After an epic playoff meltdown last season, the Bruins’ core is back, eager to advance past that awful memory
Mark Recchi sat in his stall. He was wearing his full gear and a look as blank as an empty canvas.
Zdeno Chara was in his corner, wearily peeling off his shirt. Johnny Boychuk approached his partner.
“It’s going to be OK,’’ Boychuk said. “I’ll be back. We’re all going to be back.’’
It was May 14, 2010. The Bruins had completed Game 7 of the second round against Philadelphia. Not many people have forgotten the outcome.
Nearly 11 months have ticked off the calendar since the Bruins gagged up a 3-0 series edge and a 3-0 Game 7 lead over the Flyers. There has been some turnover. Dennis Wideman, Matt Hunwick, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Stuart were traded. Marc Savard is still suffering from post-concussion syndrome.
But the core group remains: Chara, Recchi, Tim Thomas, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic. As their punishment for their participation in one of the organization’s darker moments, these Bruins bear bruises — time has allowed them to fade slightly — that only a deep postseason march completely will erase.
“We entered this year coming off that disappointing end against Philadelphia,’’ general manager Peter Chiarelli said during a conference call yesterday when asked what would be a successful season. “That’s been an underlying theme of the year — to be able to respond and be able to build from that. The obvious answer is to get past the second round. But it’s more than that. It’s about how we play, how we compete. There are a lot of variables that go into a playoff run. I expect us to have a successful run.’’
The playoffs begin Thursday night at the Garden against the Canadiens, and nobody knows the mental impact of last year’s demise. But to counter any ill effects, management and the coaching staff have built a club that is better equipped to handle the playoff grind.
■ Two goalies are better than one. Last year, after March 15, Thomas appeared in only three of the Bruins’ 14 regular-season games. One was on March 29, when Thomas was pulled after allowing three goals in a 3-2 home loss to Buffalo. Another was the regular-season finale against Washington. Thomas didn’t play at all in the playoffs.
Thomas didn’t merit more ice time than he was given, as he had been fighting a torn labrum in his left hip. Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask was proving to be a go-to goalie. Rask was sharp in the first round against Buffalo. But he slipped in the second round because of the physical and mental burden he had to assume.
This season, Thomas is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy for the second time in three years. But Thomas hasn’t had to assume a significant workload. While he appeared in 57 games, Rask was a solid understudy in 29 appearances. In theory, Thomas should enter the first round fresh. If he falters or suffers an injury, Rask will be ready for action.
“I feel really confident with our goaltending,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “It’s certainly not going to be an issue. Tim’s had an unbelievable year. Tuukka’s played extremely well here in the second half of the season. We’re back to having two really good, dependable goaltenders. So I feel really comfortable with that.’’
■ A go-to No. 1 line. Just three shifts into his Game 3 workload against Philadelphia, Krejci was smoked by Mike Richards. He suffered a dislocated right wrist, ending his season. Krejci’s loss helped to torpedo the playoff run.
But the Bruins’ top line wasn’t at full strength before Krejci’s injury. Lucic was limited to 50 games (9-11—20) because of a broken finger and a sprained ankle. In the second-to-last regular-season game, he aggravated his ankle sprain. Lucic logged only two assists in the first round. He was stronger against the Flyers, when he scored five goals and had two assists.
By Game 7, however, Lucic was skating alongside Savard and Miroslav Satan. Savard wasn’t up to playoff speed. Game 7 would be Satan’s final NHL appearance.
This season, Lucic, Krejci, and Nathan Horton have emerged as the club’s most dangerous offensive line. Lucic and Krejci led the Bruins with 62 points each. Lucic became only the 10th NHL player since 2004-05 to record 30 goals, 30 assists, and 100 penalty minutes.
Horton is the wild card. Game 1 will be the first time Horton appears in an NHL playoff game.
■Good health. The Bruins remain without Savard, their best playmaker. But other than Savard, the team has been fortunate to escape injuries.
By Game 7 last year, Krejci, Seidenberg, and Marco Sturm were unavailable. Because of those injuries, too many Bruins were playing out of position. Daniel Paille, a career fourth-liner, was on the second line with Bergeron and Recchi. Vladimir Sobotka, playing through a shoulder injury that would require offseason surgery, was the No. 3 center. Steve Begin and Trent Whitfield were skating on the fourth line.
This time, the fourth line might be the hottest threesome heading into Game 1. Paille, once a regular healthy scratch, scored three goals and had two assists in the last seven games. Gregory Campbell has been the most consistent fourth-line center under Julien’s watch. Shawn Thornton has performed his usual dirty work as the No. 4 right wing.
It’s not all roses for the Bruins. So far, Tomas Kaberle has been a downgrade from Wideman. The power play is a weakness. Injuries are almost sure to strike. The stink from last season’s meltdown remains.
“It’s more of a motivational thing than anything else,’’ Thornton said of last year’s humiliation. “It’s probably in the back of the mind. It’s not up front, that’s for sure.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.