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On hockey

Once again, odds not in their favor

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 6, 2008

The Bruins are going to the playoffs, which is something we used to say around here every October, before the first puck was dropped on a new NHL season.

Oh, the things we once took for granted. You know, like 99-cents-a-gallon gasoline, the joy of a daylong read of the Sunday paper (first dibs on the comics!), that syrupy sweet last drop from the 6 1/2-ounce bottle of Coke.

Time marches on, and for the better part of 15 years, it has trampled all over the Bruins, and the dreams of their fans. But here they are, poised anew for a Cup run, and with their decades-long nemesis in Montreal no doubt just delirious to see them back. No doubt the team printer for Les Glorieux worked into the wee hours this morn, banging out "Bonjour, Bruins!" posters to paste to every lamppost in town.

The Canadiens, in case you hadn't heard, thumped the Bruins to the tune of 8-0 during the regular season, and it took the Bruins until the seventh game of the series just to stop slipping on every banana peel the Habs dropped in their skating lanes. The series had all the feel of yesteryear, back in the days when an irate Harry Sinden would jump from his seat in the Forum press box, tug on his tie, and exclaim, "Death . . . taxes . . . and first penalty in the Forum."

The setting now (with Game 1 likely to be Thursday) is the much bigger and fancier Bell Centre, but the Habs once more will be billed near-prohibitive favorites.

"It's a great challenge for us," said veteran center Glen Metropolit, among the club's sweetest finds during this mini-renaissance of a season. "We know we can compete with them, but we have to stick to our game plan, get the puck in deep . . . and, hey, it's the playoffs, and you have to go through the top teams, or the teams that are higher in the standings."

For as hard as they worked to make it to the playoffs, the Bruins had little time to savor the moment. They clinched the night before, in game No. 81 of the season, with their 2-1 win at Ottawa. Less than 24 hours later, they were back on Causeway Street, and it was clear from the first puck drop that they were emotionally spent, not just from the win over the Senators, but from a six-month run that too often had their best players knocked out of the lineup.

"I'm going to be honest with you," coach Claude Julien said soon after the 3-0 season-ending loss to the Sabres. "There are teams out of the playoffs right now that, on paper, people will say are a lot better than the Boston Bruins. Well, they weren't better than the Boston Bruins when it came down to team play."

Julien, though he deflects credit to his players for the team play, helped to reassemble a shattered club with a very simple, accountable, defense-oriented game plan. Why are the Bruins in the playoffs? First and foremost because of that solid game plan, which the players followed most nights to a T (not counting the half-dozen games they flew off to parts unknown when facing the Habs).

And backing that game, most nights, was Tim Thomas, too often dismissed throughout the league as some Euro-trained misfit, or mongrel, who only remained on the job because Manny Fernandez, hired over the summer as the would-be No. 1, literally buckled at the knees and required surgery in December. Truth is, if not for Thomas, no matter how thorough the game plan, the Bruins would have been DNQ fodder by the start of March.

Watch how the pre-series hype rolls out this week. Carey Price, Montreal's 20-year-old sensation in net, will be fashioned as Patrick Roy Redux by the time Game 1 arrives. Price is big, 6 feet 3 inches and 226 pounds, and here in his rookie year he has lived up to the billing that made him the No. 5 pick overall in the 2005 draft.

Thomas, both in Montreal and in much of the North America media, will be fashioned as some glorified backup plucked from the dunk tank of a Helsinki country fair. Never mind that he entered last night with a .921 save percentage, fourth best in the league, and has ranked among the leaders in that category all season. Thomas doesn't have the pedigree, and with his 34th birthday a little more than a week away, he's not about to have one written into his birth certificate. However, he does stop the puck, more often and better than most people believe. Secret weapon, no, but not a second-class citizen, either.

What the Bruins will have most to fear is not what is in their net, but what is in their hands. They scored no goals last night, only two the night before, only two before that (shootout loss at New Jersey), and only one before that (overtime loss at Buffalo). In all, they were 1-1-2, and outscored, 9-5, in their final four games of the season. They will go as far as systematic defense and goaltending carry them.

"Unfortunately, it gives us a team identity of all defense," summarized Julien, "and I still think when we're on our game, we forecheck well . . . when we play well, we get 30 shots or more and are still a good offensive team. Maybe we don't score as easily as some teams do, but I think they saw the results of what it can do for you, as a whole."

Unfortunate, perhaps, but true. Defense got them out of the mess that was 2006-07. Defense got them upright and taking fluids. Defense and goaltending will determine what is left of their season from here.

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