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WhatIfSports: Bruins have a 62.8 percent chance of winning the Cup

04.15.09 at 6:25 pm ET
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WhatIfSports has already got plenty of street cred on the third floor of the New Balance Building in Brighton. “Dale & Holley” producer “Big Game” James Stewart and WEEI radio personality and best-selling author Michael Holley — as well as this humble puck writer – all actively compete in simulated “theme” baseball leagues run by the addictive site, but apparently they’ve also become pretty damned accurate with their game simulation software.

They correctly predicted the Phillies over the Rays in the World Series as well as Pittsburgh over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl  and they — yes, you guess it — have the Bruins prevailing over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. Last year, WhatIfSports correctly predicted at the end of the NHL regular season that the Detroit Red Wings would beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Finals, so this should be welcomed news for fans of the Black and Gold.

Here’s some info on the WhatIfSports simulation:

“It’s about time. I mean the city has not won a major sports championship in two whole days. As if Boston, a town that was once starved for titles, yet has ruled the national athletic landscape for the better part of a decade, needs it. Since the turn of the decade, the Patriots have three Super Bowls, the Celtics won the 2008 NBA title, and the Red Sox broke an 86-year curse to two World Series champions.

“Now, the Bruins are the prohibitive favorites to bring the Stanley Cup back to Beantown for the first time since Bobby Orr led them to a title in 1972. In fact, the 2009 NHL Playoffs set up nicely for fans of historically great American hockey teams as we should finally see two “Original Six” franchises – Boston and Chicago – in the Finals.

“With its super computer on a roll (more below), WhatIfSports.com now focuses on hockey. We have simulated the Stanley Cup Playoffs 10,000 times in order to determine the exact likelihood of each of the 16 teams an making it to any level. Last year at this time, we accurately predicted Detroit would win the Cup over Pittsburgh and even had many of the scores in the Finals close.

“Thorough results of the simulations can be found at BracketPreview.com. A recap of some of the more interesting points is below, but we encourage you to check out the Bracket Preview page to see it all.

“The Boston Bruins are really good. On the season, the team finished second in the league in scoring with 3.29 goals a game and led the NHL in goals allowed at just 2.32 goals a game. That yielded a 0.98 average scoring margin that was more than a third of a goal greater than the next best team. In goal, Tim Thomas has been spectacular, saving 93.3% of shots on goal.

“In front of him, the team is exceptionally balanced with nine players scoring more than 40 points and five players, including the team’s leading goal-scorer and 2005 first round draft choice, Phil Kessel, shooting better than 15%. In four years of publishing the NHL Bracket Preview, the Bruins are the first team we have ever predicted that, on average swept its first round opponent.

“In this case, Boston has a 99.6% chance of advancing past Montreal, whom it faced when the roles were reversed last season. The Bruins then have a 92.2% chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals, a 78.9% chance of playing for the title and a remarkable 62.8% chance of winning the Stanley Cup. All of those are all-time highs for this analysis.

“In the East, it’s clearly Boston and then everyone else. There are actually no upsets predicted as more likely than not in the first round for either conference, so Washington (68.7%), New Jersey (73.7%) and Pittsburgh (54.9%) also advance to the second round defeating New York, Carolina, and Philadelphia respectively.

“In that scenario, which occurs 27.6% of the time, there is no need to re-seed teams, but it is important to note that the simulations do re-seed each round (best seed plays worst seed) when necessary. In the conference semi-finals, Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils pull a mild upset, advancing to the conference finals as a three-seed 59.7% of the time. With such a strong conference presence in the Bruins, New Jersey only makes it into the Stanley Cup Finals 12.8% of the time, winning it all 6.3%. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington all win the Cup between 0.4% and 0.9% of the simulations. New York and Montreal never win the championship.”

Bear beware

04.15.09 at 1:44 pm ET
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As colleague Joe Haggerty pointed out Tuesday in his five-point plan for taking down the Habs, Bruins netminder Tim Thomas will definitely play a big role in the upcoming Bruins-Canadiens series.

Thomas heads into this series knowing full well all eyes will be on him and how he handles the anticipated traffic in front as Montreal tries to disrupt him. He also knows the the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs when a No. 1 can go down in flames when a No. 8 team gets hot — like last year, when the Bruins nearly pulled it off against the Habs.

It happened in 1982 when Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were beaten by the Los Angeles Kings in round 1 in the Miracle on Manchester. And it happened in 2000 when the St. Louis Blues, with 114 points, were ousted by San Jose. And while the Bruins were a No. 2 seed in 2004, they lost to the underdog Canadiens in seven games.

“A lot of it is because teams are so close,” Thomas said in offering his explanation. “The difference between one and eight in this league isn’t very much. The difference between five and 11 isn’t very much. There are no easy teams on any given night, depending on how teams are playing and how the momentum has been going for that team, any team can beat any other team and I think that’s why you see the results you see.”

What’s even more intriguing is listening to Thomas talk about the intensity level of this series, and what he learned from last year’s seven-game battle that ended in heartbreak for the B’s in Montreal.

“I had the NHL playoffs described to me before the playoffs last year and I was thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’ve been to the (Frozen) Four in college, I’ve won a championship in Finland, I’ve been to the World Championships, it can’t be that much different than anything I’ve experienced.’ And I was wrong. It was all more emotional and adrenaline-rushed than anything I could have imagined,” said Thomas, who played at Vermont and went to the Frozen Four in 1996, losing in double-OT to Colorado College.

Thomas doesn’t have to go back that far to remember last week’s hour-long second period, where the Bruins-Canadiens resembled a UFC steel-cage death match.

“I think it’ll increase, if anything,” Thomas said of the intensity. “I’m expecting both teams to obviously be more disciplined. But as far as that type of game, with all-out competing, every man competing up and down the bench, yeah, that’s what I expect.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, NHL, Tim Thomas

Julien: Hopefully we can make this one last

04.15.09 at 12:48 pm ET
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Asked what this time of year means him, Bruins coach Claude Julien turned poet-philosopher.

“From the weather outside, walking outside into the rink, it’s a great feeling,” Julien said Wednesday. “I know the guys enjoy it, we as a coaching staff are the same. I know I look forward to it every year. Hopefully, we can make this one last.”

One of the more commonly asked questions this week has been how the Bruins plan to ride the fine line of playing with emotion yet staying out of the penalty box.

But, Julien acknowledged that clearly, there is a nervous energy that everyone plays with at this time of year.

“I’ll tell you what, if you don’t have a pulse when it comes down to playoffs, you have a serious problem,” Julien said. “I think it’s the most exciting time of the year. Everybody looks forward to it. You feel sorry for those guys who are done because we all know what playoffs mean to us.”

Whether young or old, 22-year-old Blake Wheeler or 41-year-old Mark Recchi, how you manage emotion can dictate just how effective you are under the greatest pressure there is in hockey.

“I’m excited,” Wheeler said. “You’re going to be a little nervous, obviously, too. That’s a part of it but you just kind of want to harness it and use it to the positive way instead of being timid or scared out there. You just want to use it in a way that can help your team be successful.”

Wheeler has won a state high school championship in hockey-crazed Minnesota and played with Phil Kessel at the University of Minnesota. So, even at 22, he knows a thing or two about playing on the big stage.

“Anytime you play on a big stage with a lot on the line, it’s going to definitely train you how to react in those situations but it’s definitely going to be amped up quite a  bit,” Wheeler said. “It’s going to be a little bit different level, a little more intensity. You just have to embrace it and respond.”

Mark Recchi has been on Stanley Cup Champions, including in 1991 with Pittsburgh and 2006 with Carolina. How he handles this time of season will be on display for players like Wheeler to observe.

“There’s not a lot you can say to them right now,” Recchi said. “They’ve got to get a taste of it right away and get a taste of it first-hand and then they’ll know right away. I don’t think anything you say can help them prepare for it. It’s how you react to things they’ll watch. I think if you stay composed, it will help them.

“The younger guys will watch how I react, and the guys in this league who have been successful and won in this league, Aaron (Ward) and Stephane (Yelle), they’ll watch them,” Recchi added. “I just have to play the game and do what I’ve done for 20 years.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens, NHL

Wheeler sharing time with Bitz on B’s fourth line at practice

04.15.09 at 10:53 am ET
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WILMINGTON — Interesting line configurations from Claude Julien at the Wednesday morning practice prior to the Bruins/Canadiens storm set to begin at the Gahden Thursday night.

The lines are: Phil Kessel/Marc Savard/P.J. Axelsson, Milan Lucic/David Krejci/Michael Ryder, Chuck Kobasew/Patrice Bergeron/Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton/Stephane Yelle/Byron Bitz and Blake Wheeler. The B’s rookie is wearing the maroon fourth-line practice jersey, and perhaps he could be looking at Julien giving him the “Kessel treatment” once the playoffs begin. Or perhaps Julien is simply playing around with his combinations to fool around with the Habs’ gameplan a little bit.

Julien was unmistakably firm in detailing on Tuesday afternoon just how much scratching Kessel last season against the Canadiens helped move along the young sniper’s maturation process. The 21-year-old went from a 19-goal scorer in 2007-08 that flashed moments of brilliance to a bonafide NHL lamp-lighter with 36 goals scored and a great deal more consistency for the Black and Gold last winter.

“I think we all saw Phil improve and evolve as a great player,” said the B’s bench boss. “When you score 36 goals in a season, you’ve got to realize it was a lot better than 19 the year before. He almost doubled his output. I think he’s grown a lot as far as his maturity, being a real professional, and being a lot more consistent than he was the year before. This is what it’s all about.

“You’ve got to allow these guys to grow. There’s going to be some growing pains. There were last year. Even some this year. Through it all, he’s kept a real good attitude, plowed through it, and been rewarded with a pretty good season.”

Will hockey history repeat itself for another Bruins rookie during this playoff run against the Habs, and — in the end — be beneficial for Wheeler’s growth as a player? Time will tell.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Claude Julien, Phil Kessel,

Still no Ference

04.15.09 at 10:08 am ET
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WILMINGTON — Defenseman Andrew Ference was again the lone player missing from practice on Wednesday morning in Wilmington as the Bruins held their second practice of the week in preparation for Game 1 with Montreal on Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden.

Ference  has been out since suffering an undisclosed injury against the Rangers on April 4.

B’s head coach Claude Julien, who took part in the warmup skate on Wednesday morning and took his shots at Manny Fernandez, said on Tuesday that there was no update and that Ference continues to be “day-to-day.”

“I think when you see him on the ice for the first time, that’ll be a good sign,” Julien said.

The team began practice shortly after 11 a.m.

Read More: Boston Bruins, NHL, Stanley Cup Playoffs,

A Bruins Five-Point plan for taking down the Habs

04.14.09 at 11:53 pm ET
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If hockey was played on a simple sheet of lined paper, the Bruins would wipe the frozen ice floor with the eighth-seeded Canadiens in a four- or five-game laugher of a series. The high-powered B’s have seven players with at least 20 goals, the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL, a likely Vezina Trophy winner between the pipes that feels like he’s got something to prove in the postseason and — last, but not least — they have a home ice advantage that gives them a Game 7 in the Bear’s Den otherwise known as the TD Banknorth Garden.

That might not be essential or that big an advantage in the early games, but it’s pretty close to everything in a Game 7 as Boston saw firsthand at the Bell Centre last season.

The Black and Gold have been the class of the Eastern Conference for nearly the entire season, and they’ve easily handled the hated Habs to the tune of a 5-0-1 regular-season record. More than the results on the scoreboard, the B’s have repeatedly pounded the Canadiens with their penchant for the physical play, and fans will remember this season’s indellible images for years to come: Milan Lucic tangling with Mike Komisarek at center ice and completely manhandling the Habs defenseman before raising his hands and smacking them against the penalty box glass in Gladiator-like victory; Tim Thomas exploding from his crease and decking Andrei Kostitsyn in front of the net after a questionable collision with Aaron Ward in the corner; Georges Laraque chasing Lucic all over the Bell Centre frozen sheet amid catcalls and boos from the partisan crowd of Habs fans, and Lucic turning around and scoring a game-changing goal amid the fury.

It’s been an eventful six-game regular season set after a memorable playoff series last spring, and the upcoming series is one the Big Bad Bruins could and should win.

But the Canadiens shouldn’t be underestimated and simply waved off with a “Bah, they’ll fold in five games” type attitude. This series won’t be played out on paper.

Bruins players and coaches got a good glimpse at how the Canadiens are going to attack this series during that fist-filled visit to Boston last Thursday, and the upcoming series will involve embellishing, diving, turtling and invoking any and all thespian skills that will put the Bleu, Blanc and Rouge on the PP.

Over the last six week, Alex Kovalev has decided to start playing, and he makes the Montreal man advantage deadly. Carey Price has regained some of the confidence that he lost midway through the season, and won’t be the liability that some believe him to be in a playoff series. Andrei Markov, a 60-point defenseman during the regular season, could be back midway through a series from a knee injury, and would give the Habs a big momentum push if they’re hanging in the series.

The Habs aren’t as bad as the eighth seed would indicate them to be (after all this is a good portion of the same hockey club that earned the No. 1 seed the year before and looked to be the class of the Eastern Conference), and this series will be a bit too close for comfort. With that in mind, here are five keys to victory if the Bruins hope to take care of business, knock the playoff futility monkey off the organization’s back that’s been growing big and strong over the last 10 years and retain the goodwill that’s been built up through such a noteworthy regular season.

1. Win Game One. At all costs. With the No. 1 seed and a fan base that’s come to expect the worst when the postseason is involved, it’s vital the Bruins get on top of the Habs early and refuse to let the slippery skaters out from under their grasp. If the Bruins drop a bomb in Game One — or even lose a tight, well-played one-goal game — then uncomfortable questions begin to crop up. Questions about the fact that the B’s haven’t been able to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1998-99. Questions about how badly it will set a resurgent franchise back if they stumble again in the first round this season.

Questions that nobody wearing a Spoked B sweater wants to start answering, and questions that will start building pressure within the Bruins dressing room. All of that potential toil and trouble can be completely wiped off the plane of existence if the B’s do something in Game One that they’ve already done 53 times this season — and done with regularity against anybody donning a CCH sweater this winter: simply play well and win.

2.Milan Lucic, a guy who will clearly be tested by Montreal Public Enemy No. 1 Mike Komisarek during the upcoming series, probably put the next “key to victory” best when I asked him about how different a playoff-style game will be from last Thursday night’s donnybrook-filled homage to “Slapshot.” In short, Big Looch won’t be chasing his defenseman nemesis down from behind and slapping the sleeper hold on Komisarek while rag-dolling him to the ice.

“For us, we need to play toward our strength and our advantages if we want to have success,” said Lucic. “It’s difficult, but for me personally it’s easier (to reign) it in because there’s more at stake. When something happens that you didn’t like, it’s easier to bite your lip and take it like a man (in the playoffs). There’s more at stake and there are times you’re going to have to take one for the team to give your team the advantage.

“It’s hard because the fans go up a notch, the game goes up a notch and everything else goes up a notch (when there’s a fight), but then again it’s easier because there’s more at stake. You could be hurting your team taking a stupid, retaliatory penalty.”

So that’s a big check next to the box marked “Turn the other cheek and refuse to retaliate when Messrs. Komisarek, O’Byrne and Kostoupolos come calling and looking for power play opportunities”.

3. One of the biggest keys to victory in the entire series will be stopping Kovalev, the moody Russian superstar who absolutely killed the Bruins last season with power-play score after power-play score. This season, perhaps pouting on the ice due to philosophical differences with Guy Carbonneau, Kovalev seemed to be asleep at the switch for much of the season — a situation that got so bad that GM/interim coach Bob Gainey told Kovalev to take a two-game hike at mid-season to find his game. But the highly-skilled sniper has come alive over the last six weeks. Kovalev has 11 goals in 15 games since the beginning of March, and has an eye-opening eight power-play strikes over that time period.

The Habs have surged from the bottom of the league to middle of the pack in terms of power play efficiency over the second-half of the season, and that’s all about, A) the acquisition of Mathieu Schneider at the trade deadline and, B) Kovalev playing with more physical and mental involvement as the playoffs have inched closer. The B’s will need to keep Kovalev’s PP unit off the ice at all costs, and Zdeno Chara will have to play the shutdown game that left Kovalev with two goals and a -4 in four games against the B’s this season.

4.In Timmy They Trust. Tim Thomas was good in last season’s seven-game series against the Habs, but the 35-year-old netminder enters this postseason extremely motivated on several different fronts. Of course, Thomas has never been the winning goaltender in an NHL playoff series and that slight little bit of doubt serves as motivational fuel in Thomas the Tank’s ever-burning engine. Thomas is also out to prove that B’s GM Peter Chiarelli made the right choice in signing four-year, $20 million extension, and that great hockey players earn their money by raising their game in April and May.

Thomas needs to be at least as good as he was during the season when he led in the NHL in the two real “Gold Standard” goaltender statistics, and perhaps even better when the competition gets tougher and more skilled with each rung on the playoff ladder. Thomas struggled in the second period of last Thursday’s game against Montreal and looked as shaky as he has all season, but he rebounded in the third period and OT and will need to harness that through an entire postseason that’s riding on his shoulders.

“I think there was a lot of pressure on us as the eighth seed last year just because it was Boston/Montreal. Hopefully that will help us this year,” said Thomas. “We haven’t had too many easy nights this year. Teams didn’t roll over on us. Sometimes when you’re the third or fourth seed you can catch a team a little bit unaware, but when you’re the Top Dog you don’t sneak up on anybody. Hopefully that will help us.

“The pressure is definitely on to win this series and win in the playoffs, but you can’t look past this series and you can’t look past Thursday,” said Thomas. “You guys (in the media) are big picture and we’re little picture. I want to prove Peter (Chiarelli) right. I want to do well to prove that this organization made the right decision (signing me). I want to use that fuel.”

5.Krejci scores and the Bruins win. It’s as simple as that. Marc Savard and Phil Kessel have been a dynamic, dangerous duo on the top line and the Chuck Kobasew/Patrice Bergeron/Mark Recchi line has done serious damage in since the trade deadline, but there aren’t many — or perhaps any teams — that can hang with the highly-skilled Bruins when David Krejci is clicking with Michael Ryder and  Lucic and racking up enough points to give Boston scoring threats on all three top lines. The B’s are 19-0-1 when Krejci scores a goal and an amazing 38-2-5 when the puck magician registers even a single point. Pretty simple formula: Krejci ends up on the scoresheet and the B’s are a Pete Sheppard-lock for victory.

Read More: Alex Kovalev, David Krejci, Tim Thomas,

Sobotka sent back to Providence

04.14.09 at 7:52 pm ET
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Following Tuesday’s practice, the Boston Bruins sent forward Vladimir Sobotka back down to Providence. Sobotka was called up to Boston on April 10 and registered an assist in the final two road games in New York (Sabres, Islanders) to close out the season. The move indicates that both P.J. Axelsson and Patrice Bergeron (both didn’t play in either of the NY games) made it through the practice skate without any complications and the B’s — save for sidelined D-man Andrew Ference — are about as healthy as they could hope for the start of the series vs. the Habs.

Sobotka will finish out the season with the P-Bruins and suit up for them in the playoffs, but would be the first logical player called back up should the B’s suffer injuries along the front line against Les Habitants.

Sobotka has played in 25 games for Boston during the 2008-2009 season and recorded 1-4=5 totals. On April 10, he was recalled from Providence on an emergency basis and recorded 0-1=1 totals in the Bruins last two games of the regular season against Buffalo and the Islanders.

In 44 games with the P-Bruins this year, Sobotka contributed 20 goals, 24 assists and a +11 plus/minus rating. He split the 2007-2008 season between Boston and Providence. With Boston, he saw action in 48 regular season games and contributed one goal and six assists and added two goals in six postseason games. With Providence last year, he had 10-10=20 totals in 18 regular season games and added four assists over six postseason games.

Sobotka was originally drafted by the Bruins in the 4th round (106th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Read More: P.J. Axelsson, Patrice Bergeron, Vladimir Sobotka,
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