Your most recent memory of the Boston Bruins may very well be of Montreal rookie goaltender Carey Price posting a shutout in Game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Montreal’s 5-0 win sent Boston packing in a series that wasn’t even supposed to be close. And as much as a first-round playoff exit isn’t normally cause for applause, it marked a step in the right direction for a franchise that hasn’t advanced to the second round since 1998-99.
Take into consideration the eighth-seeded Bruins went into the playoffs with the third-worst penalty kill (78.6 percent) in the NHL, only to shut down the Canadiens’ league-leading power-play unit (24.1 percent) throughout the series, allowing only three goals on 33 Montreal power plays (90.9 percent).
“I like the way we finished last year,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “The way our penalty kill handled Montreal’s power play was very encouraging for us. At the same time, we had some players that stepped up.”
Most of those players are back to carry that momentum into 2008-09. Glen Metropolit, Glen Murray, Peter Schaefer and Alex Auld are the only players from the everyday playoff roster not to return, meaning last year’s finish remains fresh on Causeway Street.
“Last year was very positive,” said Julien. “But you always have to be careful you don’t get carried away with that, because the last time I looked, we got bumped out in the first round. We can be happy with some of the things we did last year, but definitely not satisfied.”
It was clear that the Bruins needed to add a scoring threat in the offense. They finished last season 24th in the league with only 206 regular-season goals.
Enter Michael Ryder.
Crossing enemy lines, Ryder signed a three-year, $12 million contract with Boston over the summer after a down year in Montreal in 2007-08. Ryder saw a decrease in ice time, which led to a decrease in production.
After two consecutive 30-goal seasons with the Canadiens, Saku Koivu’s right-hand man finished last season with only 14 goals and 17 assists. His average on-ice time also fell from 16:17 to 13:15 per game.
Ryder says his drop-off had only to do with his minimal ice time, but clearly there was a falling-out with Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau. Ryder was a healthy scratch for Games 4, 6, and 7 of last year’s series against the Bruins and didn’t dress the entire second round against Philadelphia.
“When you don’t really know what’s going on, then it’s pretty tough to know if you’re doing things right or if you’re doing things wrong,” Ryder said of his fourth and final season in Montreal. “When nobody really communicates with you, it’s tough to actually figure it out.”
Carbonneau and Ryder didn’t talk that much last season, but the relationship with his new coach is as strong as their history. From juniors to Montreal to Boston, Julien has been a mentor for Ryder. He said he expects his new right winger to play the way he did when they were together in Montreal.
Ryder scored 25 goals under Julien during his rookie season in 2003-04. He followed that with back-to-back 30-goal seasons. Of course, he was playing with Koivu then. But Julien said he believes his new centerman will be just as good a replacement.
That’s where Marc Savard comes in.
“I think everybody noticed that Michael likes to shoot the puck and Savard likes to give it,” said Julien.
“He likes passing the puck,” said Ryder with a smile, sitting in front of his new locker at the TD Banknorth Garden after the first official day of training camp. “He can really pass the puck, that’s for sure. And I like shooting, so it’s a good combination.
“I already have [last season] put behind me,” he added. “It was a tough year, but now it’s a fresh start, and I just have to make sure I work hard and get back to where I was.”
Looking at the list of free agents this past offseason, you certainly didn’t see Patrice Bergeron’s name anywhere. But having been out of action since Oct. 27 of last year with a severe concussion, Bergeron can rejuvenate a struggling offense with his mere presence on the ice.
“I like to refer to Bergie as a huge free-agent signing,” said Savard. “We didn’t have him last year, and if he was in the free-agent market, he’d be the best one out there. So to get him back is a huge lift, and he’s going to help on the penalty kill and the power play.”
Bergeron saw plenty of ice time on the power play during the preseason, reclaiming his usual man-advantage position on the point.
“I miss having him over there,” said Savard of the power play. “We work the puck so well together through the seams, so it’s going to be exciting to get back on the ice and into a game with him.”
And in case you were worried about his recovery, rest assured that Bergeron is completely done with the doctors and is 100 percent healthy heading into the regular season.
Bergeron looks primed to get back to his 70-plus-point form. He recorded one goal and five assists in six preseason games, including a shoot out goal in Sunday’s 5-4 win in the preseason finale against the Washington Capitals.
“I’m ready for it,” said Bergeron. “I don’t feel I need to prove anything to myself. I know I’m the same guy, same player. I worked out all summer to get my strength back, and here I am and I feel good.”
As for his physical game, Bergeron has been taking part in full contact drills since last year’s playoff series against Montreal, so don’t look for him to be shying away from the corners.
“I don’t think he’s really fazed about taking hits,” said Julien. “It’s a year old now, and he’s been through some battling drills and some hitting drills, so it’s not like he’s going to be hit for the first time in a game.
“I know you guys are going to say it’s not the same in practice,” he added. “But he took some hits last year while he was practicing with us in the playoffs that if they were to have hit him any harder, he would’ve had another concussion.”
Defense wins championships
The Bruins signed Dennis Wideman to a multiyear contract extension over the summer, making the defensive corps identical to the one the team had at last season’s finish.
Wideman was the No. 2-scoring defenseman on the Bruins last year, recording career bests with 13 goals and 23 assists. The team’s leading defensive scorer, Zdeno Chara, also returns with high expectations. Chara is coming off left shoulder surgery (labrum) but seems ready to kick it into high gear.
After beginning training camp on a day-to-day basis, Chara had two goals and an assist in the final three preseason games. Although there are still some improvements to make, the captain said he believes it’s a lot easier this time around with mostly the same faces.
“One of the things we have to improve is to have our defensemen more involved in supporting the attack and, at the same time, being in good position defensively,” said Chara. “Last year we were kind of buying into the system. Now, everybody should know what we were playing last year, build on what we were doing and follow that step.”
With the additions of rookie winger Blake Wheeler and veteran Stephane Yelle, and the return of a healthy Manny Fernandez in goal along with returning All-Star Tim Thomas, the Bruins have to be happy with the organization’s depth to start the season.
“It shows that there’s something positive happening,” said Julien. “We were really pleased with the direction that the team took. The direction is one thing, but the outcome has to be better. We think that the direction we’re taking and with the adjustments that we’ve made, the outcome should be better this year.
“There’s obviously a lot of competition [in Boston] with other sports teams that have done really well. We want to be part of that group. In order to be part of that group right now, I think we have to get better. We have to be cautious looking back on last year and sitting on that, and thinking it was great because it wasn’t. It was good, not great.”
Whether or not the Bruins will ever share in the glory of Boston’s championship run remains to be seen, but their most anticipated attempt in recent years begins tonight in Colorado.
This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports