March 19, 2012

From NEHJ: Will the Bruins repeat as Cup champs?

By Jesse Connolly

One year ago, New England Hockey Journal boldly predicted the Bruins would win the Stanley Cup, as writer Jesse Connolly examined 10 reasons the Black and Gold finally would end their historic championship drought. 

(Of course, we also provided ourselves an out with five more reasons the Bruins wouldn’t win.)

Not wanting to jinx anything, Connolly again offers four reasons why the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup — while also covering our bets with four reasons they won’t.

WHY THEY WILL …

Proven resilience — The Bruins proved time and time again that they play their best when their backs are up against the wall during their last playoff run. Every time it was down to win or go home, the Black and Gold either staved off elimination or moved on to the next round, as they became the first team to win three Game 7s in one postseason.

Claude Julien’s battle-tested club should be able to draw on those experiences and use them to their benefit, especially given the lack of turnover the club experienced during the offseason. Overcoming Boston’s cohesiveness and composure during crunch time won’t be easy, especially when considering that four of the teams in playoff spots in late February failed to qualify for the playoffs last spring.

No doubting Thomas — Though he certainly hit a rough patch when the calendar turned to 2012 and his Facebook fiasco didn’t help matters, how can anyone not expect Tim Thomas to rise to the occasion in the playoffs? The man simply played out of his mind a year ago, putting together arguably the greatest run by a goaltender the league has ever witnessed en route to a unanimous selection for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

But even when the Bruins haven’t gone the distance, Thomas has been stellar. He sported a league-leading 1.85 goals-against average in 11 games for the Bruins in 2009. Bruins fans hope to see the Flint, Mich., native turn his game around sooner rather than later, but they should maintain their faith that Thomas will be in top form come April.

Super sophomores — Tyler Seguin set the world on fire with his record-setting, four-point period against the Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, but the rookie did little beyond that the rest of the way. Many believed Brad Marchand’s rookie season and electric playoff run were a fluke. Bad news for the rest of the East: Seguin is light-years better in his sophomore season, and Marchand’s more than proven he’s no flash in the pan.

Alongside center Patrice Bergeron, the three have formed what should be considered one of the top lines in hockey. With Bergeron’s strong work along the boards and unrivaled faceoff prowess, Seguin’s scintillating sniping abilities and Marchand’s perfect blend of skill and tenacity, no one has been able to stop the trio in the first three-quarters of the season. Don’t bet on that changing when the playoffs roll around.

Built for playoffs — Is the old adage that defense wins champions 100 percent true? Not quite, but the shift that the game undergoes from the regular season to the postseason certainly is advantageous for a club built the way the Bruins are. With penalties down and hits being doled out by the bushel, there’s a reason teams such as the Canadiens and Sabres — chock full of talent but severely lacking in the size department — haven’t been able to reach the final round of the postseason in more than a decade.

The first 82 games are undoubtedly a grind, but come playoff time, the bumps and bruises get racked up at an alarming rate. Combine that with the extra pinch of freedom the referees give teams in the postseason and it’s no surprise that squads built on size, toughness and sound defense are never easy to get past. Boston hopes that recipe will work again in 2012.

WHY THEY WON’T …

Questionable health — On the cusp of the NHL’s trade deadline, the Bruins’ health woes put GM Peter Chiarelli in a precarious situation. Would he sit tight and hope his key cogs are healed for the playoffs or roll the dice on a pricey rental? Though the Bruins want to repeat, the urgency to go for broke isn’t as prevalent as it was a year ago.

Regardless of Chiarelli’s decision, the absence of two pivotal players that helped squash that sense of urgency by ending Boston’s long drought last season could sting. Rich Peverley could be out until April with a knee injury, while Nathan Horton’s status remains a mystery with the winger sidelined by a concussion. Irreplaceable might be a stretch, but the Bruins sorely will miss the clutch contributors if they’re not fully healthy.

Formidable foes — The Bruins caught their fair share of breaks during the playoffs last year when the Penguins couldn’t cut it without Sidney Crosby and the Rangers’ offensive impotence allowed the B’s to dodge Henrik Lundqvist. It’s unlikely they’ll be that lucky again.

Pittsburgh has the leading MVP candidate in Evgeni Malkin, and Crosby — who has 28 points in 19 games against the Bruins — likely will return before season’s end. The Blueshirts are running away with the top spot in the East thanks to a bounce-back year from Marian Gaborik, the addition of star center Brad Richards and the continued dominance of Lundqvist between the pipes. The Swedish netminder is 18-5-2 lifetime against Boston with a 1.45 goals-against average.

Squeaking by one of these clubs might be possible, but defeating both sure sounds like a tall task.

Defense out of sorts — When the Bruins reeled off 25 wins in 30 games after their Stanley Cup hangover, many expected the offense to come back down to earth. What we didn’t foresee was Boston’s defense, the backbone of the club throughout Julien’s tenure, coming apart at the seams. Unfortunately that’s exactly what began to happen in January. As the trend carried into February, it was officially time to start worrying.

From Jan. 22 to Feb. 17, a stretch of 11 games, the Bruins coughed up a whopping 38 goals. Much-maligned newcomer Joe Corvo continued to be prone to mistakes, leading to struggles for partner Dennis Seidenberg. Even perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara was off his game. The Bruins arguably have the best goalie tandem in the NHL, but if their rearguards don’t get their act together, this year’s playoff run will be a short one.

Battling the odds — While some have come oh-so-close, there are myriad reasons why no team has repeated as champs since the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998. For starters, the schedule is a grind. Counting the playoffs, the Bruins played in 107 games last season. Tack on this season’s 82-game slate, and you’re up to 189 games in the 18-plus months before the 2012 postseason begins.

Before the salary cap era, teams with bottomless pits of cash could put together powerhouses. Now, parity reigns supreme and there’s a considerably slimmer difference between the league’s good teams and its great ones — meaning anything can happen in a seven-game series. Not counting Boston, only one of the past nine champions has advanced to the finals the following season. Many will say the past has no bearing on the present, but the odds undoubtedly are stacked against the Black and Gold.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com