Shadows of themselves
Seasons changed, and so have Bruins
If there is a Bruins fan at your kitchen table this morn, he or she is probably longing not for the warm, sunny days around the corner, but for the cold and bluster of December and January, when the local NHL chapter dreamed of four rounds of playoff glory and a rollicking Stanley Cup parade in June.
Not quite the spring we anticipated, is it? Just about as Punxsutawney Phil crawled back into his hole (was that a Spoked-B on Phil's knit cap?), the Bruins' season went straight down there with him.
The Devils, on Causeway Street this afternoon, were just another speck in Boston's rear-view mirror around Groundhog Day, back when times were good for the Black and Gold, when one win followed another followed another, like so many Feb. 2's. The Bruins were on course to set a franchise record for points in a season, lock in home ice for at least three rounds of the playoffs, and force the shutdown of www.pleasesellthebruins.com.
Now? The Devils and Capitals have eaten up much of Boston's cushion in the East standings, with a combination of their own blistering play and Boston's lackluster, if not frightening, performance - including recent losses to tattered orphans Phoenix and Los Angeles. On Friday, general manager Peter Chiarelli dismissed any notion of firing coach Claude Julien, who was 79 games (and 102 points) into his lone season behind the Devils bench in 2006-07 when GM Lou Lamoriello kicked the milking stool out from under him.
That's good for Julien, and good for Chiarelli, too, because even though coaching can always be called into question (unless the coach happens to be Scotty Bowman), Julien has not been the problem during the current miseries (six wins in 19 games).
What, has someone been waiting for Julien and crew (including the perpetually censored Craig Ramsay, Geoff Ward, and Doug Houda) to send in a set of secret plays from the sideline? Wrong sport for that.
Maybe he should change the rotation? Well, Julien has done that, with the forwards and defensemen, and it was encouraging to see him finally redeploy Matt Hunwick on defense Thursday night. Hunwick is hardly Paul Coffey, but his skating skill and hockey sense provide a slightly different look to a very predictable Boston game plan.
Frankly, I've taken to thinking of Hunwick as the canary in the coal mine, which is to say when he isn't used, I think Julien, a conservative coach, is being too conservative for his own (and the team's) good. When he does use him, I get the feeling Julien feels he is being somewhat desperate.
Hunwick is a rookie and will make mistakes. But he should be in the lineup, now more than ever, because predictability plays into the opponent's hands, and it also works against the competition for jobs within a roster.
Hiring Julien has been one of the best decisions Chiarelli has made since taking over in June 2006. Now isn't the time to tinker with success.
The Bruins had a deal cooking on trade deadline day to bring Keith Tkachuk here, the Blues hoping to land Phil Kessel in the swap (with David Perron the added enticement to come here). These last six weeks have underscored Boston's need to add size at center, which the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Tkachuk would have addressed.
By NHL standards, Boston's top three pivots (Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci) are small. Clever and skilled, but about 2 inches short and 15 pounds light. Of late, Krejci has been Lilliput little (24 games, 3-8 -11). Bergeron has been much better (3-9 -12 in the last 16 games). Savard's game has been pretty good all year, though mediocre of late. He must pick it up considerably if there's any hope of a decent playoff run. And if Krejci's game stays flat, that alone could be enough to scuttle any postseason success.
The back line was supposed to get better with the addition of Steve Montador. He could still help. If he had been plugged in here in December or January, he probably would be heralded now as a brilliant pickup. Overall, though, it's a group that needs a mobility-and-jump infusion, something more than the trusted, gritty hand that Montador brings to fill out a No. 3 pairing.
As for goaltending, that's all Tim Thomas now, and it's the least of their concerns. Manny Fernandez made himself a footnote with his erratic play March 8 at Madison Square Garden.
This is not a team that needs a new coach, and the parts are the parts, the same ones that were almost good enough 2-4 months ago to run away and hide. But it is a team that needs a surge now in its compete level (read: effort) and an attitude adjustment. Skill got them to a point, but they then turned a little lazy, and that led to confusion. Lazy and confused are the left hook and right uppercut that lead to quick KOs.
They have to play bigger and they have to play dirtier and nastier, which is always what makes for playoff success. This is a team with enough goods to extend the season into June. What the Bruins must find now is an inner anger, an emotion that will rain down on their heads in sheets and buckets, or else they've turned 2008-09 into nothing but a tease.
A read on the Charlie cardsCharlie Jacobs, the Bruins' executive vice president, met Thursday at NHL headquarters with John Collins, the league's top marketing guy, and came away with added hope that the league will stage its annual outdoor game here on Jan. 1, 2010.
"Here" could be Fenway Park, but it also could be Gillette Stadium.
"There's an upside to both venues," noted Jacobs. "Fenway, of course, has the intimacy of the park itself, while Gillette would be without some of the seating restraints of a baseball park."
Gillette, with nearly double the capacity of Fenway, would stand to generate at least double the revenue. However, would upward of 70,000 puck lovers make the journey to Foxborough to see a hockey game, no matter how rare the experience? If the Canadiens were the opposition, perhaps. Anyone else, even if it were the Rangers, might not entice enough out-of-towners.
According to the Sports Business Journal, by the way, the University of Michigan (once with Aaron Ward and Matt Hunwick on its roster), will play two outdoor games in the 2009-10 season, one at Wisconsin Feb. 6, the other at Ann
Other Jacobs updates:
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.