A Bruins Five-Point plan for taking down the Habs
|04.14.09 at 11:53 pm ET|
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.