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Bruins next goal: Exceed expectations

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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It’s a different city now, a vastly different place for hockey, which is both the good and bad of piling up 53 wins and 116 points, and copping the top spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference in the regular season. The Bruins have turned Boston into a hockey town again. The Garden’s ice has its luminous glow back, its good vibration, too.

Although the Bruins may never be considered chic - what self-respecting hockey fan would dare use such a word? - they have recaptured a comfy spot in the city’s crowded, ultra-charged, and oft-fickle sports consciousness. Beginning tomorrow night, with the Capitals visiting Causeway for the 2009-10 season opener, the Bruins will have to deal with something unfamiliar around here: expectations.

“Yeah, you can feel it,’’ said strapping No. 1 left winger Milan Lucic, who arrived in town just 24 months ago, with the Black-and-Gold’s profile shallower than a tidal pool off Castle Island. “If you listen to the radio, if you read the papers, [the media] sets the bar pretty high . . . and the fans here always want the team to perform well every night. They expect a lot from us, the Patriots, the Red Sox, and it’s great to have those expectations pinned high.’’

Great, and perhaps daunting.

Despite the improved publicity and the widely acknowledged puck renaissance, the Bruins remain a team without a Stanley Cup since 1972 and owners of only one playoff series victory in the post-lockout era. After sweeping Montreal, 4-0, in Round 1 last spring, they suffered a vaudevillian pratfall in Round 2 against the Hurricanes. Victimized by their slow start in the series, they limped out of the postseason nine victories short of reclaiming a championship left vacant around here since the days of bell-bottom pants, Nehru jackets, muttonchop sideburns, and Citgo pumps that spilled out “regular’’ gas at 36.9 cents a gallon.

Now coach Claude Julien and his revivified bunch must find their way back to winning with last season’s metronomic regularity. Unlike last year, when many prognosticators figured they wouldn’t so much as land a playoff spot, the Bruins return to work amid lofty praise, even among some national media. For instance, ESPN The Magazine has them pen ciled in for the Cup final, a spot they haven’t reached since 1990. The august Hockey News predicts they’ll finish first again in the East, and lists Zdeno Chara (5), Tim Thomas (13), and Marc Savard (21) high in its annual rankings of the top 50 NHLers.

Even here in Boston, home to what has been a decidedly three-sport bias among the radio and TV media, they now have two radio stations, including the club’s new broadcast partner, 98.5 The Sports Hub, regularly including the Bruins on the daily menu of hash ’n’ slash. How many days before Oprah or Ellen or Conan takes the set wearing a Spoked-B sweater?

“I don’t think my focus is on going after 116 points,’’ cautioned Julien, who gets back to work with last season’s top goal scorer, Phil Kessel, now employed by the Maple Leafs. “I think we just have to have a solid year, focus on what you have to do this year.

“First of all, make the playoffs. That has always been my motto - go into a season not thinking about winning the Stanley Cup. You’ve got to make the playoffs first. If you look at the big picture, it’s too hard.

“I think we really have to put things aside from last year, and the expectations of what everybody thinks, and really get in our bubble and do what we have to do.’’

Aside from the departure of Kessel, dealt to Toronto and signed to a five-year, $27 million deal, offseason changes were few, but potentially significant. Most notably, hard-shooting Derek Morris was hired on (one year/$3.3 million) to provide a back-line power boost, and he’ll begin the season as Chara’s partner on the No. 1 defense pairing and power-play unit. Former Canadien Steve Begin, another free agent signing, accepted a cap-friendly $850,000 for employment as a fourth-line pit bull. And Mssrs. Tuukka Rask (G), Vladimir Sobotka (F), and Johnny Boychuk (D) have been promoted from Providence (AHL).

We’ll find out in the days ahead if the slight reconfiguration will play better, worse, or just the same. Two of those scenarios would be just fine, which is a departure from new seasons gone by. What we know for sure is that the 2009-10 Bruins will be different, not just in personnel, but in style, despite Julien’s attempts to sound as if not much will change.

“You always want to improve, but at the same time, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we were terrible in this area or that area,’ ’’ noted Julien. “If you get 116 points, you were a decent team. Teams that succeed are about doing those little things just a little bit better - paying attention to the details that we always talk about. Because the bottom line is, if you want to analyze last year, if that [Carolina] goal goes our way, we are in the third round, and who knows what can happen from there?

“One goal, a Game 7 overtime goal, made a big difference in our season. What could have been a Cinderella year turned out to be a disappointing finish. So that’s why you have to make sure you don’t overanalyze and don’t put unnecessary pressure on your team for something that very easily could have gone the other way.’’

According to general manager Peter Chiarelli, the emphasis will be on a more aggressive forechecking game. What he saw in the playoffs, he said, were teams slightly hungrier and meaner, more on a win-at-all-cost mission. To get there, and to make it into a third or fourth round, he figures the back end will have to do a better job moving and distributing the puck (see: Morris) and the forwards will have to be more aggressive in puck pursuit (see: Begin, Sobotka and, to an extent, a healthier, fitter Patrice Bergeron) and forechecking.

“A lot of what we are doing is refining what we’ve already got in place,’’ said Chiarelli. “But a lot of it is the mind-set of the team on a day-to-day basis.’’

Details. The little things, potentially leading to a Cup. Harder on the puck, more aggressive on the forecheck, braver and more stubborn around the net. The last two years have set a foundation. Now it’s about the finish work, turning expectation into reality. To the latter point, Mark Recchi, among the game’s best at getting in position atop the crease and tipping pucks home, was brought in at the March trade deadline last season. He’s back for what he says is his last year.

“No. 1, you want the opportunity to win - that’s a huge thing to me,’’ said Recchi, explaining why, at age 41, he is back for more. “This is what you play for, you play to win championships.’’

Should we expect anything less?

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