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Julien behind the 8-ball

Bruins coach is on thin ice if he doesn’t get that many playoff wins

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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WILMINGTON — The Bruins begin their playoff run tomorrow night, and, realistically, the over-under for Claude Julien is eight. This is Julien’s fourth postseason behind the Boston bench, and anything short of eight victories will put him in a very precarious spot, pointed directly to the unemployment line.

It’s time — time for the Bruins to deliver, and for Julien to get them to finish the job.

In three playoff runs under Julien, the Bruins have exited each time in a Game 7, coming up short against Montreal in the opening round in 2008, against Carolina in Round 2 of ’09, and then against the Flyers in Round 2 last May when they frittered away a 3-0 series lead. Julien has a system, a good one, easy for players to comprehend and execute, but it has fallen short when it matters most, especially for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1972.

Asked after his club’s workout yesterday if he felt he is now coaching for his job, Julien unflinchingly said, “Not at all. That hasn’t changed. I’m coaching like every other year, so that part of it doesn’t change at all. You don’t come in here worrying about yourself. In the playoffs, you come in here worrying about winning a Stanley Cup.

“So it’s certainly not even in the back of my mind.’’

What would anyone expect him to say? That he knows the noose is around his neck? That he has his résumé ready for an e-mail blast to Sunrise, St. Paul, and Ottawa?

Julien is right about where Brian Sutter stood after three years behind the Boston bench. Very similar in coaching style and overall approach, Sutter bombed out in his first playoff season in Boston, swept by the Sabres. The following year, in the ’94 playoffs, with Al Iafrate brought aboard at the trade deadline, Sutter’s club edged the Habs in Game 7 of the first round, then fell to the Devils, 4-2. When the following spring ended in a first-round loss again to the Devils, 4-1, Sutter was sent packing.

There are only so many kicks at the can before it’s the coach who gets kicked in the can.

In theory, this is the best and healthiest team Julien has had in his four years. Only one problem with that theory: It’s not true. How easily everyone has forgotten about Marc Savard, the club’s No. 1 center, who played only 25 games this season before exiting in January with his second concussion in less than 10 months. And for the six weeks he was in the lineup, Savard contributed but 2-8—10, both his skating and stick skills diminished. It’s a good bet that the 33-year-old pivot has played his last game.

So if this were, say, Julien’s first or second playoff run, he would enter with everyone well aware and understanding of the Savard caveat.

But in part because he was able to deliver a 103-point season, win the Northeast Division, and make everyone forget about how hard life can be without a No. 1 center, Julien stands poised to pay the price if his team can’t squeeze out another eight wins or more.

“I think everyone knows what’s at stake here,’’ said Julien. “I think we’ve got a pretty good hockey team that we certainly feel can compete for the Stanley Cup, and that hasn’t changed, either.

“We felt we’ve had it a few years now, and things happen along the way, and as I’ve often said, there are 29 teams at the end of the year that are disappointed. We don’t want to be one of those teams this year. We want to be the team that’s celebrating at the end and that’s going to be our approach.’’

The downside to Julien’s approach is the predictability of his X’s and O’s, his lack of in-game adjustments. The very things the players depend on, and deliver on consistently, are the things that have kept them from advancing beyond Round 2.

All 30 teams know each other’s tendencies. That’s the reality of the video age. Julien’s roll-four-lines approach, along with his steadfast reluctance to pull trios apart when they’re not clicking on a particular night, has led to playoff failure.

The added worry for Julien is that the power play, expected to improve with the arrival of the velvet-handed Tomas Kaberle in late February, has been dysfunctional the last six weeks.

General manager Peter Chiarelli and team president Cam Neely took a logical, calculated risk in acquiring Kaberle. Without a No. 1 center to be had in the market (remember, Brad Richards remained in Dallas), they opted to shore up the back end to mitigate the sting of Savard’s loss.

Kaberle has by no means been a disaster, but there is no denying that the power play, humble before his arrival, has delivered roughly half the rate since he took up residence. In other words, it has been bad, plus 50 percent.

If the Bruins are knocked out in Round 1 or 2 and the power play has muddled along at 8-11 percent efficiency, then it surely will underscore Julien’s dismissal.

“I think our guys have to . . . it’s not all about the coach, let me put it this way,’’ said Julien. “You have to expect that your players are professional enough that they know what’s at stake and that they prepare. And as a coach, all you can do is make that preparation as good as you can get it.

“At the end of the day, when the puck is dropped, they’re the ones that are performing. So I am not putting all the onus on them, but I am saying this is where good playoff teams and teams that win . . . you’ve heard it all along, players really have the right mind-set. I feel our team does, and now it’s up to us to show it and prove it.’’

True enough, it’s the players who play. But Julien is the one paid to see they play right, and in this town, that means playing with passion, with purpose, and without the mental faux pas that delivered the stinkbomb in Game 5 of the Philly series last year, or the one in Game 7 that had Savard staying on the ice after flashing his stick for Vladimir Sobotka to jump off the bench. It doesn’t get much worse around here than the words “too many men on the ice.’’

For the most part, these have been four successful seasons on Julien’s watch. His teams have averaged 45 wins and 101 points and have gone 17-14 in the playoffs, though all that truly counts in the postseason is series won and lost (2-3).

The Garden is full again, more people are engaged in the TV and radio broadcasts, and the business of Spoked-B Inc. is prosperous. He helped bring stability and consistency to an all-but-forgotten franchise.

But all that really counts for Julien is what happens over the next series, maybe two. He doesn’t have to go home a complete winner, but he has to get at least to the Eastern Conference finals. If he doesn’t, then he’s going home to stay.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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