Thursday, April 30, 2009

Respect Thine Enemy: 10 Things to Like About the Canes

10) Hartford connections
Let's get this one out of the way early. While the Hurricanes will never be completely forgiven for breaking the heart of Hartford, they deserve credit for embracing their history instead of wiping it away. Many Whalers personnel, from the broadcast team to the equipment managers, are still with the Canes. The Hurricanes have honored Ron Francis and Glen Wesley with emotional number-retirement ceremonies, and the goal horn from the Hartford Civic Center is still in use at Canes games. As far as possible, they've given longtime Whalers fans an opportunity to remain connected with "their" team.

No. Just... no.

9) Paul Maurice
You have to respect this guy, considering how much crap he took in Toronto. Hard as it is to believe, Maurice is now the 6th most experienced active coach in the NHL. Along the way he has always been civil and low-key, in spite of virtually-nonstop speculation about his job security.

8) Ray Whitney
When "Jonesy" is considered a book-title-worthy nickname, you know the NHL is getting short on high-quality handles. So when you come across a guy who goes by "The Wizard", it's worth keeping an eye on him. What you find with Whitney is perhaps the league's most underrated clutch scorer. Since the lockout, he has 15 points in 15 games against Boston.

If McFarlane ever makes a Brind'Amour figure...

7) Rod Brind'Amour
Rod the Bod is a piece of the NHL circa 1950, time-warped to the present. Big, mean, and ugly as sin, he's exactly the guy you want in your foxhole. He's probably the best faceoff guy in the league, has captained a Cup team and is frequently cited as the hardest-working player on ice.

6) Cam Ward
Everything that Carey Price was supposed to be, Cam Ward has already become. It takes a huge amount of strength and character to win the Conn Smythe as a rookie goalie, but even more to be an NHL star without an ego problem. Ward is intense, yet unflappable in big games. The last time he played, he proved more stable in a 7th game than Martin Brodeur.

5) Ronnie Franchise
He's only the classiest player you'll ever live to see. And also a two-time Cup winner, Hall of Famer and the 4th highest scorer in league history... 4th! He's now behind the bench in Carolina, and the heir apparent to the head coaching position. That's the equivalent of Ray Bourque being groomed to take over the Bruins bench.

That's more like it!

4) The RBC Center
Gameday in Raleigh is unique. They tailgate college-football style at the arena. They play Ric Flair clips on the Jumbotron. Their mascot is a pig. And it's loud as hell in the arena. Given some time to become more sophisticated about the sport, the Hurricanes fanbase will become the Sun Belt equivalent to Calgary's Sea of Red.

Bring earplugs.

3) Eric Staal
People who like hockey usually like Eric Staal. He's big, fast, skilled, and aggressive. He makes big plays in big games, including a last-minute Game 7 winner against Brodeur this season. He's shown that he can lead a Cup run. He was the NHL '08 cover star, and the All-Star Game MVP. Oh, and he's 24. Twenty-four.

2) Teamwork
Carolina is not a team of superstars. They win because they outwork and outhustle their opponents. Guys like Staal and Whitney and Brind'Amour have practically zero mainstream media presence, yet they come up huge again and again when it counts. Though they don't roll 4 lines like Detroit and Boston, the Canes expect every player to contribute to the final outcome -- witness Paul Maurice taking a leap of faith and putting grinder Chad LaRose on the first line late in their series against New Jersey. That's what it means to be a hockey team.

1) They're clutch.
For some reason, this team is charmed when it comes to the playoffs. In 2001 they bounced Montreal and Toronto in successive playoff rounds to make the Finals. In 2006 they won two consecutive 7-game series to take the Cup. This month they upset the Devils and are now considered a dark horse to take out the Bruins. They are money from the goal crease outward. And let's be honest -- once all the NASCAR jokes are set aside, this team generates some serious envy from "traditional" fanbases with their tendency to win through sheer force of will.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Round 2: Hurricane Season

Ah, the playoffs. When damn near anything can happen in the blink of an eye -- such as a division winner led by the greatest goalie of all time blowing a lead to lose Game 7 in the final minute and a half.

Now that the first round is finally in the books, we look forward to our next victim: the Carolina Hurricanes. I have a feeling that a lot of Bruins fans are going to be surprised by this team. They get almost no media coverage, and to be honest I probably wouldn't know much about them if I didn't live in SouthLeast Division territory.

But mark my words: this team is money. They're old-school, they're clutch, they play as a team, and they aren't far removed from a Cup run. It's an easier matchup than the Pens (which would have been brutal as a second-round opponent) but this will not be a cakewalk. The Bruins could lose.

This could get ugly.

Fun facts about the Hurricanes:

1) Hey, did you know they used to be the Whalers? This is definitely something we should talk about every single time we play the Hurricanes. We should also act really bitter about it, regardless of whether we gave a crap about the Whalers when they were in Hartford.

2) They don't actually play in the city of Raleigh-Durham. In fact, there is no such city. Raleigh-Durham is an airport. If you want to really piss off a resident of the area, continuously call their hometown "Raleigh-Durham" as a sign that you know nothing about it and have probably only been there on a layover.

3) Prior to this season, the Hurricanes were the last team Boston had defeated in a playoff series. In 1999.

4) Their mascot is a pig. No kidding.

5) In the past 45 years, the Hurricanes won more Cups than the Maple Leafs. In the past 35 years, they've won more Cups than the Bruins (getting angry yet?). In the past 25 years, they've won more Cups than the Flyers. In the past 15 years, they've been in more Finals than the Penguins.

Believe it or not, the Canes also have a respectable presence in the blogosphere. Below are the most relevant, up-to-date blogs I've been able to find. If you know of any others, post them in the comments and I'll add to the list.

Canes Country
Carolina On Ice
Let's Go Canes
Life and Times of a Caniac
Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer
Study of Sports
Sweet Tea, Barbecue & Bodychecks

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Trade Deadline Nostalgia - Who Got Screwed?

While we drum our fingers and wait for the judges' final decision on the Caps/Rangers and Devils/Canes matchups, let's remember that some teams made big sacrifices just to get to the last week of April.

Some of these deals don't look so good in 20/20 hindsight:

MTL Schneider + 2009 pick (conditional) = ATL 2009 2nd + 2010 3rd picks
Comparable 2nd round picks: Derek Roy (2001), Chris Bourque (2004), James Neal (2005)
Comparable 3rd round picks: Daniel Carcillo (2003), Kris Letang (2005), Steve Mason (2006)

Don't get me wrong. Schneider definitely helped keep Montreal on the right side of the playoff bubble, which was an overriding priority at the time.

Unfortunately it also represented a desperate attempt by Bob Gainey to save his own job. As an asset-management move it made no sense, as the Habs are clearly not in a position to give up valuable draft picks in the face of sweeping organizational changes. Meanwhile, the Thrashers have to be thrilled about this deal now that the pain is over in 08-09.

PHI Carcillo = PHO Upshall + 2011 2nd pick
Comparable 2nd rd picks: Tim Jackman (2001), Kamil Kreps (2003), Michael Sauer (2005)

Phoenix really cleaned up at the deadline, but this was their most uneven steal. Carcillo has little role as an NHL player, yet the Flyers were willing to potentially give up two legitimate contributors to get him. After their first-round loss to Pittsburgh, you have to wonder if Upshall (8 goals in 19 games with the Coyotes) could have made a difference. This is a real forehead-slapper for Philly.

NYR Morris = PHO Kalinin + Dawes + Prucha
NYR Antropov = TOR 2009 2nd round pick (conditional)
Comparable 2nd rd picks: Patrice Bergeron (2003), Paul Stastny (2005), Milan Lucic (2006)

Sensing a pattern here? The Rangers spent much of the season near the top of the Eastern Conference, but flatlined after an atrocious February. This trade was Glen Sather's version of CPR, trying to resuscitate his flailing team in time to make the playoff cut. Their chances of advancing as a low seed were minimal -- Antropov and Morris could never have made this team equal to the division winners -- so it's tough to rationalize the loss of three young players in the long term.

CAL Jokinen = PHO Lombardi + Prust + 2009 or 2010 1st round
CAL Leopold = COL Nycholat + Wilson + 2009 2nd round pick
Comparable 1st rd picks: Colby Armstrong (2001), Ryan Kesler (2003), Tuukka Rask (2005)
Comparable 2nd rd picks: Jason Pominville (2001), Duncan Keith (2002), David Booth (2004)

Oh man. This one hurts. Again, it's the sort of deal that a desperate GM makes when he feels the rope around his neck. Darryl Sutter squeezed the Flames so hard against the salary cap ceiling that they couldn't even ice a full roster as they stumbled down the stretch, and their new acquisitions couldn't even get Calgary to the second round. In return the Flames have shorn themselves of quality depth players for the indefinite future, likely ensuring a long rebuild beginning in the next few years.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Bruins waiting, watching -- and thoughts on other stuff.

Still no answers on the Bruins' second-round opponent -- depending on how Tuesday's elimination games play out, it could be any of 3 teams. So we wait.

  • As expected, Tim Thomas is a Vezina finalist. The general buzz around the league is that he's a shoo-in over Western Conference contenders Steve Mason and Niklas Backstrom. And rightly so... Timmy has by far the most sterling resume' of the three, and a media-friendly personality to boot. Remember who does the voting!

  • The other big story of the day is Joe Thornton's attempt to rally the Sharks past Anaheim after being down 3-1. I can't remember any player being under so much pressure to perform in a first-round series. You get the sense that if the Sharks lose, even in Game 7 double OT, the golden age in San Jose may come to a quick and bitter end.

  • If the Rangers can manage a Game 7 win over Washington, the Bruins will happily face the lowest-hanging fruit left in the playoffs. New York has done almost everything wrong since taking a 3-1 lead in the series, but might squeak past the Caps because Mike Green is suspended for the final game... or is he?

  • What's really sad is the two best series in the first round have been Jersey/Canes and Hawks/Flames. Both have been steamrolled by coverage of other, "name brand" matchups.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

An objective take on the Norris race

Almost every year the announcement of the Norris Trophy finalists ignites the age-old debate: should the trophy go to the highest-scoring, or the most-feared, or the most-respected defenseman in the league?

This season we have a particularly interesting trio of finalists. Mike Green is shattering scoring records but has a mediocre defensive game. Zdeno Chara is a dominant physical force, but scores fewer points for a better team. Nicklas Lidstrom is the incumbent, a future Hall of Famer and captain of the defending Cup champions.

If you're not a numbers person, skip to the bottom to find out which of these had the most Norris-worthy profile in 2008-09.


Before we get into the numbers supporting each candidate, let's remember the vague guidelines that the NHL provides for voters:

The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.

Much like the Second Amendment, that phrase about "all-round ability" is just vague enough to allow for a wide range of interpretations. In order to try and capture the spirit of that description, I've set up a balanced system of measurement: three general, equally-weighted categories which isolate important parts of each blueliner's game.

The idea here is that the number of categories, and the equal weight assigned to each, will compensate for specialization -- the candidate cannot simply rely on one part of his game to carry him through. Only someone with truly excellent "all-round ability" would do well in this system.
Thanks to and for the numbers.
Defensive Ability

Chara 169, Green 86, Lidstrom 43

Blocked Shots
Chara 123, Green 110, Lidstrom 67

Green 49, Chara 28, Lidstrom 26

SH Time on Ice
Lidstrom 3:27, Chara 3:21, Green 2:28

Quality of Competition
Lidstrom 0.09, Chara 0.06, Green 0.00

Lidstrom +31, Green +24, Chara +23

Offensive Ability

Green 31-42-73, Lidstrom 16-43-59, Chara 19-31-50

Green 243, Chara 216, Lidstrom 180

Shooting Accuracy
Green 12.8%, Lidstrom 8.9%, Chara 8.8%

Green 95, Chara 54, Lidstrom 46

PP Time on Ice
Green 5:22, Lidstrom 3:55, Chara 3:46

Power-play production
Green 18-20-38, Lidstrom 10-23-33, Chara 11-17-28


Time on Ice
Chara 26:04, Green 25:45, Lidstrom 24:49

Penalties Taken
Lidstrom 14, Chara 18, Green 26

Penalties Drawn
Green 17, Chara 9, Lidstrom 4

Wears the C
Lidstrom and Chara Yes, Green No

Chara 3, Green 0, Lidstrom 0

Quality of Teammates
Chara 0.03, Green 0.12, Lidstrom 0.38

If we assign 3 points for first place, 2 for second, and 1 for third, we get the following results:

Green 39
Chara 37
Lidstrom 32

Much as it pains me to admit, it looks like Green has a legit claim as the most well-rounded defenseman in the league this season. The balance was tipped by his underrated defensive numbers, including very respectable totals in hits, blocked shots, and takeaways. Chara simply didn't produce at a high enough level offensively, especially considering his team scored more goals overall.

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Soak it in, Bruins fans. We don't get this feeling very often.

It might be the post-sweep euphoria speaking, but I'm going to lay it out there: no matter what happens, no matter the disappointments and travails we'll face in the second round (and beyond?), this season is a total, unmitigated success. We're playing with house money now. We could lose the next four games eleventy-billion to nothing, and I will go into the summer with a huge, cat-ate-the-canary, shit-eating grin on my face.

Before we go any further, into the part of the season when hearts really get broken, let's take a week and appreciate the sheer awesomeness of this team. Tim Thomas is our goalie. Milan Lucic pwns the Habs every game. Claude Julien might well be the smartest coach in the league today. Zdeno Chara will be truly terrifying to behold after 10 more days of playoff beard. Even Michael "Overpaid Bum" Ryder has become a clutch-scoring hero. Teams like this come along once in a generation... once in five generations if you're the Rangers.

There's a sea of commentary to wade through this morning, but here's the best I've seen so far:
  • Big Bad Bruins will bring a tear to your eye. But you'll be glad you read it.
  • Silver Seven Sens points out the startling similarities between the '09 Habs and the '08 Sens.
  • Pension Plan Puppets rolls out the Antropomorphic Mocking Numerals. Another bit of dirt on the Habs' grave.
  • KPD of must've really savored the chance to write this article.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Take one last look...

Next time you see these 4 guys, they'll probably be wearing someone else's sweater.
Bruins go for the throat tonight. Pop a cork, the season's a success!
Daring predictions:
Scattered boos during the anthem, drowned out by "Go Habs Go".
Price starts but does not play in the 3rd period.
Lucic doesn't play much in the 3rd either.
There will be a ton of penalties.
There will be no fights.
Final score: who cares? Bruins win!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Practice?!? We're talking about *practice*?!?

Over the past couple of years I've given the Habs a lot of grief for lacking heart and passion. A lot of it has to do with typical rival-baiting and trash-talking, especially since the Bruins have traditionally contrasted themselves with Montreal in terms of grit, toughness and attitude. In fact, I'm willing to put aside my bias and admit that from time to time the Habs have actually acquired a player or two who has a faint sparkle of personal character.

So I'm not really sure how to react to this:

The day before the Montreal Canadiens face elimination in Game 4 of their opening round playoff series with the Bruins, coach Bob Gainey decided to make today's practice optional. The Habs played hard for most of last night's game and some players probably legitimately needed a breather today, but to have 8 players show up for practice the day before you face elimination to me shows that this team just doesn't care. -- Stanley Cup of Chowder

The Bruins fan in me is already committing this paragraph to memory, so I can recall it in a drunken argument 5 years from now as evidence that the Habs are really just whiny losers.

But the hockey fan in me sees this as just plain sad. 8 players? Really? 8 players show up to possibly the last practice of their season?

This is not just a red flag, it's a crimson banner stretching all the way from Rue de la Montagne to 2313 St. Catherine St. It's a slap in the face to Bob Gainey and the faith he has put into his players, and it's an indictment of players like Kovalev and Koivu who were expected to be the leaders of a great Canadien era.

And ultimately it reflects poorly on Gainey, who constructed this team to make a Cup run and called an optional practice before a must-win home game.

It's also worth wondering whether the Habs' conditioning program has something to do with their numerous untimately injuries and their long-standing problem of losing steam at the end of playoff games.

There is no love lost for the Habs on this blog, but my sympathies go out to their fans for having to endure this sort of pathetic, un-Canadien behavior.

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Lucic Should Sit Another Game.

If there's one thing I've learned from ESPN: manufactured controversy is as good as the real thing. So I bring an unconventional idea to the table in advance of tomorrow's coup de grace.

Claude Julien should scratch Lucic for Game 4.

This isn't about teaching Looch a lesson, though that might be a nice side effect. If he's really as contrite as his sound bites suggest, he won't have a huge problem with the decision.

No, it's more about preparing this team for a long playoff run -- giving them the best chance to win, both immediately and in the future.

We saw last night that Montreal is simply no match for the Bruins, with or without Lucic. This series is being won by goaltending and blueline depth and scoring from the 4th line. The physical confrontations are nothing but a sideshow, and that was never more obvious than halfway through the game when all the scrums ceased as the Habs started to play with true desperation.

So why throw Montreal a bone? Keeping Lucic out of the lineup would put a damper on any attempts to rally around a fight or bodycheck, and by all indications the Bruins don't need him from a strategic point of view. If anything, Lucic's presence greatly increases the chance of something disasterous -- suspension, injury, perhaps an emotional rally by the home team.

A Cup contender can't afford to remain on an emotional roller coaster for weeks on end. Counting from 4/9, the regular-season game in which the first shots were really fired in this matchup, tomorrow will mark the 12th consecutive day in which the Lucic/Komisarek feud has been the subject of nonstop media coverage. Julien needs to control and channel his team's emotions, not stoke them just as things have started to cool down.

Last season, Julien raised eyebrows with his decision to bench Phil Kessel in the playoffs. As we would discover in the second half of the series, it was an eye-opening moment for a dynamic young player who had probably never heard the word "no" from a coach. Kessel exploded when he returned to the lineup, and has been a better player ever since.

Maybe it's time for Lucic to have a similar experience. His presence in Game 4 would likely be a detriment to the team, and that's not acceptable for a professional player. He needs to sit, watch his team win without him in a cool and collected manner, and come back with laser-focus against the next opponent.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

NHL Sending Mixed Signals

Word has come down from on high: Milan Lucic will miss tonight's critical Game Three in Montreal, having been suspended for his cross-check on Maxim Lapierre late in Sunday's game.

Here's video of the incident:

Worthy of suspension? Maybe. It's a borderline case, but given the recent history between the Habs and Bruins -- and specifically the violence involving Lucic -- it's not a surprise that he will sit for a game. The alternative would be to invite an even more violent retaliation from Montreal, which would in turn spark something akin to World War III.

And, after all, a smarter move would've been to drop the stick first.

So it's not the fact of the suspension that might raise an eyebrow or two, but the timing and the context. Why this incident, but not any of 20 others that seemed more flagrant and intentional?

More to the point, why has Colin Campbell waited to act until this relatively minor incident?

Where was the supplementary discipline on April 9, when Komisarek nearly drove Lucic head-first into the boards and was in turn mauled from behind? Both players could have been seriously injured, and the media firestorm would have been excruciating.

Where was Campbell when Lapierre purposelessly attacked Phil Kessel after Game 1's empty-net clincher? That seems more significant in terms of keeping the feud under a boil.

Where was the league's opinion when Matt Hunwick had his eyes gouged by Komisarek with only seconds left in Game 1? After a season of blowing smoke about "message sending", Campbell failed to act when a genuine test case presented itself.

Perhaps most importantly, in what possible way could this have been the most significant "blow to the head" in a series positively overstuffed with late, high, dangerous hits that will eventually cause injury?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, nor can we expect the league to hold itself accountable for any of them. Even its hedging explanation of the Lucic decision prompted far more followup questions than it answered.

Sooner or later, Campbell's office needs to go back to Square One and issue clear, firm directives about the purpose and application of supplementary discipline. No more playing politics, no more posing for the media. Players' careers and lives are at stake when a dangerous incident takes place, and they deserve better than a Magic 8-Ball approach to rule enforcement.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Laraque = Fail.

A little bit of pre-series trash talk is one thing, but BGL's comments to the media come off as forced... a transparent tactic to give the Habs a boost of some sort. It's hard to imagine that anyone in the Bruins locker room would actually get riled up, given that they are obviously being baited.

Frankly, things are starting to seem really weird with the Habs. Gainey should be given some credit for the Bowman-esque attempt to shift pressure toward the other bench, but this move seems both counterproductive and out of character. Laraque offers literally nothing when he is on the ice, meaning they are wasting a roster spot in the hopes that he will prove his worth in a fight... in the playoffs.

The counterattack seems pretty simple: ignore Laraque or simply wait until he's on the ice and take advantage of his lack of game. There is no Bruin on the roster, other than perhaps Byron Bitz, who would be considered an even swap for 5 minutes.
By the way... epic fail to Laraque for not even being Avery-funny.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Big Z's Illustrated Guide To The Top 10 Games of 08-09

Before we close the books on the 2009 regular season, and start playing the games that REALLY matter, let's take a look back at the Bruins' best season in 35 years:

This game didn't count for much in the final standings, but it was one hell of a fun ride. Five minutes into the game, the score was 2-2. After falling behind 4-2 in the first period, the Bruins took over and scored 5 straight goals for the win.

Much like the 11/19 game against Buffalo, this falls into the "wild ride" category. The score was 3-3 after the first period, and Toronto eventually took the lead on three different occasions. Boston reeled off 4 consecutive scores in the second period in this defense-less free for all.

It seems weird to include a loss on this list, but this was a classic David-vs-Goliath game that had it all.

The Bruins came into the game on an unbelievable 28-5-1 roll, and the Blues were in the Western Conference basement. Surprisingly, St. Louis brought a 2-1 lead into the third period. Boston exploded for 3 goals in just over a minute, and looked to have won the game with 1:30 remaining and a 4-2 lead. Nevertheless, the Blues mounted a monumental comeback -- the tying goal with only 0.8 seconds left, then a win in the shootout. Since then, the Blues have gone 23-8-6 and made the playoffs by 1 game.

We might remember this game after we've forgotten the rest. Tuukka Rask, in his only appearance of the season, drops a 35-save shutout on the Rangers. This was around the same time that the fans really started to turn on Manny.

Too bad we don't get to see Anaheim more often! The Bruins seemed almost clinical in picking apart the Ducks, getting 2 goals each from Ryder and Kobasew and a 35-save shutout from Thomas. But the most memorable action was Lucic going batshit crazy on Mike Brown, in response to an unprovoked jab to the honker. Looch managed to throw five bombs at a squirming Brown before the refs arrived; thankfully none of them landed or this would be an obituary instead of a game summary.

Even before the puck was dropped, this was already a feel-good night in Boston. Bergeron, Lucic and Ference all returned after long absences, just in time for a 1-vs-2 matchup. Despite Krejci's improbable OT winner, the most memorable moment was the deafening sound of every member of Caps Nation simultaneously shitting themselves when Ovechkin appeared to have been seriously injured. Fortunately he popped up, threw some equipment in the tunnel, and returned later in the game.

Of all 53 wins this season, this might have been the sweetest. When Habs management decided to schedule Patrick Roy Night, they undoubtedly thought this would be a crowd-pleasing win over their rival. Guy Carbonneau played into the hype by shadowing Lucic with Laraque, a notoriously unsuccessful move that haunted him for the brief remainder of his career in Montreal. Lucic ended up scoring, Boston won a tightly-played game, and by the end of the night the Bruins had moved permanently into first place.

The significance of this win was mostly symbolic -- after an unbelievable November, the Bruins were just beginning to get cautious recognition from the media. But it wasn't until after they beat the Wings that they had the feel of a Cup contender. The game itself seemed anticlimactic, all but over after Ty Conklin gave up 3 goals on 9 shots, but the Bruins clearly had a new sense of self-confidence after this huge win.

Even though it was a glorified exhibition for the Bruins, this had the feel of a playoff game. Only a week before their actual playoff matchup, both teams were sending messages loud and clear. Montreal desperately needed a point to make the playoffs, so things got a little out of hand when Boston began to pull away in the second period. Several ugly incidents later, the Habs had scored three consecutive power-play goals to take the lead. Boston rallied in the third, and won on a brilliant play by Bergeron. The full significance of this game will not be known for at least two weeks.

This was where it all began.

The Bruins came into the game with an ordinary 5-3-3 record, having played 8 of their first 11 on the road. Dallas was under .500 and in a surly mood. The better the Bruins played, the chippier the play became -- and vice versa.

There's not enough space to run down all the emotionally-charged moments in this one, but perhaps the most significant involved Marc Savard coming to the "rescue" of Milan Lucic after he had been hit from behind by Avery. That was the moment when Savard truly became a Bruin in the eyes of the masses.

There comes a point in every championship season where a team finds its identity. That process began when the Bruins realized they could stand up to Ott and Avery while also destroying their team on the scoreboard. From that point on, the Bruins seemed invincible -- an 11-1-1 record for the rest of November and 12-1 mark in December followed.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's Get It On.

Admit it: you were hoping this would happen.

A year ago, when the Bruins fell one game short of a miracle...

Back in November, when they broke an interminable regular-season losing streak...

When Blake Wheeler spoiled Patrick Roy Night...

When Lucic/Komisarek got personal, and then got even MORE personal...

Last week, when the Habs used a charity point to open the back door....

... you were hoping this would happen. Because it's the only right ending for this saga. Scores need to be settled. Legends need to be written. And at the end, a lot of hearts are going to be broken.

Whether either fanbase admits it or not, both were pumped about this series before it was even official. The Habs have one last shot at redemption after one of the most trying seasons in their history. The Bruins have a shot at redemption for the past 3 playoff seasons. Both teams will face an offseason of being raked through the coals if they fail.

With the Game 1 still half a week in the making, the opening salvos are already being fired.

We wanted it, now we've got it. Thursday can't come fast enough.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Are the Habs starting to crack?

Is this the face of an innocent man?

Last year, it was the dive. This year, it's the dirty hit.

We knew something was different about this version of the Montreal Canadiens. At first, it seemed a charming kind of ineptitude, such that the much-hyped centennial season has become an extended comedy of errors.

But now it appears that the league's most narcissistic franchise has taken a darker turn.

A club that once prided itself for playing quick, clean, beautiful hockey has now become a stepchild to the Flyers and Ducks. Perhaps the past 15 years have weighed too heavily on the franchise, as they have endured a relative eternity of futility while waiting for their 25th Cup. But something seems to have snapped in their collective psyche of late. This season was supposed to be a celebration of all things Canadien, but it's turned into a bizarre backlash of misbehavior, under-performance, and frustration.

It was never more obvious than when Josh Georges ran Patrice Bergeron from behind.

Bergeron, a Quebec native, has spent most of the past two seasons recovering from a severe concussion. His injury was the result of a cheap run by Randy Jones of the Flyers -- a team the Habs have historically held in low esteem. This season Bergeron is a frontrunner for the Masterton Trophy. He has had no part in past Bruins/Habs pugilism, has never been in a fight, and has averaged about 20 PIM per season in the NHL. During the first period of last night's game he scored a clean, easy goal while undefended near the crease.

So Georges' hit from behind, which sent Bergeron sprawling face-first toward the crossbar and right post, was an outright declaration that the Canadiens have jettisoned any pretension of integrity or class. Had Bergeron been 6 inches forward, he'd likely be in a hospital bed this morning.

From that point on, the game changed in tone.

The rest of the match was scarred by countless scrums, the most significant of which included: Mike Komisarek's unnecessary run at a Bruins forward after time had expired in the first period, setting off a melee before intermission; Habs purse-snatcher Ryan O'Byrne provoking Bruins brawler Shawn Thornton with a cheap shot to the back, then falling to the ice in the "turtle" position as if he were a bookworm encountering the school bully after recess; and Komisarek blatantly hitting Milan Lucic from behind and then refusing to drop his gloves with either Lucic or Thornton.

The common factor in all of these incidents: Habs attempting to draw the Bruins into retaliatory penalties. More often than not, they succeeded.

We've seen this movie before. Last season, coach Guy Carbonneau instructed the Canadiens to dive repeatedly during their 7-game playoff matchup with the Bruins. Carbo knew that the dives would always turn in Montreal's favor -- either "earning" a power-play for the Habs (they won two games on PP goals) or in a worst-case scenario creating a favorable 4-on-4 situation (they scored twice in exactly that scenario).

Last night, Montreal's cheap-shots had much the same effect. With a meaningless game well in hand, the Bruins lost their discipline. They negated upcoming power-plays, and in some cases (such as Komisarek's hit on Lucic) a Habs penalty suddenly became a 4-minute power play. The momentum shifted rapidly, and a 3-1 deficit became a 4-3 lead for the visitors.

Thankfully, things turned out right in the end. Boston, clearly the better team in every legal facet of the game, controlled the final period and won on the strength of Bergeron's spectacular hit-steal-and-pass in OT. But the Canadiens had accomplished their goal of earning a charity point and officially entering the playoffs through the back door. (ed: You know the NHL has changed when the Canadiens and their fans are in a celebratory mood because they lost to the Bruins in OT. It's perverse, and I almost feel sorry for them that the rules have created such a scenario.)

Montreal celebrates a charity point.

But the hockey gods have a strange sense of humor -- Boston and Montreal are set to face off again in the first round, barring any changes in the bracket. If that happens, be prepared for at least 12 periods of the same from Montreal.

For their part, the Bruins no longer have a good reason to get involved in this kind of nonsense. They have nothing to prove to the Habs after crushing them 5-0-1 in the season series. Barring a dramatic change in fortune, they'll easily dismiss their rivals in the playoffs and exorcise the demons of the past 3 matchups. And frankly, their sights are set a little higher than merely squeaking out a 7-game victory over an 8th seed, just to be dismissed in the next round.

Boston might wear the black jerseys, but there's no question which team is currently wearing the black hat in this rivalry. Claude Julien's greatest task in the playoffs will be to teach this young team that a moment of anger is fleeting, but a convincing victory over the Habs will last forever.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Three Things To Blow Your Mind

From SCoC - Mark it on your calendar: the Winter Classic will be played at Fenway on January 1, 2010. That happens to be my birthday... just a hint.

From BBB - Imagine a world in which the Habs are owned by Celine Dion and Cirque de Soleil. Even the Onion couldn't handle that kind of unintentional comedy.

From - Staff writer Rocky Bonnano wrote an article stating that this year's Vezina finalists will be Miikka Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov and Nicklas Backstrom. No kidding.

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To Tank or Not To Tank?

Timmy the Tank

Interesting matchup tonight against Montreal. Claude Julien is in the enviable position of choosing whether he really wants to push his team to 100% capacity to get this win. Perhaps it would be better to tank this game*, let all the key guys rest, and look at the bigger picture. There are two prevailing lines of thought:

- By scratching key players, the Bruins will be fresher and healthier for the playoffs.
- Starting Fernandez would give him a little bit of extra confidence (just in case) and will give Thomas a valuable day off.
- It's better that the Habs not face Thomas right before a playoff series against him. It'll allow them the opportunity for cheap shots, and give them a "warmup" game to read his tendencies.
- If Montreal wins, the Bruins will likely face NYR or Florida in the first round... thus avoiding the cursed Bs/Habs matchup.

- Because they're getting paid to win, dammit!
- By beating Montreal, we would greatly increase the chances of playing them first. That's a juicy, confidence-building matchup.
- Following on that thought, this game could potentially demoralize and frustrate our first-round opponent.
- Beating your top rival at home in a gritty game is more valuable than knowing that your 4th line got a chance to work on its forecheck.
- It's Bruins/Habs. It would be wrong to tank.

* Assuming the Habs are able to beat the Bruins' JV squad. Perhaps you've noticed that their centennial season has been slightly disappointing.

What do you think? Do the Bruins mail this one in?

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Must-Read Interview With Jack Edwards

If you haven't already, you should immediately drop what you're doing and read Puck The Media's interview with Bruins play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards. PTM is probably the best internet resource for hockey-related media issues, and Edwards is a naturally good interview.

Here's Part 1 and Part 2. Some highlights...

On the Randy Jones hit, and the maniacal cackle he let loose during the most recent Flyers game:

If you go back and if you listen to the illegally posted, copyrighted material thats on YouTube [we both chuckle] I clearly refer to “the crowd wants a call for a hit from behind”. That is what was so hilarious. Because even before we knew that Patrice Bergeron had a broken neck on the 27th of October, 2007. Even before we knew what the result of the examination was. While he was still unconscious, the Flyers had issued a public relations release, and the Philadelphia media swallowed it whole, to the point that some columnist in Philadelphia actually wrote that Bergeron knew the hit was coming.

Funny, but I’ve talked to Patrice Bergeron dozens of times about that incident, and at no point does he say anything about any kind of knowledge that Randy Jones, who was skating straight at Bergeron’s back, who coiled as you can clearly see in the replay, Jones coils as he crosses the goal line and drives Bergeron 90 degrees straight into the dasher, hitting to hurt. Clearly evident that even the lenient Colin Campbell agreed and suspended Jones for the game.

The Philadelphia media swallowed the PR spin whole to the point that the Philadelphia fans now, in revisionist history, a lot of them think that hit by Jones was not a significant hit. That there was no problem with it, and that it was just the circumstance that resulted in Jones’ suspension. For that crowd to whine and moan after a perfectly legal shoulder-to-shoulder hit, that sent Jones in a non-threatening angle down behind the goal, not face first but sideways into the boards. For them to whine that there should be a hit from behind, frankly, was hilarious. Anybody who can’t connect those two dots, and see the humor in the crowd, not at the hit by Lucic but the crowd’s reaction, you’re distorting the story or have no sense of humor.

On the possibility that the NHL could return to ESPN in the future:

Well, I think that all you need to know is - for those who wish that hockey was back on ESPN - last Saturday, which was probably the single most amazing night of the NHL season. Just in terms of teams switching places, dramatic things happening, crazy games, that kind of thing.

We went from Toronto to Philadelphia, we were in (Bruins radio
play-by-play man) Dave Goucher’s room, having a couple cold ones. Now, the Sweet 16 is going on in college basketball at the same time, the only hockey we saw in the entire sportscast of “SportsCenter” was about 45 seconds of the UNH-North Dakota game, which was the one UNH tied with one-tenth of a second to go, that went into Overtime. That was 56 minutes into the telecast. There was nothing on the NHL in the entire show.

So, for those of you that hope that hockey gets back on ESPN, that’s what you’re gonna’ get. That’s where it belongs in ESPN’s hierarchy, because there are some bozos sitting in the accounting department in a bunker in Burbank, California running Disney, who look at the numbers and completely ignore the passion of hockey fans. They say “Poker gets better ratings because we can attract more compulsive gamblers to the screen than we can passionate hockey fans, so just for the sake of that number, we’re gonna’ run poker instead of hockey. We’re gonna run women’s basketball instead of hockey.”

We saw highlights of the Division II NCAA basketball championship, we didn’t see a single NHL highlight in that entire “SportsCenter”. Case closed.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Death Watch: R.I.P. Sabres

There's nothing worse than finishing 10th.

Wait, yes there is: finishing 10th year after year.

You don't get a shot at upsetting a top seed in the playoffs. You don't get a good draft pick. You don't even get to enjoy the last few games of the season, because you're already out of contention. There's nothing comically bad about your team, yet nothing inspiring either. It's a realm of mediocrity that's virtually inescapable.

Such is life with the Buffalo Sabres.

It's pretty easy to identify what's gone wrong with this team -- the team's core was allowed to walk, and the leftovers simply haven't been that great. To put it bluntly, the Sabres are an utterly average team in every part of their game. Their stars -- Miller, Vanek, Roy, Spacek -- are respectably good but nobody would mistake them for marquee players. As a result, the Sabres are the league-median team in both goals scored and goals against. They're too average.

The big question in Buffalo is whether this is a team that can build its way into competitiveness. None of the team's forwards are over 31, and the aging defensemen all seem replacable. A few savvy roster moves could make this the next team to ascend quickly to the division title. A couple of key injuries could make it a lottery team.
One thing's certain: the franchise can't afford another 10th-place finish next season.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Bruins Cap Crunch Pt 2: Bergeron's Days Are Numbered

Since last Friday, when Part 1 of this article was written, we've learned of key details in the Tim Thomas contract:

The contract is a 4-year deal worth $20 million -- more time and money than had been previously reported in the press. Despite the fact that Thomas signed the contract before his 35th birthday, the league will consider him "age 35" at the time of signing. Therefore his cap number cannot change; buying him out will have no effect, a wrinkle that Peter Chiarelli appears to have miscalculated. Oh yeah, there's a no-movement clause in the first 3 years of Thomas' contract. The $5 million cap hit is written in stone.

Good News

As pointed out at Bobby Orr's Bastard, the cap hits for Tuukka Rask and Blake Wheeler will be greatly reduced next season. In a nutshell, the terms of the new CBA will be in effect and players currently on entry-level contracts (including Rask and Wheeler) will have a maximum cap hit of $875,000. This will save the Bruins about $4 million if both players are on the active roster.

Pink Slips

At this point it's clear that the Bruins will have to move some salaries in the offseason. The question is -- who stays and who goes?

For now, we can generally guess that the team will move forward with a Thomas/Rask tandem in net. It's given that Manny Fernandez and his $4.3 million cap hit will be long gone by training camp. Compared to this season's cap numbers, that makes the goaltending position more or less a wash. All things considered, it's also unlikely that the blueliners' combined cap hit will be much different from one season to the next (unless Matt Hunwick hits the jackpot).

That brings us to the forwards.

PJ Axelsson will surely not be brought back at $1.85 million; it's up to him and his agent whether they want to re-sign for significantly less. If not, Axelsson could be replaced by Vladimir Sobotka for only $750k. The net balance of this situation should be a $1m advantage for Boston.

After that, the decisions start to get tougher. Cap casualties could include Chuck Kobasew ($2.3m), Marco Sturm ($3.5m) or Michael Ryder ($4m), though all of these would come at a significant cost to the team's forward depth. Of course, they would also need to be replaced by a bargain-basement player, leaving the Bruins shallower and damaging their chemistry.

A more emotionally-charged option would be to trade Patrice Bergeron. At $4.7 million, Bergeron made roughly the same salary this season as Saku Koivu, Alex Semin and Eric Staal. With all due respect to Bergeron's brave battle against concussion problems, he's being paid too much to score only 7 goals and to be one of only three regular forwards without a + rating.

The cost of keeping Bergeron would be more than meets the eye. Not only would it affect contract negotiations for the team's younger players (Kessel, Lucic and Krecji), but it would threaten the Bruins' chances of re-signing Marc Savard in two years. It's only speculation at this stage, but this pundit would be shocked to see Bergeron in a Bruins uniform at training camp.

How do they do it?

Only two teams in the league have managed to navigate these issues year-after-year, without seeing a significant downturn in the quality of their roster. Detroit and New Jersey have seen potential dynasties crumble in Tampa, Pittsburgh, Boston, Anaheim, Dallas and Colorado... and they keep plugging along, winning division titles and staying in the Cup race despite significant roster turnover. There are lessons to be learned from them:

1) Drafting, developing and trading new players is key to suriving turnover. Trading Petteri Nokelainen and Matt Lashoff in return for veterans made sense for this season's playoff run -- but the cost to the organization's depth is not insignificant.

2) If at all possible, it's vital to work "hometown discounts" into new contracts. Clearly this was not the case with Thomas, but Chiarelli needs to convince players like Kessel and Wheeler that playing for the Bruins is worth a slight pay cut. The Red Wings have been masterful at this game.

3) Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. The biggest risk in the Thomas extension is that he'll turn out to be the next Byron Dafoe. Signing players to long-term, high-dollar contracts is not an advisable approach to franchise-building.

So the Bruins' approach should boil down to a few simple principles:

- Ditch players like Bergeron and Axelsson who are not playing to their pay level. If possible, trade them for picks or prospects who will restock Providence when the P-Bruins are called up.

- Lock up cornerstone players like Lucic and Krejci to short, incentive-laden contracts that will keep them in Boston without removing accountability.

- Exploit Thomas' contract by working Rask into the lineup a few games at a time. He has a minimum of 3 seasons to work on his game behind a possible Vezina winner.

And pray that the cap doesn't shrink too much.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

The Bruins' Slowly-Developing Cap Crunch

First, let's take a moment to revel in some good news:

- The Bruins won their 50th game of the season for the first time since 1993.

- The magic number for clinching the Eastern Conference is now 1.

- For the next 3 years (potentially), we'll have a goaltending duo of Thomas/Rask. A Vezina-potential veteran and a Calder-potential rookie on the same team? Good grief.

Now, the unsettling part. reports that the Bruins signed Thomas to a 3-year, $5.2 million deal. While this might not even break the top 10 in goalie salaries next year, it is still Brodeur money and puts the team in a difficult cap situation moving forward.

Getting too close to the ceiling

The root of the problem is that the Bruins are a bit too young for their own good -- six key players under 25 (Kessel, Krejci, Lucic, Hunwick and Stuart) are up for contract renewal in the next two years and all but Stuart will be looking for a significant raise. But the Bruins are already squeezed against the cap ceiling, so extending these players' contracts will involve trimming salary in other parts of the roster. This is where a team can go from elite to mediocre in a hurry.

Next season GM Peter Chiarelli will need to re-sign Kessel, Krejci and Hunwick as restricted free agents (meaning they are free to entertain offers from other teams, but the Bruins will have the right to match). Their current salaries combine for a $3.8m cap hit; after renewal that number will likely be closer to $9m.

Trimming fat

There is a bit of relief on the horizon -- Glen Murray's $1.4m buyout could expire this summer, giving Boston extra breathing room [edit: Murray's cap hit is in the appeals process. If he wins, the $1.4m comes off the books; if the Bruins win, it remains until the end of next season. Perverse, isn't it? Thanks to the Bastahd for pointing this out]. Also, veteran Shane Hnidy will presumably be replaced by AHL standout Johnny Boychuck, a net cap relief of $250k. It's a safe bet that P.J. Axelsson will not be renewed at $1.8m, but there's no clear answer as to who will take his place (the Bruins could save about $1m if they can find a bargain). Also, Manny Fernandez is clearly done in the organization so his $4.3m will be a major relief. Altogether, Chiarelli will be working with between $5.5m and $6.9m.

$5-7 million in cap space... roughly $5 million in new salary. You can see the problem developing.

But wait... there's more!

As if this weren't already a fairly distressing situation, a similar crunch will develop in summer 2010. Lucic will be seeking a dramatic upgrade from his current $850k; it's hard to imagine the Bruins retaining him for less than Michael Ryder's $4m.

Then there's Blake Wheeler, who is currently making $2.8m and is eligible for arbitration if the team can't come to terms. Given his outstanding rookie campaign, it's also quite possible he will be making something like $4m in his new contract. Don't forget Stuart, who will likely hold steady at $1.3m, and Marc Savard will hit the free agent market at the completion of his $5m deal.

Oh yeah... and that's the summer that Rask will be ready to ask for a starting-goalie salary.

Sounds a little bleak, doesn't it? There are options on the table for Boston to keep the ship steady through all these changes, but none of them will be easy to swallow. Chiarelli is going to be faced with some tough decisions; check back tomorrow for details.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bruins History 101: The Best and Worst Names Ever

Best of the Bruins

10 - Bob Beers
Admit it, you loved this name when you were a kid playing NHL '94. Granted, by that time Beers was stuck on pushover teams like the Islanders and Oilers, who you would only pick if you were trying to make Cam Neely score 10 goals. But this is a giggle-to-yourself classic that was perfectly fit for the tone of an early-90s game at the Garden.

9 - Dit Clapper
This name should only be spoken out loud in the nasal voice of an old-time radio announcer.

8 - Red Green
Nothing says "Canadian" like Red Green, the Canuck equivalent to Tim Taylor (the Tool Man, not the former Bruin). Obscure Canadian-pop-culture references aside... who names their kid Red Green???

7 - Byron Bitz
The second of three entries on this list whose initials are B.B... what better monogram for a Bruin?

6 - Sprague Cleghorn
Though his name suggests he was a small-town sherriff from 1920s Alabama, in fact this guy is a certified inductee of Hockey Hell and one of the true badasses of the early NHL.

5 - Zellio Toppazzini
Save for documentary evidence of this man's existence, I would be inclined to believe he was actually a fictional character... perhaps a lost Willy Wonka villain.

4 - Buzz Boll
It almost automatically becomes the compound word "buzzball" when spoken out loud. This is a picture of an actual buzzball:

3 - Butch Goring
Nothing comic about this one, this name is pure intimidation. Would you have guessed that this is the man who had only 102 career PIM in 1107 games? Or that he would've had the distinction of wearing the same leather helmet he received as a childhood gift? The world is a strange place.

2 - Bronco Horvath
Another colorfully-intimidating name, of the sort that only existed in the early years. The combination of "Bronco" -- a Western word suggesting speed, power, and murder -- and the Magyar surname "Horvath" -- which sounds like it was at some point the name of a Satanic figure -- is a case study in the use of subtle phonetic blends to make a guy sound totally badass.

1 - Terry O'Reilly
What other name could have been #1? Nothing encapsulates the spirit of the Bruins like a pugnacious, brawling Irishman who can be your captain, enforcer AND leading scorer at the same time.

Artist's Rendering of Terry O'Reilly, circa 1985.

Worst of the Bruins

5 - Teddy Graham
Maybe this wasn't so bad in the 1930s, but anyone alive today will associate his name with harmless-looking cracker snacks. Can you imagine a guy named Teddy Graham wearing this?

4 - Quackenbush, Bill and Max
It's hard to imagine an announcer feverishly calling a game with these guys on the ice. If only their names had been Hewie and Dewie, we'd have been pretty close to a Duck Tales crossover.

3 - Spunk Sparrow
Seriously? I felt dirty even typing it.
2 - Weiner Brown
Standing 5'8" and weighing 150 lbs, he was undoubtedly the smallest Weiner in NHL history.

1 - Jean Pusie
According to Wikipedia, "for some reason" his name was left off the Cup in 1931. What a mystery!

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kessel Out For Postseason

Well, it's not like we didn't see this coming. It's April, we're in first place, we're set to play the Habs.

Now we know why Phil Kessel's been sitting lately: the Boston Globe reports that he's aggravated a shoulder injury that will put him out until at least training camp.

If you can stomach the details, read them here.

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It's April...

.... and the Bruins have a 9-point lead on first place.

The Caps and Devils both play tonight. If either loses, the Bruins could eliminate them from contention for the #1 seed by beating the Sens tomorrow.
It's almost time...

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