For the B’s it was a strong performance overall- they were burned just once off the rush when Chara got caught up the ice and C. Miller allowed too much of a gap for Farnham. It was a shot Gustavsson should have had, but in Miller’s case, he was too passive on the play- allowing the former Brown standout nothing but time and space to make the play. Miller more than made up for it with his 1-1-2 night- scoring his third goal of the season in the final frame.

Gustavsson was effective for the most part, but was nearly caught out of the crease several times, causing NESN analysts Billy Jaffe and Gord Kluzak to dedicate a 1st intermission segment to “hugging the post” to him.

The game also marked David Pastrnak’s return to the NHL for the first time since he was lost to a fractured foot just before Halloween. Just back from the World Jr. Championship, Pastrnak played with energy and made some skill plays around the net, but was clearly still feeling his way back into game shape. He reportedly had a finger injury at the WJC, but his stick handling did not appear to be hampered much in this one.

The Boston defense and penalty killing played well for the most part. Trotman was back into the Boston lineup after Adam McQuaid was taken out on a hit from behind by Washington Capital Zach Sill on Tuesday. Sill was suspended two games by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for the play, and with McQuaid on the IR, Trotman will have a chance to skate with Chara going forward. Trotman is most effective when he keeps things simple and the play in front of him. He even drew a late penalty when he jumped in from the blue line and beat Dmitri Kalinin to a loose puck, getting pulled down from behind for his efforts.

Ryan Spooner continues to play well while filling in for the injured David Krejci. He stretched his points streak to four games with a goal and five assists over that span. He’s also playing more effectively in all zones and earning the coaching staff’s trust with bigger minutes and expanded situations. He’s on pace for around 20 goals and 60 points this year if he can keep finding ways to contribute offensively when Krejci returns to reclaim his top-two line role. 59 points would have led the B’s in scoring last season, so give the soon-to-be 24-YO credit for his commitment to making things work this season when his 5-on-5 play was wanting and points were harder to come by earlier in the season.

With points at a premium for Boston, they needed to have a game like this one and got it. The Devils were without top scorer Mike Cammalleri and had a depleted roster overall, but there’s no crying in hockey- Boston took New Jersey to the woodshed, allowing some of the lower-line players to get some extended looks as the B’s cruised late.

They’ll take on their division rival Ottawa Senators tomorrow night in Kanata.

Bruins putrid in Winter Classic

Putrid. Lousy. Pitiful.

The negative descriptors for the annual outdoor NHL spectacle Winter Classic played at Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Day are endless. The Boston Bruins were run out of the joint by the Montreal Canadiens with nearly 70,000 fans on hand to witness it.

The weather and ice conditions- at times factors in the past- did not have a major influence on yesterday’s contest, but after all of the buildup, it took just 74 seconds for Montreal to set the tone for what was to come.

David Desharnais continued his scoring ways against this team, pouncing on a loose puck to Tuukka Rask’s left and jamming it into the net inside the post before Rask or defenseman Joe Morrow could pick it up.

By the time Paul Byron scored Montreal’s second goal, it was painfully evident that the B’s were just not in gear. The first period was a disaster for Boston, as they were unable to generate any kind of sustained offensive pressure, getting outshot 14-3 overall.

Boston was undermanned- the team lost David Krejci to injury against Ottawa last Sunday and then Brad Marchand found himself on the wrong end of the NHL discipline process for a low-bridge hit on Mark Borowiecki that cost him three-game suspension at the worst possible time. The forwards Boston dressed in their place- Alex Khokhlachev and Seth Griffith– barely played and when they did, weren’t effective. Max Talbot played what was probably his worst game as a Bruin. The list goes on and on.

The B’s looked unprepared for a game that had so much anticipation and fanfare, and the Canadiens took it to them from the drop of the puck. It’s hard to square the team that was on the receiving end of a 5-1 loss to their most hated rival with the one that has put together some impressive winning streaks during the season and played one of their most spirited games of the year this week against Ottawa at home.

If the B’s looked like their alarms hadn’t awakened them, the Habs provided a stark contrast. They got a lift from the return of Brendan Gallagher to the lineup for the first time since November 22 yesterday. He was flying around the ice and then extended Montreal’s lead to three goals when he batted a puck out of mid-air to make it 3-o.

There was’t much to be pleased about from a Boston perspective yesterday: Matt Beleskey tallied the lone goal with a deflection of Adam McQuaid’s point shot to give the B’s life in the third period with a 3-1 score and chance to come back. A bad Zdeno Chara pinch resulted in a 2-on-1 break with Gallagher and Max Pacioretty. Gallagher fed the captain and he buried a shot to put the game effectively out of reach.

There were two key opportunities for Boston in the second period that might have altered the complexion of the game. Jimmy Hayes had a goal taken off the board after the officials lost sight of the puck under goaltender Mike Condon and blew the whistle. Hayes poked at Condon, in a snow angel position, and the puck went in, but the play had clearly been blown dead. Then, with less than a second left, Condon rose to the occasion to deny Ryan Spooner a shot with a fine glove save. Spooner was alone to Condon’s left with an open side to hit, but when the pass came to him, he took an extra second to settle the puck, allowing Condon to get over and make the stop.

In the end, it isn’t the loss itself that represents such a big setback for Boston- it’s the way it went on such a big stage. Veterans like Talbot and Zac Rinaldo were on the ice collectively for a -7 against and weren’t effective as the Canadiens seemed to fly around them and make play after play. It wasn’t just Talbot and Rinaldo, either- Loui Eriksson was particularly ineffective yesterday, and while Rask didn’t cost his team the game, his career record now stands at 4-15-3 against the Canadiens.

Give the Canadiens credit- they attacked the Boston net, cycled the puck effectively and kept their feet moving throughout. When the Bruins tried to seize on shifting momentum, Condon was there to keep the game in control.

It does no good to belabor the point- there isn’t much more to be said about what happened at Gillette Stadium. With the Washington Capitals and Bruins killer Braden Holtby next on the docket, Boston’s depth will be sorely tested. It’s easy to kill Koko and Griffith for not bringing more to the table, but they didn’t play enough to be responsible for the loss- they simply didn’t play well enough to inspire more of a role the coaches can be confident in. With Marchand out two more games and Krejci gone on a longer timeline, the B’s must get better play from the guys they have.

The team may or may not win more games than they lose in the coming stretch, but how they play is what most will be watching and observing. They can afford any repeat performances of what they brought on Jan. 1.

5 big Boston Bruins storylines from 2015

As we say farewell to 2015, we’ll take a look back at a turbulent year for the Boston Bruins franchise, one that saw the team miss the postseason for the first time in eight years.

With a solid 20-12-4 record and third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Friday’s Winter Classic against Montreal (just one spot and point above the B’s in the standings) Boston has a chance to start 2016 on a brighter note.

Here are five stories and an honorable mention that highlight the year the was for Boston Bruins hockey:

1.  Bruins miss playoffs, fire GM Peter Chiarelli

Just two years prior, the Boston GM’s team nearly captured a second Stanley Cup since 2011 before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks (winners in 2010, 2013 and 2015) in six games. He followed that up a year later with the top team in the 2013-14 regular season before a second-round seven-game flameout to the Montreal Canadiens. However, with his team in a salary cap mess and missing the playoffs to a tie-breaker on the final night of the 2014-15 campaign, team president Cam Neely relieved Chiarelli of his duties.

It’s an indicator of just how fickle and results-driven the professional sports business is, but personalities and power consolidation might have played a bigger role than Neely and ownership want to admit. Regardless, Chiarelli soon resigned his position in the organization and the Edmonton Oilers went all-in on him building another success story in Alberta, naming him president and general manager just a few weeks later. Chiarelli then had the benefit of watching a generational talent in Connor McDavid fall into his lap at the 2015 draft (he inherited Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask at the 2006 draft- technically before he officially assumed GM duties in Boston).

Chiarelli’s Oilers teams won both games against his old organization this year, but it took a shootout and overtime respectively to do it. This sets up a fun East-West grudge rivalry between the two teams for years as he attempts to change the Oilers’ ways from perennial doormats to legitimate hockey power.

2. Boston names Don Sweeney new GM

Neely’s old teammate and close friend was named to step into Chiarelli’s old position on May 20, 2015 after being his assistant for several years and starting out as a player development consultant from day one of the post-Mike O’Connell (and interim GM Jeff Gorton) era. To think that Sweeney got the job solely because of his connection to the team president is wholly unfair to a man who not only played more than 1,000 NHL games on the Boston blue line, but who also spent countless hours in rinks around the world scouting future talent and working to develop B’s prospects into successful pros.

Sweeney has been active and aggressive since taking the helm. His first (and perhaps most astute) move was to keep Claude Julien in the fold. Make no mistake- had Boston dismissed him behind Chiarelli, another team (Edmonton?) would have pounced quickly. Since then, Sweeney made a series of bold moves that so far, most of which, have worked out (see No. 3 below). One longtime (and very respected) NHL director of scouting I ran into Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale told me point blank that Sweeney had “balls” and that you had to give him credit from making what was sure to be (at least initially) two unpopular and risky trades without a whole lot of proven assets coming back in return. “He’s doing what he thinks is right,” the scouting director said outside a local watering hole. “We’ll see if the heat he’s getting is even warranted by the time we’re halfway through next season.”

With a hot take like that, you might be right to look up a list of chief scouts to see if anyone’s last name is Nostradamus.

There’s plenty of hockey left before we get too carried away, but if most were told the B’s would be 8 games over .500 heading into the Winter Classic, they’d have taken it.

3. 2015 draft day trades: Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton go West

“Trader Don” did not waste much time in making several aggressive, even shocking moves to shed salary and re-work the Bruins roster to fit his vision.

Initial reaction to the decision to trade Dougie Hamilton, with news breaking in the early Friday afternoon before the draft’s first round, was not positive. Beyond the shock of finding out that the new GM had just dealt a 22-year-old and the last piece of the Phil Kessel trade return from Toronto was one thing, but that the B’s got three draft picks from Calgary- their first and two (of three) second-rounders all in 2015- was even more stunning. The team had just opened up a sizable hole on its blue line, which had been exposed in the spring when Boston failed to earn a playoff berth, and in return- the team was placing its hopes on future assets, none of whom had a chance to fill the void of Hamilton’s departure.

Before fans could come out of the daze, more rumors swirled, this time less surprising but nevertheless polarizing when it looked like Sweeney was on the verge of trading fan favorite Milan Lucic to Los Angeles.  On its face- it made sense. Sweeney was trying to rework Boston’s dire cap situation- created by his former boss- and with Lucic entering the last year of a contract that already paid him $6 million, the writing was on the wall that the B’s couldn’t afford to extend him, nor did many feel his play warranted it. This time, Sweeney landed more immediate assets from the Kings- backup goaltender Martin Jones and prized defense prospect Colin Miller, coming off a 19-goal season in the AHL which culminated in a championship. These two players were topped with LA’s first pick- one spot before Boston’s own 14th overall position, giving them picks 13-15. The rest is, as they say, history.

However- there are reports that the Bruins acquired the many assets as currency to move up in the draft to the top-five in order to grab Boston College star and Norwood, Mass. native Noah Hanifin. It didn’t work out, but if in fact that was Sweeney’s vision, the decision to trade Hamilton for what he received in return makes perfect sense. In dealing Hamilton but drafting Hanifin (say that three times- real fast), Sweeney could have spun moving his young defender to the Flames as an eventual upgrade with a marketable asset like Hanifin, viewed by most scouts (including this one) as a future franchise cornerstone and legitimate 2-way defenseman. Hamilton has proven he can generate offense, but his defensive zone play has always been and continues to be an adventure with his new team. Hanifin, who is already in the NHL at 18 with Carolina, is breaking in slowly, but you can see that he’s growing and maturing. It won’t be long until he and Justin Faulk are forming as formidable a 1-2 punch at the position as any in the league.

Sweeney didn’t just stop wheeling and dealing at the draft, though.

He then traded Jones, who was unsigned and not going to be happy sitting behind Tuukka Rask after previously backing up Jonathan Quick, to San Jose for their first-rounder in 2016 plus defensive center prospect Sean Kuraly, captain of the Miami University RedHawks (a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Sharks).

Sweeney added Zac Rinaldo from Philly for a 2017 third-rounder, then made another move by sending Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to South Florida for Jimmy Hayes.

Those transactions didn’t match the surprise or impact that dealing Hamilton and Lucic did, but so far, they haven’t blown up in Sweeney’s face, either.

Signing veteran farmhand D Matt Irwin was a poor move, but picking up Landon Ferraro off of waivers from Detroit was another solid add for Sweeney and his pro scouts. When you add pieces like Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik, signed as undrafted college free agents under the Chiarelli regime, there is hope for the future.

The question that dogs Sweeney now is- how can he find a way to add that heir apparent and future No. 1 to replace Zdeno Chara? When at first you don’t succeed as was the case with Hanifin, then try, try again. It’s much easier said than done, however, and might take a bit of luck.

4. Claude Julien enters ninth season behind B’s bench, in range of coaching record

Boston’s longest-tenured coach since Art Ross stands to break the hockey icon’s franchise record, which has stood since the end of World War II. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun has an excellent article on Julien and the idea (I agree with it) that he’s a legitimate Jack Adams Award candidate because of what he’s doing with Boston’s roster amidst all the off-season turmoil and expectations. Go here and read it.  It’s a detailed piece replete with sources and I think it effectively captures the essence of Julien’s legacy in Boston and why an active movement to oust him without a clear solution in place borders on the absurd. Here’s an excerpt from LeBrun’s article:

The Bruins’ season ended in April, Don Sweeney was named general manager on May 20, and Julien had to wait until June 5 for an announcement that he would return as coach.

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron remembers chatting with Sweeney last summer, but the head coach wasn’t a topic of conversation.

“I think he knew what I thought of Claude anyway, that I love playing for him and I’ve learned so much from him,” Bergeron said Tuesday night. “So he didn’t need to ask me the question. I think he just needed time to figure out things is all.”

Julien is the best Bruins coach in my lifetime, and although doesn’t have the longevity of Ross because the NHL played far fewer games when he coached as opposed to now, will deserve his spot on top of the franchise’s coaching list. Not convinced? More from Bergeron:

“He always finds a way to get the best out of each player, it’s really his strong suit to recognize if the team lacks confidence, or has too much confidence, up and down, he has a good pulse for the feeling out of the dressing room,” said Bergeron. “And he’s really fair. It’s easy to play for a coach like that. You want to give him all you’ve got.”

Julien gets criticism for his personnel decisions, and no amount of success is going to bring everyone completely on board because of that. In the minds of some- even if he wins with certain veterans, the fact that he’s not icing a more skilled group will keep the critics supplied with fresh gripes. Having said that, he’s 17 career wins from passing Ross and has managed to keep his players loyal and playing hard for him. With a club that had major questions surrounding it entering the season, you’d need a pretty enticing option in place to supplant Julien for such a move to make sense.

5. Bruins host 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium vs. Canadiens

In 2010, the B’s needed overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers at frozen Fenway Park in a memorable first foray in the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day outdoor game tradition. This time, they host their hated rival from the north- the Montreal Canadiens- and go south to Foxboro and the home of the New England Patriots to do it.

There’s plenty of information out there on the game, which has become quite the spectacle since the NHL introduced it more than a decade ago, so I won’t rehash it all here. Three of my friends and colleagues- ESPN’s Joe McDonald, DJ Bean of WEEI and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE are a trio to follow for fine coverage. Be sure to hook on with Brian “Rear Admiral” McGonagle of Barstool Sports, too- he’s a good egg with a large following who blends hockey and pop culture like no one else I know. Finally, the writers at the Boston dailies are all fine people who will give you the ins and outs, starting with the alumni and women’s pro hockey games tomorrow.

 HM: 10 picks re-stock the organizational cupboard

The team entered draft weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with two picks in the first two rounds, and by the time Sweeney & Co. walked into the BB&T Center for Friday’s primetime event, those selections had swelled to six in exchange for Lucic and Hamilton.

Boston was high on Czech defender Jakub Zboril, so when their reported attempts to move up for top-rated D Hanifin proved unsuccessful, he was in that second tier of defenders and made sense at 13th overall. On the plus side, Zboril has size and is highly talented with skating, passing and shooting skills galore. He’s also got some real nasty to his game and he plays with a physical edge. He is inconsistent with his effort and intensity, however- that is something the Bruins will watch closely.

Jake DeBrusk was the team’s second pick at 14th overall and began to raise eyebrows when the B’s did not opt for either of smallish but uber-skilled and fast playmaking center Mathew Barzal or USHL leading scorer Kyle Connor. DeBrusk, who scored 42 goals for the Swift Current Broncos a year ago and was just traded to the Red Deer Rebels as they gear up for the 2016 Memorial Cup, has a natural nose for the net and can score goals by the bushel. The left wing is not a dynamic game-breaker like Barzal, but the B’s wanted a finisher and they got one. The son of former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk is a completely different player than his dad was, but is a keeper.

The sharp criticism Boston drew in taking Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn has been much more muted this season, as he has scored 22 goals in his first 33 games of the OHL season. With his impressive NHL tools- a 6-2 frame, fast wheels, superb puck skills and finishing ability, there is much to like about this fledgling power forward. He’s still raw and addressing consistency in his game (more on that in a future blog post), but after getting ridiculed in trading Hamilton for the pick that became Senyshyn, you’re not hearing that as much in pundit circles these days, especially with how shaky Hamilton’s start in Calgary was. This is a trade that in time analysts will say both teams won, but the Flames are getting the more immediate returns.

Big shutdown defender Brandon Carlo came next at 37, acquired with Philadelphia’s pick (obtained from the Islanders in the much-criticized Johnny Boychuk deal on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign). At 6-5, he’s massive, but his long arms give him an even bigger reach than other guys his size. He’s a fluid, mobile skater for one so big, and we’ve seen it in the WJC, as he pretty much shuts down players who try to get to the net on his side of the ice either by using his long stick and strength to block a straight net drive or his quickness to deny opponents room on the outside. He’s as good a shutdown player as you will find in the prospect ranks, but his offensive potential at the NHL level is a question mark at this stage. He scored his first goal of the tourney today against Switzerland in USA’s 10-1 drubbing, so there’s much to like about this player.

Swedish center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, acquired with the second of three Flames picks for Hamilton at 45 overall (the same draft spot that the B’s got Bergeron at in 2003, btw) is surging up the prospect rankings with a superb freshman season at Boston University. ‘JFK’ is smooth, poised and intelligent- he doesn’t push the pace a lot, but is creative and slick- he uses his vision and deft stick to set up quality scoring chances and can find the back of the net, too. He’s very good at the faceoff dot and has surprised many with his poise and maturity for one so young. He’s playing well for Sweden at the WJC.

The B’s also grabbed Quebec defender Jeremy Lauzon with the last of Calgary’s picks at 52nd overall in the second round. The big, rugged and skilled two-way guy was one of Canada’s last WJC cuts and has impressed with a career offensive season while logging upwards of about 30 minutes for Rouyn-Noranda.He doesn’t quite have the flash and polish of higher-regarded blue line prospects, nor does he possess the early draft pedigree of  others, but he’s a perfect blend between the offensive skill of Zboril and defensive prowess Carlo.

With six picks in the books, the B’s could have called it a successful two days, but they landed two more particularly intriguing players with some boom potential down the road.

Huge Czech goalie Daniel Vladar went off the board to them in the mid-third round. At 6-5, he has outstanding size and quickness, and looks like someone who could one day evolve into a legitimate NHL goalie. On the downside, he’s raw and seems to guess at where shots are coming from rather than effectively tracking the puck or reading the unfolding play. There’s no pressure on him to succeed right away, so like Zane McIntyre, the B’s can afford to put him on the long track and take their time.

WHL agitator Jesse Gabrielle looks like fantastic value in the fourth round. A Bruins fan growing up in his native Saskatchewan, he played some Minnesota high school hockey before major junior and likens his playing style to idol Brad Marchand. He’s not quite as blazing fast, but is plenty quick enough. Gabrielle is bigger, stronger and perhaps meaner than Marchand is. He’s well on pace to shattering his previous career bests with his third Dub team- Prince George- after Regina traded him over the summer. He needs to stay focused and make sure the hockey comes first, but this is certainly a player with legitimate NHL potential if he keeps maturing and growing.

Boston rounded out the draft (after trading their 5th-round selection to Minnesota for the Wild’s 5th in 2016) with Wisconsin center Cameron Hughes- a smallish but offensively talented pivot who toils on a struggling club. They took raw but developing Minnesota forward Jack Becker with their final pick in the seventh round.

While none of the ten picks immediately jump out on paper as having elite high-end potential, the initial returns look promising with more than a few who have a chance to one day make the Boston roster and contribute. There’s much work left, but in a deep draft, the B’s appear to have added some quality depth with a few players like Senyshyn, Lauzon, JFK and Gabrielle in particular- who might one day far exceed their draft positions and perform better than players drafted ahead of them.

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Final buzzer: Bruins lay smackdown on Sens

Where to begin?

The modern NHL is different from the league I grew up with. In some ways it is better and others not so much. But tonight, when the Boston Bruins took on the Ottawa Senators in the second of a home-and-home series (Sens prevailed 3-1 on home ice Sunday), the home team set the tone for Friday’s Winter Classic against an even bigger rival.

The old NHL I grew up with- the one with the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences and the Adams, “Black and Blue” Norris Divisions and all the others- gave the league a character and toughness that simply doesn’t exist any more to a large extent. There were no Ottawa Senators in the old days of the Adams Division, but tonight’s Boston opponent might as well have been wearing the blue and white of the old Quebec Nordiques…or the green, white and (later) blue of the Hartford Whalers…because as the game wound down, the fireworks began in a manner reminiscent of some memorable fracas at the Boston Garden.

If you take nothing else with you tonight, remember this- these two teams don’t like each other. That’s how it should be. And that’s how it all went down in Boston’s decisive, grind-your-face-into-the-ice victory in a 7-3 final score punctuated by local kid Jimmy Hayes’ hat trick with just .02 ticks left on the clock.

The three-goal game for Hayes, done in front of the hometown fans, was undoubtedly a dream come true moment for the Dorchester native, who grew up skating in nearby rinks pretending to score goals for the Bruins. It’s been an at-times frustrating season undoubtedly for the former BC star, who came home in a late June trade. All at once, it had to be a thrill, but also brought enormous pressure to perform, too. It is therefore no small irony tonight that when skating on Boston’s bottom line, he brought the hats raining down at the TD Garden to put an exclamation point on a win the Bruins had to have.

Hayes got the first goal of the contest at 8:01 of the opening frame when a Kevan Miller drive into the end boards took a fortuitous bounce out in front of the net and the right winger punched it in. Longtime Boston nemesis (but oh how B’s fans would’ve loved this guy if he wore the Black and Gold) Chris Neil scored the equalizer at 12:31, converting a second rebound after the Bruins got caught running around in their own end. Patrice Bergeron restored the lead with the first of four Boston power play goals on the night when he took a Torey Krug pass and made a nifty little deke to put the puck past Craig Anderson, hero of the Sunday game for a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.

The final score does not accurately reflect how close this one was, as the B’s clung to a 3-2 lead that looked anything but safe going into the final stanza. Fans no doubt recalled the collapse Saturday night against the Bruins and when Matt Beleskey tallied a power play goal to put Boston up 3-1 only to see Mika Zibanejad score a late second period goal (his second in as many games after getting the game-winner Sunday night against the B’s) to cut the lead to one, you’d forgive the good folks for not being as optimistic going into the third.

The rollercoaster game continued into the last 20 minutes, as Bergeron got his second power play goal of the night (Boston’s third of the game) at 2:38 when Krug faked a big windup for a shot then sent a slap past to Bergeron, who was occupying his customary “bumper” position between the two circles. He deftly redirected the puck into the net before Anderson could track and reset. Seth Griffith, recalled as David Krejci was officially put on IR today, registered the second assist on the play, his first NHL point of the season in his first big league game this year.

However, less than two minutes later, Mike Hoffman reduced the deficit to just one goal again when he threw the puck towards the middle of the ice from the left side. It hit Dennis Seidenberg’s skate and caromed into the net to make it 4-3 with about 15:30 remaining in the game.

That set the stage for a wild finish, as Boston scored three goals in the final 4:11, with two Hayes tallies sandwiched with one Beleskey strike to put the Sens away for good.

After the B’s made it 6-3 on Beleskey’s second of the night, a chippy night got even more spirited. In the final minutes, Ottawa coach Dave Cameron sent Neil, Max McCormick and Mark Borowiecki (who tangled earlier in the game with Zdeno Chara and was promptly rag-dolled for his efforts) on the ice perhaps to send a message to Boston for their next contest in a few weeks. McCormick and Landon Ferraro dropped the gloves in a spirited but nasty bout that began with McCormick firing some vicious punches into Ferraro before the Boston center scored a punch and take down.

Things blew up at 19:33 when action around theBoston net that began with a David Dziurzynski hit on Miller on the end boards flared into a near line brawl. Zac Rinaldo  squared off and pounded Dziurzynski, while a hesitant Adam McQuaid battled Neil (and appeared to get an eye gouge in the process). The referees- Frederick L’Ecuyer and Kyle Rehman, wanting no more shenanigans, then issued 10-minute misconduct penalties to Miller, Beleskey, and Zack Smith. But with Boston on the power play after Neil took an extra penalty in his donnybrook with McQuaid, Hayes finished off the hat trick with a bullet into the net on a feed from Max Talbot (who played his finest game since being acquired from Colorado at last year’s trade deadline.)

As we have seen in the past, games like this one brings teams together. The fans in Boston certainly loved it, and more important- it allowed the Bruins to enter the three-day buildup to the 2016 Winter Classic on a high note, without the negativity of a four-game losing streak. Better yet, Montreal lost to the upstart Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers tonight, spoiling the debut of goaltender Ben Scrivens.

For Boston to go from a nasty game and key moral victory to now facing their bitterest rival of all- this is the stuff that used to make the NHL what it was.

I’m not saying the new NHL is bad, but for one night at least, we were all reminded of the toughness, emotion…the pure electricity that a game like this one generates. Those nights- which once came with far more regularity- are a product of a by-gone era, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t give us something to get excited about.

UP

Patrice Bergeron- He scored two very important power play goals at critical times in this game and got the game-winnerr, once again providing the leadership by example he has been known for throughout his entire Boston career. At this point, his excellence has just come to be expected, but the humility and character with which he carries himself only adds to his body of work. With 14 goals in 36 games, he might just establish a career best in that category at age 30, and he’s certainly cruising for a fourth Selke Trophy and could garner Hart Trophy consideration as league MVP as well. Regardless of what happens, Bergeron is the heart and soul of this team and continues to raise the bar as he climbs the ladder of franchise historical feats.

Jimmy Hayes- It hasn’t been the easiest of years, but he hung in there and had the best night of his NHL career in front of a fired up crowd. The former prep star at Nobles isn’t ever going to be a bruising, in-your-face power winger the way B’s fans wish a 6-5, 215 pounder should be, but as long as he’s working hard and finding ways to contribute, he’ll be value added to a team that is counting on him to provide secondary scoring, especially with Krejci now out for an undetermined length of time. Hayes wants to be here, and this game will do wonders for his confidence. Perhaps he’ll quit gripping the stick tight and take the chances as they come…he’s probably finding out that playing for your hometown team comes with a whole different set of expectations and pressures, but on this night, he was the man of the hour.

Matt Beleskey- His first two-goal game as a Bruin came in what is a typical contest that plays to the former Belleville Bull’s strengths. He was a force on the forecheck all night and both of his goals showed off his excellent shot. Pucks hadn’t been going in for him over the first half of the year, but he was working hard and generating chances. Playing the law of averages, you knew things were bound to change at some point.

Ryan Spooner- This was a big boy game for the center who moved up to the second line with Beleskey and Loui Eriksson with Krejci out. He set the tone early with solid defensive play in his own end and an underrated blind pass to Beleskey that sprang a breakout and key scoring chance. He assisted on Bergeron’s goal, then later set up Beleskey’s second tally with some superb work along the wall to shake a defender and get the puck to his linemate. Spooner does not get enough credit for his genuine desire to improve and be a part of his team’s success. Tonight, he sent a key message to Claude Julien and the Boston coaching staff- he wants to be a top-two line center in this league and against his hometown team, he looked like one in his season-best 17:02 (in regulation games) of ice time.

Max Talbot- I have long enjoyed covering him when he was on other teams, and he was an easy whipping boy for fans as his best years are behind him. Tonight, Talbot played like he did when he was in his prime with the Penguins and a major piece to their 2009 Stanley Cup championship squad. He’s limited, but no one will ever question his heart or effort. Tonight, he was the yin to Hayes’ yang and made that fourth line one effective unit. Credit where it is due, folks.

Tuukka Rask- He was victimized on the Hoffman goal, but Rask came up big numerous times to keep his team ahead before they gave him the offensive support to make it a laugher.He’s in the zone- Rask deserved a better fate Sunday, but he got his 14th win of the season by maintaining his focus, tracking the puck well, and making some controlled saves at crunch time. With Rask playing like this, the B’s are in every game.

Torey Krug- You could see how much the B’s missed Krug in the final period of the Buffalo loss and the entire Sunday Ottawa game just by the way he was motoring up and down the ice and pushing the pace. You could also tell how fired up he was to be back in the lineup. This was vintage Krug- making things happen with a pair of assists to reach the 100-point milestone in his young NHL career, while also playing a strong all-around game to help stabilize the defense. The team desperately needs him to keep up the two-way contributions going forward.

Zdeno Chara- Even at 38, he’s still an effective defenseman and tonight he showed it, playing with some snarl and a heaviness to his game that made it tough for Ottawa to get much going in the Boston end. He’s still making some dangerous passes, especially when on the power play, but he played a smart, focused game tonight. He imposed his will physically on Borowiecki, who wanted no part of Chara once the captain started slinging him around like a sack of potatoes. Chara could have punched him in the face when he had him down but didn’t. That not only showed respect for an opponent who probably didn’t deserve a whole lot given how Borowiecki took advantage of Hayes the other night after steamrolling Frank Vatrano, but also demonstrated restraint by not taking an extra penalty in a close game.

DOWN

Brad Marchand- There aren’t many downs to this game, but his low-bridge on Borowiecki could draw supplemental discipline. If the NHL suspends him for the Winter Classic (and they could given his past transgressions), that will put the Bruins behind the eight-ball for sure. On a night he was wearing the ‘A’ for the first time in his big league career, he also took an undisciplined slashing (it was more like spearing) penalty on Kyle Turris in front of the Boston net when the game was still 4-3. He’s been such a good player this season, but Marchand has to know where the edge is and not skate over it.

It’s onto Foxboro and the Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens. You can bet these Bruins will be ready to go.

 

 

Bruins’ skid reaches three games with Buffalo, Ottawa losses

After entering last week on a high note, the B’s were blanked by the St. Louis Blues right before the Christmas holiday and then got slapped with a pair of losses to Atlantic Division foes Buffalo and Ottawa on back-to-back nights this weekend to miss out on a chance to take a lead in the division standings.

The Buffalo loss at home, which saw a two-goal lead evaporate on the strength of five unanswered goals and Jack Eichel’s first career four-point game in his homecoming, was particularly troublesome. One night later, they traveled to Canada’s capital and played a better game, but dropped a 3-1 decision to the Senators, thwarted by a very strong game in net from Craig Anderson (38 saves), so would have posted a shutout had not video replay awarded a goal to David Krejci that was originally not called a score by the on-ice officials.

Speaking of Krejci- he took a pass in the corner from Loui Eriksson, walked to the front of the net when Sens captain Erik Karlsson failed to seal off the far post and just watched him cut between the Norris Trophy defenseman and the net, and then put the puck into the far side. It ended up underneath Anderson’s left pad and skate, but replay, which was not absolutely conclusive, appeared to show that the puck (and skate) was behind the line. A call to Toronto and review awarded Krejci his 11th goal of the season (and 33rd point in 35 games).

Much of the goodwill that had built up with the team during their strong recent stretch from late-November up until last Tuesday’s loss to the Blues, is evaporating, as the B’s can’t seem to get out of their own way. Unforced errors and mistake-prone play opened the door for the Sabres, a rising young team but still an inferior one and below Boston in the standings, to mount a spirited comeback.

Injuries to a couple of key players- namely Torey Krug (who pulled up lame in the Buffalo game on a race for an icing call and is considered day-to-day with a lower body injury) and Krejci, who appeared to hurt his arm/shoulder and left last night’s contest in the second period- aren’t going to help Boston’s cause.

B’s coach Claude Julien, who was staunchly defended on this blog last week, has opened himself up to criticism with some of his personnel moves, especially on defense. Kevan Miller had a particularly bad outing against Buffalo, but Colin Miller paid the price instead, getting scratched in Ottawa. In fairness to Julien, “Chiller” had some miscues against the Sabres in what was not one of his better outings in a pretty good season for the NHL rookie. However, with Krug ailing and out of the lineup, it was strange for the younger Miller to get taken out of the lineup in favor of Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, who returned to action after missing the previous seven contests as a healthy scratch. Trotman looked rusty at times and even tentative at others in a game where he played a pretty robust 21:32 worth of minutes- that’s what happens when you’re rotating in and out of a lineup the way the former last pick in 2010 is doing. K. Miller, who was a -2 in the Buffalo game (he was on ice for three goals against in the third, but assisted on the Boston tally to make it 3-1), played just 17:43 against Ottawa, which could be a sign that Julien’s patience with him is wearing thin. I guess we’ll see, but the B’s sure could have used Miller’s foot speed and puck-moving ability against the Senators last night.

Tuukka Rask played well against the Sens, but was victimized on a bank shot by Mark Stone off Dennis Seidenberg’s skate on one goal, and a net-drive rebound laser from Mika Zibanejad on the winner. Stone added an empty-netter for his second of the night and 10th of the season. His performance provided a solid contrast to that of Jonas Gustavsson, who was below average against Buffalo, doing very little to stop the bleeding in the third period Saturday. The Bruins need much better play from their veteran backup in a situation like that one, even if the defense didn’t give him much help.

Zdeno Chara’s play is failing the eye test. At 38, a decline was expected, but at times- he looks like’s he’s fallen off a cliff. He’s lost several steps and continues to turn the puck over in bad situations when pressured. You figured that opponents would exploit a loss in mobility- and let’s face it- he was never an agile skater to begin with- but he’s a step behind the play and making poor decisions with the puck that lead to odd-man rushes and quality scoring chances at the other end. Simply put, his minutes should probably be scaled back, not increased. However, with Krug leaving the game Saturday, Chara topped the 26-minute mark and he played another 25+ against his old club one night later. He was a -3 in the pair of games combined and has just four assists in his last  10 contests.

With Krejci out last night for the final period and facing uncertain status heading into tomorrow’s rematch at the TD Garden, Ryan Spooner moved up to the second line. The 23-year-old has stepped up his production (though he’s gone scoreless in the last four games- shootout winner against New Jersey aside) over the past month and will need to shoulder even more of the load if Boston loses it’s veteran scoring pivot for any length of time.

Here’s a modest proposal, but instead of recalling Alex Khokhlachev, why not try rookie pro and buzzsaw Austin Czarnik? The undrafted free agent showed off terrific chemistry with Frank Vatrano in the rookie tourney, Boston preseason and then in the first seven games of the AHL campaign in Providence. With his speed and energy/ability to push the pace, he might make perfect sense on the third line, and with Vatrano back on his wing, anything is possible. Depending on the severity of Krejci’s injury, Czarnik might make sense as an emergency recall, as the modern salary cap system and associated constraints do make personnel moves a little more challenging than simply dialing up Jay Pandolfo and Bruce Cassidy in Providence.

Brett Connolly probably needs to take another seat. A healthy scratch after ineffective play early, he returned to the Boston lineup with a burr under his saddle and played well with a four-goal streak, but with just five tallies all year, he’s not getting the job done. Nothing was more egregious last night than his weak flyby of the puck at center ice that allowed the odd-man break and Bobby Ryan shot/rebound that Zibanejad converted late in the second period for the eventual winner. Seth Griffith has been outstanding in Providence over the past month and deserves a recall to see what he can do. Griffith doesn’t bring much in the way of speed, but he might bring the energy and hunger that has been so lacking in Connolly’s game of late. To see this from such a high draft pick illustrates the challenges of scouting and projecting teenage players: the explosiveness, creativity and killer instinct that Connolly showed in his WHL career with Prince George has been nowhere to be found in Boston.

B’s have a small window to get their game back on track this week before facing Montreal in the Winter Classic Friday at Gillette Stadium. It’s gut-check time.

 

Why Claude Julien is a top NHL coach

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

With 370 wins as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien is just 18 victories away from bumping Hockey Hall of Fame resident Arthur “Art” Ross from his perch as the franchise’s all-time leader (earned in three different coaching stints), a distinction Ross has held since 1945.

You would think that Julien’s success as the Boston pro hockey team’s coach (1 Stanley Cup victory, 1 SCF appearance, only one season without making the playoffs) would have him a near-unanimous for favorite son status among Bruins fans, but there is a vocal minority that never seems pleased with the job he’s doing. This post will attempt to make an effective argument in favor of Julien and explain why he’s a candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top head coach this season.

Background

Julien was born in Blind River, Ontario (near Sudbury) and hails from Navan near Ottawa (across the river from Gatineau, Quebec) played major junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires in the late 1970s. Undrafted by the NHL, he worked his way up as a free agent in the Quebec Nordiques system after turning pro in 1981, playing a combined 14 NHL games in 1984-85 and 1985-86. He was a solid minor league puck-moving defenseman who finished out his playing career with stops in Kansas City (IHL) and the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1992.

His first major head coaching job was with the QMJHL’s Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques, where as a rookie coach, he led that team to the 1997 Memorial Cup championship. His next stop on the coaching rung was coaching Montreal Canadiens’ AHL farm team in Hamilton, Ontario. He coached that club for two full seasons and parts of a third, promoted to the NHL after helping the Bulldogs to an impressive 33-6-3-3 record (.800 winning percentage) in 45 games before replacing the fired Michel Therrien behind the Montreal bench. Julien’s Habs went 12-16-4-4, missing the ’03 playoffs.

In his first full year as NHL coach, the Habs bounced back under Julien, making the 2004 postseason and bouncing the Bruins in a seven-game battle in the opening round before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their next series. It was during the Bruins-Canadiens matchup that he coined the popular term “700-pound line” to describe the unit of Mike Knuble-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray for the Bruins. The Habs fired Julien halfway through the 2005-06 post-lockout season with a record of 19-16-6 in 41 games (Bob Gainey fired Julien to be interim HC, then named Guy Carbonneau to the post)- [thanks to a Eagle-eyed reader who pointed out this error in fact- sloppy on part- KL].

Julien’s next stop was with the New Jersey Devils, hired before the 2006-07 season. In one of the more curious developments of that year, Julien was pink-slipped by Lou Lamoriello after 79 games- just three games short of completing the regular season and with an impressive mark of 47-24-8.  Julien was fired as rumors swirled of a dressing room uprising in New Jersey, though Lamoriello would never go into detail as to why he made the controversial move. In a 2013 New Jersey Star-Ledger piece penned by veteran Devils beat reporter Rich Chere, Lamoriello was asked if he had any regrets about firing Julien and said:

“No, because I made the decision at that time with the information I had in front of me,” Lamoriello told The Star-Ledger. “If you could go back and make decisions again, knowing what you know now, things would be different.

“You can’t look back. You’ve got to trust the position you’re in and the information you have. Nobody else has that information.”

Lamoriello went on to say in the article that he did not feel the Devils were mentally or physically ready for the 2007 playoffs. With the current Maple Leafs GM behind the bench that year, New Jersey was ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Ottawa Senators.

That opened the door for Peter Chiarelli to give Julien his next and current opportunity, replacing Dave Lewis after a disastrous single season in Boston, the B’s GM’s first at the helm. Julien’s departure from New Jersey created plenty of discussion points when he was introduced as the new head coach, with the news greeted for the most part with skepticism.

The early years: 2007-10

Under Julien’s watch, the Bruins returned to the 2008 NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004 (with rookie coach Mike Sullivan), making the dance thanks to strong play from veterans Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Tim Thomas, Marco Sturm and others, minus Patrice Bergeron, who was hit from behind by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones 10 games into the season and lost for the balance of the regular campaign and playoffs with a severe concussion. Rookie Milan Lucic became an instant fan favorite, and the well-traveled Glen Metropolit provided tangible contributions from the lower lines.

Julien and company pushed the far superior Montreal Canadiens to a seventh game after wining games 5 and 6 with rousing performances that saw Phil Kessel begin to emerge as an offensive force after he was benched by the coach early on. Although the Bruins were no match for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a sound Game 7 defeat, better things were ahead for the team.

In 2008-09, Julien and his team finished with the second-best regular season record, earning Julien the Jack Adams Award for that one, and even better- wreaking havoc on the hated Canadiens in a four-game sweep in the 2009 playoffs’ opening round. However, the B’s were unprepared for a grittier, opportunistic Carolina Hurricanes bunch that prevailed in another seven-game series. This one hurt not only because Carolina beat the B’s at home in overtime in that final game, but because series villain Scott Walker scored the winning tally. It was a crushing setback, and the first real sign that a segment of fans questioned whether Julien was the right coach of this team.

If the end of the 2009 season was a tremendous disappointment, the 2009-10 campaign raised the bar on setbacks with a crushing end that was even more profound than the unexpected loss to Carolina the year before. After limping through a regular season marred with at times brutal play by Thomas which ultimately gave way to Tuukka Rask becoming the starter in January 2010, the B’s squeaked into the playoffs and then upset the higher-seeded rival Buffalo Sabres. Injuries that had devastated them (starting with the beginning of the end blindside hit by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke on Savard earlier in the spring) finally caught up to them in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the Bruins became just the third NHL team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead, losing another decisive Game 7 on home ice after taking a 3-0 lead in the first period only to watch a spirited comeback that left a Boston fanbase beyond befuddled, as the outcry for Julien’s ouster reached a new high.

Chiarelli doubled down with his guy and tied his own fortunes to Julien in 2010-11.

Turning Point- 2011 Playoffs

And so it came down to one goal.

The Bruins had looked done after losing both home games to fall in a 0-2 hole to none other than the Canadiens in the 2011 postseason. But here they were- back at the TD Garden in a Game 7 after clawing back to even the series and taking a 3-2 lead before Montreal won Game 6 to return the series to Boston for what would likely be the end for both of Chiarelli’s and Julien’s tenure with the Bruins if they were sent packing for a third straight year on home ice.

A regular season of highs and lows had ultimately ended well for Boston, and the club entered the playoffs with a new-look roster bolstered by the addition of veterans Chris Kelly and Tomas Kaberle to go with the previous summer acquisition of Nathan Horton, rookie second overall pick Tyler Seguin and an upstart young scoring winger in Brad Marchand who posted his first career 20+-goal campaign. A repaired hip and second Vezina Trophy for Tim Thomas was a huge part of the team’s success as well, and as fans would discover, the best was yet to come for the quirky, yet ferociously competitive Michigander.

As the teams battled in what was literal sudden death (in sporting parlance at least) for Boston’s GM and coach, it looked like it might be curtains when a Montreal shot hit a player in traffic and skittered towards the B’s net before ultimately just going wide and being cleared out of danger. The tension was beyond description- the home team had held a one-goal lead well into the third period before Boston nemesis P.K. Subban scored the equalizer. The old salts who had seen the “too many men on the ice game” against Montreal 1979 swore that the ghosts of Guy Lafleur and Yvon Lambert were about to descend on the TD Garden ice, but then, Horton’s deflected shot goal sent the home crowd and club into euphoria. Julien earned a stay of execution, and his team rode it all the way to the first Stanley Cup championship for Boston in 39 years later that spring with series wins over Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Vancouver.

With that, the “Fire Julien” crowd disappeared overnight. He pushed all the right buttons, got great play from his team and never seemed to push the panic button even when the club had their backs against the wall. To this day, the calm cool with which he handled falling into an 0-2 hole in the Stanley Cup Final, is worth remembering. The B’s battled back to make it 2-2 and 3-3 before earning one final decisive win on the road, and through it all, Julien’s steady hand played an important role, overcoming the loss of Horton in the finals, while benefiting from the best hockey of Thomas and Marchand’s career.

2012-15: Highs and Lows

In the years since the championship season, the Bruins have come close to winning a second Stanley Cup, but have also largely underachieved in the postseason, losing to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of 2012 and the Canadiens in 2014 (both going seven games). When Boston failed to make the 2015 postseason one year after Julien’s club had earned the B’s a President’s Trophy for top regular season record (the team’s first since 1989-90), the “Fire Julien” crowd came back with a vengeance.

When Chiarelli was relieved of his duties shortly after the end of the 2015 regular season (and subsequently hired as President and GM of the Edmonton Oilers) it was natural to think that Julien might follow him out the door (and very likely right to Edmonton). It didn’t happen, but if Julien was expecting a firm vote of confidence from Bruins President Cam Neely, he didn’t get it. Instead, reports surfaced that Neely had proposed a coaching change back in January. Having said all of that, no one from management ever spoke out against Julien, and Neely addressed his relationship with the coach shortly before the start of the 2015-16 season. Countering speculation that Julien was entering the year on the coaching hot seat after the disappointment of the previous season, Neely was quoted by ESPN’s Joe McDonald, saying:

“It’s unfair to say that,” Neely said. “Claude’s a very good coach in this league. [New Bruins GM] Don [Sweeney] came to us with a plan of how he would like to see the team play, and he’s had many conversations with Claude about that, but a lot of things happen throughout the course of the year that’s not necessarily just on the coach. It’s unfair. I know why certain things are said at times, but it’s really unfair to start the season where it’s out there that the coach could be on the hot seat. It’s unfair to Claude.”

McDonald closed out the piece with Julien’s own take on the situation, which was not unexpected given the timing:

Julien has said many times since the spring that he’s not concerned or burdened by his job security. He understands it’s a business and his job is to get the most from the players he’s given.

“I’m good where I am right now,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about that. The only time I have to is when [media] asks me. Other than that I just go ahead and I do my job, and I enjoy doing my job.

“I’m happy to be here. This is a place I’ve felt really comfortable with the people around me, the organization, the city and the fan base. I love working for this organization. I just keep coming in every day, trying to do my best and try to last as long as I can.”

As the old adage goes, watch what a person does more than what he says. And as we’ve seen in 2015-16, Julien has let his actions behind the bench do the talking en route to the team’s 19-9-4 record in the early going.

Changing on the Fly

Spend enough time on message board and social media sites long enough, and the common theme you’ll see and hear from Julien’s most vocal critics is that he employs an unimaginative, smothering defensive system that his players are unable to execute properly. What’s more, Julien is rigid, inflexible and refuses to change his ways by employing more effective personnel packages. That’s certainly an opinion, but those who believe that will have a harder time proving it other than blowing a lot of hot air and getting indignant with those with whom they disagree.

To debunk the idea that Julien slavishly employs his defense regardless of his roster makeup, we’ll turn it over to the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa. The veteran hockey scribe chronicled the coach and his staff’s attempt to better tailor the team’s breakout to better take advantage of his rosters abilities and limitations, back in mid-September as training camp was just about to get underway.

Now, there is a legitimate debate to be had as to the effectiveness of this change and if, in fact, the B’s players are actually executing this proposed change to a real degree of consistency. However, if you point to the boost in offensive production and the ability the Bruins have shown to score goals off the rush this season when compared to a year ago, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to say that Julien and company were onto something, at least.

When it comes to personnel, Julien has shown a willingness this year to try new things. He’s given different players at every position except goaltender the opportunity to demonstrate their worth, and with waiver claim Landon Ferraro and rookie recall Frankie Vatrano striking gold in key games over the past month-plus, he’s not shied away from sitting more veteran players like Jimmy Hayes for example, in favor of keeping players with skill, speed and the ability to push the pace in the lineup. It hasn’t been perfect, and he’s shown more of an inclination to stick with the struggling Kevan Miller longer than fans and analysts might like, but that is more a reflection of trust that Julien has in that player to execute the gameplan versus other players who might look better on paper, but who the rest of us don’t really have all that much of a handle on outside of limited sample sizes of game action. That’s not to say Julien is right or wrong here, but he’s moving pieces around and hitting on winning combinations. Some of us might not like those combos or agree with the reasoning behind them, but with the team on a roll, the coach will stick with what is working.

Julien deserves consideration for a second Jack Adams Award this season because he’s finding ways to keep his team on a winning track despite a lot of star power on a young, rather untested club. Beyond that, with the way the Bruins were almost universally mocked for the moves made at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, some of those snickering pundits are already coming out of the woodwork to express respect (and astonishment) at how Julien and his fine staff- Doug Houda, Doug Jarvis and Joe Sacco– have put together a team that is not only scoring (104 goals and counting) at a much better clip, but showing the verve and drive to gut out some tough wins. They’re far from perfect, but there aren’t many who were lining up to bet on the B’s this year, and they’re making it fun for the fans at the very least.

The intangibles and why Julien is a great NHL coach

What makes a great or even decent/successful NHL coach?

In hockey, just like any other major team (or individual) sport, it comes down to preparation, focus, intensity and execution.

A friend of mine named Ian Wilson, as passionate and knowledgeable a fan of the Bruins as anyone I know, used to quote the old saw that said- “You need an awfully long stick to score from the bench,” and that’s true. The modern NHL coach can’t do a great deal to directly influence the outcome of games on a regular basis other than giving the players focus, direction, discipline and at times that extra shot of experience and motivation needed to go out and get two points on any given nights.

This blog post doesn’t need go down the road of what makes a truly great NHL coach just that, but in Julien’s case, his demeanor and personality has a lot to do with it. He’s not a taskmaster who employs fear and intimidation in the mold of a Mike Keenan, but he is demanding in terms of what he wants from his players and will not tolerate if they make certain transgressions. If you’re a fan of one of those guys who just doesn’t or won’t get it, then there’s a good chance you don’t care a whit for one Claude Julien, but he’s nothing if consistent in terms of how he levies his expectations and treats the players like adults.

You got a sense of that in the recent first episode of the EPIX-produced hockey show Road to the Winter Classic, where scenes inside the Boston dressing room between periods demonstrated his business-like demeanor, pulling no punches in telling the team where they were falling short, but not screaming at them. Not that Michel Therrien did any of that either from his perch with the Montreal team, but compare and contrast the way both coaches talk to the players and then tell me honestly which guy you’d rather have behind your bench. More than one player has told me in the years since Julien arrived in Boston that they appreciate the way he conducts himself, and the word ‘fair’ has come up repeatedly with them. You know where you stand with Julien- there aren’t any mind games and if you’re one of his guys, his trust and faith in you is rewarded with ample ice time and a chance to contribute, perhaps sometimes to a fault. However, if you’re not one of those guys, then…well, not so much. Finding the balance is important, but lest we forget- hockey is a sport played AND coached by humans. The players don’t always get it right, and neither, for that matter, do the coaches. But a willingness to change and adapt one’s approach is the real secret to sustained success.

As a military officer with nearly 22 years of service, I’ve seen the personality dynamic of how a coach is perceived in a room play out in similar fashion by commanders and staff of general officers. What I’ve learned is pretty simple- no matter how well (or poorly) a particular general or senior leader is perceived by the rank and file and those on their staff who know them best, no one is ever completely loved 100 percent or completely free from criticism. There’s always an inner circle of some kind- it’s human nature. And if you’re inside it- you love your patron. If you’re not inside that circle, then you’ll begin to hear the criticisms. It’s no different with NHL coaches and I would submit to you- any coaches in any sport or profession which requires an abundance of teamwork. When you’re in a business that requires people to achieve an ultimate end state, whether it’s accomplishing a military objective or winning the Stanley Cup, you need most of everyone on board, but if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll never truly find complete consensus support of your leadership, no matter how effective and approachable those leaders or coaches are.

Successful NHL coaches win the same way military leaders get credit for missions their charges accomplish: because they inspire those players (and troops) to give their absolute best for the common cause. Players want to play for guys they respect. Tyrants will have some level success when they lead with fear, but that success can only be fleeting, because eventually, players will rise up and resist that tyranny. Those who impose their will with an iron fist cannot expect to sustain their hold over those they rely on most. If the reports out of New Jersey are true and Julien had lost the room right before the playoffs (and after a superb regular season), then perhaps that important lesson was learned by Julien before he arrived to Boston and he became a better man and coach for it.

When it comes to Julien, I’ve never had a single player vent in negative fashion about the way he is or handles his duties as Boston’s head coachDoes that mean such players do not exist? Absolutely not. But when guys who play or previously played for him go out of their way to talk about the respect they have for the way he coaches or coached them, you know that you’re onto something good. Don’t change it. Don’t go looking for that next big thing or sexy name out there, because the right person might be exactly where you want him to be.

And that’s  a wrap, but before I go…

Last point about Julien is his personal and professional humility.

He had just a cup of coffee in the NHL, so he spent a playing career trying to work his way to the very top and got there for only the briefest of moments. Without much if anything being handed to him, he’s one who can relate to those younger players trying to establish themselves in the NHL with the Bruins. Imagine, if you will- some of the discussions he had with a young Brad Marchand, who looked like anything but a sure thing when he got his first taste of NHL action late in the 2009-10 season. The way Marchand has evolved in his career since is all the food for thought you probably need to know there. He did some head-shaking stuff, both on and off the ice, but his coach gave him a chance to work through it and didn’t try to change him, while at the same time, forcing him to be accountable. Julien has coached superstars and grinders along with those players in between, but through it all, he’s not let an ego come between his room and the final desired result that only one of 30 teams and coaches can achieve in a single season.

The personal humility comes from a story I was told by a junior hockey coach in Ontario who was part of Julien’s billet family when he played for Windsor and was a surrogate little brother to the Boston coach. The family owned a chicken farm, and between school and hockey, Julien found time to pitch in with the chores. Julien happened to be walking past me at the 2011 draft in St. Paul, and after exchanging a quick hello, I mentioned the coach’s name to him. Julien stopped in his tracks and immediately lit up with a wide smile and immediately began regaling me with stories about early mornings on that chicken farm and how much the family patriarch had taught him about responsibility, discipline, and the importance of being able to get a lot of things done when people are depending on you.

Think about that for a second- the coach who had just 10 days earlier risen to the very summit of professional hockey when he hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head on the Rogers Arena ice, was more interested and energetic about talking about a farm in Ontario.  He had time to dish on just one of the many waypoints in a potential Hall of Fame coaching career,but he seemed to enjoy that more than he does holding court with reporters and supporters. He could have simply acknowledged the name, made a perfunctory comment and continued his path to the Bruins draft table. Instead, he stayed a good several minutes to talk about that family and their farm. It didn’t take much to connect the dots on how much his time there taught him and how much he values the experience. And watching the twinkle in his eye as he spoke about those days taught me more about who Claude Julien the man is…much more than any brilliant game plan or sketched out play on a rinkside wipe board ever could.

Julien’s time as Bruins coach won’t last forever, and regardless of what happens this year and beyond, he’s given the Boston fans a lifetime of good memories to draw from.  But if his departure comes sooner than later, I’ll leave you with one more old adage:

Be careful what you wish for.