March 5, 2014, of course, was the day of the NHL’s trade deadline.
The Bruins, without the services of defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid indefinitely, were desperate for help on the blue-line. But, rather than improving with talent, they surveyed the market and opted to upgrade their depth. Insert Andrej Meszaros (via trade from Philadelphia) and Corey Potter (claimed off waivers from Edmonton).
The Canadiens, in the midst of fighting for a playoff spot after not having advanced beyond the first-round since 2010, needed both depth and, desperately, an offensive boost in order to survive their competition in the Atlantic come the postseason. In turn, Montreal added unsung men like Dale Weise from the Canucks and the Panthers’ Mike Weaver prior to the deadline before, most significant at the time, a Boston killer and proven playoff performer in Thomas Vanek from the Islanders.
That’s the day the line was drawn in the sand; the day the Habs eliminated the Bruins en route to the conference finals.
Sure, the B’s comfortably won the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record with 117 points, a robust 17 points ahead of the Habs (fourth in the East), but that was largely thanks to an otherworldly 15-1-1 March. The shootout loss, by the way, came courtesy of the Canadiens to end a 12-game winning streak.
During that run and throughout much of the year, the Bruins looked like the team to beat in the East, and maybe the entire NHL. Coach Claude Julien was able to run through his customary rolling of the four lines, Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask stood tall in net, and the defensemen, in spite of a collection of injuries, were stabilized.
But there were always concerns over whether Boston had enough forward depth on the latter two lines and, more so, if the young blue-liners could hold their own in the most important games of the year the way Torey Krug did during 2013’s Stanley Cup run after his recall from Providence.
In the end, the concerns won out.
The Bruins’ now heavily scrutinized top-line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Jarome Iginla disappeared for most of the postseason and the entirety of the series against the Habs, combining for four goals, four assists, and 44 shots. Brad Marchand (absent a goal in 20 straight playoff games but rarely without a penalty) did more harm than good on the second trio. Third-liners Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson could only be relied upon to do so much, while their linemate Chris Kelly was held out with a back injury. And the Merlot line obviously isn’t known for its offense, but it also failed to do its usual job defensively.
On defense, Zdeno Chara broke down after a tremendous series versus the Red Wings, Dougie Hamilton couldn’t realistically be expected to replicate a missing Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk wasn’t perfect, and youngsters Krug (five points, but a minus-4) and more so Kevan Miller had their defensive blunders. Then there’s Matt Bartkowski, who was positively brutal, frequently took penalties, and cost his team numerous goals in his last audition before restricted free agency, yet he was still the speedier and thus better alternative to either Meszaros or Potter. Meszaros spelled Bartkowski for two games out of desperation but, in the end, he and Potter were trade deadline acquisitions barely good enough to be healthy scratches.
All the while, the Canadiens’ additions were there when they needed to be.
While Vanek certainly wasn’t his normal deadly self when facing Boston and often became anonymous for long stretches, he did score four goals and added an assist in the series. His two biggest scores came in a must-win Game 6 in Montreal, his team down 3-2 in the series and coming off their worst effort in Game 5. Vanek’s pair of goals and a shutout from series MVP Carey Price (if you ask me) forced the winner-take-all Game 7.
Back at the Garden, it was the big fourth-liner and Lucic’s pal Weise who helped steal a win for the second time in the series. In Game 3 at the Bell Centre, Weise collected two points and scored the game-winner before then notching the first goal of the game to help set the tempo in Game 7. His Habs never looked back, as the team that scored first in each game posted a 7-0 record in the set. Weise also brought a much needed grit and physicality to the series for a team that previously lacked enough toughness to match Boston’s style of play.
As for Weaver, the veteran was instrumental on the blue-line, never afraid to sacrifice his body, and also contributed on the score-sheet with three points.
The Bruins came awfully close to overcoming their issues and were justifiably favored in the series, but their defensive worries materialized.
It wasn’t just about replacing Seidenberg or McQuaid, who many would argue was perfectly offset by Miller. There was also no one to account for the loss of Andrew Ference, which contributed to a gaping hole in regard to playoff experience.
There’s a reason fans were irate and even media voiced its displeasure with the Bruins’ organization for not acquiring more talent rather than simply adding bodies back in March. The writing was on the wall.
It read: You’re not good enough.
Bruins president Cam Neely was a guest on the “Felger and Massaroti” program on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday and was asked if he had any regrets about his team’s lack of substantial activity at the trade deadline.
“No,” said Neely. “Because in all honesty – I know it’s hard for people to believe – but if you take a look at the transactions that took place, there wasn’t someone to stick into your No. 3 or 4 slot on defense that was available. It just wasn’t there. As much as we missed Dennis [Seidenberg] in a big way, that’s not the reason why we lost the series.”
View it as you wish. The Bruins were hurt. Their top-line went missing. Two perennial playoff contributors looked like minor leaguers compared to what they’d done in the past. The power play hit an outage. The penalty kill was on life support. The puck-luck was as bad as it’s been in years, as evidenced by the magnetism between rubber and iron. And on and on.
But all of those would simply be excuses; a refusal to acknowledge that the Canadiens may not have been the better team overall but certainly was for two weeks.
The reality is the Habs saw their weaknesses, addressed them, and were rewarded. The Bruins – whether because the right deals weren’t available or the price was too high – hoped their strengths would minimize the damage.
It didn’t. So after an ‘A’ for the regular season, the B’s were dealt an ‘F’ in the playoffs. And it was all cemented two months earlier.
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