Different styles, but a great fight
Can’t we just get along? Oh, for the sake of our sweet and sutured memories, let’s hope not.
The Bruins and Flyers open their best-of-seven playoff series with a matinee today at the Garden, and once was the time when a postseason matchup between these squads guaranteed two-handed spears to their collective guts, blindside sucker punches to the jaw, full-scale brawls with gloves, sticks, and sweaters strewn all over the ice.
And then, then, the puck went down for the opening faceoff.
What we have here today, in the kinder, gentler, and cleaned-up-for-network-TV NHL, is a pair of clubs that still pick and choose their nastiness, but for the most part stick to polite, intelligent, standard Original 30 rules of engagement.
The Bruins follow the conservative, defensive posture employed by the vast majority of NHL clubs. They don’t attack with the puck as much as they attack against it. They play the game from back to front, relying on the game’s premier shutdown defenseman in Zdeno Chara, and a rising star in net, Tuukka Rask, to lead the way.
“We like to get a lead,’’ said second-year winger Blake Wheeler, noting that first goals were hard to come by in the series against Buffalo, “and then suffocate teams with our defense.’’
The Flyers were somewhat similar in their approach until they tossed John Stevens from behind the bench early in the season and brought in former Bruins assistant coach Peter Laviolette to direct the end of Broad Street. Now the Flyers are one of the few teams to fuel with higher octane, press the attack, oftentimes risk engaging two forecheckers. The nerve! What once was a standard, aggressive way to play the game is now deemed high-risk/high-reward in an era in which the game is still trying to shed its errant, trap-happy ways.
“Peter wants us on the go,’’ Flyers forward Danny Briere noted this week, “to attack at all times.’’
The same approach netted Laviolette a Stanley Cup in Carolina (’06), but Hurricanes ownership felt attacking hockey, though it made for a Cup, didn’t make for much sense. Really. Not kidding here. Sometimes it makes one think the “H’’ in the NHL should mean, “Huh?’’
To open this series, though, we might see a somewhat muted approach from the Flyers, given that two of their prime offensive assets, Jeff Carter (leading goal scorer in the regular season) and Simon Gagne, each had foot surgery April 23. Their valued blood ‘n’ guts defensive winger, Ian Laperriere, took a Paul Martin slapper to the kisser in Round 1 against the Devils and must sit out while a bruise on his brain dissipates.
The Carter-Gagne-Laperriere losses could have the Flyers: 1. challenged to score and 2. more conservative with Laviolette’s entertaining unleash-the-hungry-dog attack.
Which is to say what we are about to witness won’t be ping-pong sur glace, but it is far more likely to be a series that starts with both sides posturing and parrying rather than crashing and banging. But playoff hockey being what it is, especially with two Cup-starved franchises now within 12 victories of a parade, it’s all but guaranteed to generate some delightful animus.
The Bruins last won in ’72, the Flyers in ’75. Lots of teeth lost, coaches cashiered (25 total), and trips to the Cup final (five for the Spoked-Bs, five for the Flying-Ps) turned into hunts with no treasure.
When the Bruins last won, Tom Johnson was behind their bench and Bobby Orr still in full flight, albeit with a knee already pointed emphatically toward a crash landing. For the Flyers of ’75, Fred Shero was coach, Bernie Parent king, and Bobby Clarke gap-toothed, nasty, and not even 25. Both franchises, winners of the Cup in ’70, ’72, ’74, and ’75, felt they had the keys to the kingdom, hockey hubris that now amounts to a combined 71 years of being locked out.
Today’s Bruins don’t swashbuckle as much as they hang on, trap, survive. The second-lowest scoring team in the NHL this season (Phil Esposito’s Sherwood guitar gently weeps), they made it to Round 2 despite giving up the first goal to Buffalo in five straight games, winning three of them. Unless someone steals the equipment truck and they are forced to play in shower clogs, they will not be blown out of a game. But they likewise won’t run away and hide, unless someone from the NHL hockey operations accounting department asks for full explanation of how they only posted 206 goals in the regular season. The return of Marc Savard, just back from an extended visit to Palookaville, should help perk up the Boston offense.
The current Flyers still show strains of their Broad Street Bullies DNA, with a lingering love of their patented after-the-whistle shove and a resident shift-disturber in Dan Carcillo. But much of that has been channeled by Laviolette into effective and oft-unremitting puck pursuit. They dumped the talented but staid Devils in Round 1 in only five games, leading to coach Jacques Lemaire’s retirement in Newark. “It’s just time,’’ said Lemaire. And the Flyers set the clock.
Renaissance goalie Brian Boucher outplayed Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and the Devils didn’t have a match for 6-foot-6-inch franchise defenseman Chris Pronger (2-3—5 in five postseason games), who, at age 35, is everything the Flyers hoped for when they acquired him from Anaheim last June, then promised him an added $30.45 million.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,’’ said Wheeler. “They’re a tough team to play against. They have a lot of physical players and their whole system is predicated on playing physically.’’
The grinding (Bruins) and the whirring (Flyers) begins today at 12:30 p.m. In days gone by, being in the stands and crowding the glass for warm-ups would have been mandatory, with a piece of soggy Garden pizza held in one hand and a welcome to the Flyers fashioned by the other.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.