December 20, 2011

Bruins playing their (wild) cards right

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON – It was one of those little quirks of the season that the Bruins on Monday night played a team under a new coach for the second time in less than a week.

Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth talks to forward Petteri Nokelainen from behind the bench. (Getty)

Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth talks to forward Petteri Nokelainen from behind the bench. (Getty)

The Canadiens came to town for their second game under interim coach Randy Cunneyworth, formerly an assistant who stepped in after Jacques Martin was dismissed just hours before Saturday’s loss to New Jersey. Monday’s 3-2 Bruin victory also came six days after the B’s dispatched Los Angeles 3-0 in the debut of new Kings coach John Stevens after the firing of Terry Murray.

Teams that fire coaches midseason immediately become wild cards, since a new face (or at least a new top dog) can bring a fresh outlook for the team as a whole, and with a new boss comes new opportunities for players that were in the old chief’s doghouse. The first few games after a coaching change can be the first bright spot for a struggling club, but they can also be a time of turmoil and doubt.

“I don’t know, it can go either way, right?” said Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who made 33 saves on 35 Montreal shots Monday night. “LA doesn’t look like their turnover in coaches really lit a fire under their butts. I mean, I can’t speak for Montréal, they played hard and they battled us hard tonight, I’d say harder than LA did.”

It was an ironic evening considering that just 52 days prior, the Canadiens handed the Bruins back-to-back losses, capping a miserable opening month of the season for the B’s. Yet since Montreal beat the Bruins 4-2 at the Bell Centre on Oct. 29 – dropping Boston to 3-7-0 through the season’s first 10 games – the two teams’ fortunes have been almost inverted.

The Bruins went on their memorable unbeaten run in November and carried it into first place in the Eastern Conference, while the Habs have lost nine of their last 12 and sit last in the Northeast Division – two points out of a playoff spot if the season ended today.

Yet trends can become meaningless when a team has gone through a major upheaval, be it a massive trade or, in Montreal’s case, the firing of a head coach who took the team to the conference finals in his first year and a second-place finish in the division last year – though that of course was negated by the dramatic opening-round playoff loss to the Bruins.

“Obviously they’re going to have some life to their game, and you kind of know that right off the bat,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien, himself no stranger to the Habs bench, or being fired during the season.
The recipe to deal the unpredictable nature of a team with a new leader, Julien said, was to turn the focus away from the Habs’ internal drama.

“But at the same time, we’ve really, again – people are getting tired of hearing me say the same thing – we’ve just kept our focus on ourselves here and what we need to do here to win, and that’s no different than teams coming in and wanting to beat us because of what we accomplished last year,” he said. “The challenge is always going to be there night in, night out, so we’ve learned to look at ourselves as a team and what we have to do to win hockey games, and that’s what served us the best so far.”

While just about every Bruin on the roster has plenty of familiarity with Boston’s most hated rival and frequent playoff foe, there’s one player wearing black and gold with an intimate sense of how the bleu, blanc et rouge operate. Benoit Pouliot said he didn’t see any drastic changes in the makeup of Montreal’s game.

“No, not really,” said Pouliot, a Canadien for two years until he was unceremoniously dumped over the summer. “They’re a fast team. Not the biggest one out there, but once they turn the puck over on us they just go right away – it’s always north-south and that’s the way they’ve been playing when I was there, and they’re still playing that way.”

Thomas said he didn’t sense any huge change in the Canadiens, either, and that was no surprise.

“No, I mean, even if their new coach wants to change how they play, it’s going to be a work in progress,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to change that overnight.”