Harder this time to give champs a pass
Colorado is not among the NHL’s elite, or even rubbing calloused heels and chafed elbows with its broad middle class, which is why the Avalanche picked second overall in the June draft and walked out of St. Paul with a sweet prospect in left winger Gabriel Landeskog. It’s a franchise that has struggled of late, missing the playoffs three of the last five years, leaving it with the promising likes of Landeskog, Matt Duchene, and Ryan O’Reilly.
So why did the team that Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque, and time left behind look so darned good in yesterday’s 1-0 dismissal of the Bruins at the Garden? Well, part of it is the promise of those kids, the savvy scoring touch of veteran Milan Hejduk, and a few dazzling stops by ex-Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov.
However, it is also the fact that the team currently with its fingerprints - and maybe even random bits of DNA and champagne stains - all over the Stanley Cup doesn’t look like it’s quite ready for the 2011-12 season. That’s not alarming. It may not even be concerning. But three games into the 82-game schedule, the defending champions are sporting a 1-2-0 record (all games on home ice), a very spotty intensity level, and only a trace reading on the mojo-o-meter.
“It depends how you show up at the rink,’’ said coach Claude Julien, noting early in his postgame media gab that he could “feel a little too much comfort’’ in the dressing room before the matinee began. “It depends how you wake up in the morning. If you show up at the rink unprepared, it shows.’’
And there it was, for the first time in the post-Cup era. Concern. A touch of consternation, even disappointment. An acknowledgement by the coach that this ain’t good enough. Julien left the building late in the afternoon hinting that his alleged No. 1 line - David Krejci centering Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton - might have to be shaken up a bit. Horton failed to land the one shot on net he took yesterday and has amassed a total of one shot in 45:30 of ice time in three games. He was equally ineffective at times last season, even during the playoffs, which is not the kind of consistency Julien & Co. hoped for in the return of their budding power forward. The top line stands 1-1-2 through three games.
It was easy to give the Bruins a pass for their opening-night fog, a 2-1 loss to the Flyers that followed a sensational, and no doubt emotionally draining, Cup banner ceremony. They were significantly better, though not sensational, two nights later in a 4-1 win over the Lightning. Then came yesterday, their third game in 4 1/2 days, and it didn’t take long to wonder if they would file suit against the Avalanche for theft of intellectual property - the filching of the trademarked Spoked-B work ethic.
“We have to be ready for the drop of the puck,’’ said alternate captain Patrice Bergeron, noting that the Bruins have to expect all clubs to lift their effort this season against the defending champs. “I felt that way last year when we played Chicago [the ’10 Cup champ]. We should be ready every night, expect the best out of every team.’’
This is no surprise. Win a Cup, stage a parade that draws 1.5 million screaming, Cup-deprived Black-and-Gold fans, raise a banner with the help of legends Bobby Orr and Milt Schmidt, and people tend to notice. The Avalanche surely did, and it showed in their quick, deliberate, pay-no-attention-to-the-champ-behind-the-curtain play. The 29 other members of the Original 30 will be equally motivated.
That’s not to say the Bruins came away from last season as boastful braggarts. Their only real misstep was making a team booze junket to Foxwoods, which only became a problem when the resultant six-figure bar tab became a little too public. Every Cup champ is assured the best from the other side night in and night out the following season, which is what makes winning the Cup as much a burden as an honor. That’s true, Foxwoods or no Foxwoods.
“Every team is going to be like that,’’ agreed defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who was on the ice for Hejduk’s goal and was actually hindered on the play by a linesman (seems the guys in stripes didn’t get the memo about bringing their best in games involving the Cup champ). “They want to compare themselves to us. They are fired-up to play us. Hey, every time we’ve played a champ, that’s how it’s been for us. We’re not going to be surprising anyone this year, that’s for sure.’’
Correct. The Bruins are in Raleigh tomorrow night and the sad sack Hurricanes will be waiting for them like it’s a Game 7. Ditto Saturday in Chicago when they face the one-championship-removed Blackhawks. In 29 cities, NHL pocket schedules all have the BOS dates circled in red ink. The Bruins are the draw, the champ, the team with the hardware in hand and the target on its players’ 20 backs, backup goalie included.
Right now, with 79 games to go, the trick for the team that went 39 years between championships will be to snap right back to attention. Julien gave them the first three games to puff out their chests a little, ease back into the workaday grind, get reacquainted with the bumps and knocks that come with the job.
Like the Cup parade and the rest of the trappings, all that is over now. Done. The Colorado team that poked them in the eye yesterday went 105-119-22 the last three seasons and has won only two playoff games since the spring of 2008. Over the course of 60 minutes, the Avalanche outscored them, outchanced them, outshot them (36-30), outhustled them, and simply outplayed them.
We’re not talking a 1980 Team USA-CCCP upset here. But we are talking about a team that said it would know better, act accordingly, and not fall into the trap of lethargy that has kept every champion from repeating since the Red Wings doubled in ’97 and ’98. Three Xs off the schedule, and only one ‘W’ for their bother. They didn’t want to start this way. We’ll find out very quickly if they’re in it to act like champs right from the start.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at GlobeKPD.