Fans of the Boston Bruins find themselves in a familiar position tonight: in a deciding seventh game of a playoff series. It’s not a comfortable position, but it’s one they end up in at least once a year, it seems. Since Claude Julien took over as head coach of the B’s, Boston was bounced by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round in seven games in 2008, by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round in 2009, by the Philadelphia Flyers after being up 3-0 in the second round series in 2010, and by the Washington Capitals in 2012. Only in 2011, when Julien’s team won game sevens against the Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Vancouver Canucks on the road to Boston’s first post-Watergate Stanley Cup Championship, did they ever win any of these winner-take-all games. While the 2011 season was great and will always be one of my fondest memories as a sports fan, I am in no way comfortable about the prospect of a deciding seventh game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If you look at the Bruins 2013 roster, there are very few changes from the Stanley Cup winning roster of two years ago. Tyler Seguin has replaced Michael Ryder as the streaky frustrating goal scorer whose talent should yield better stats, Jaromir Jagr has replaced Mark Recchi as the ridiculously old relic from the early-90s Pittsburgh Penguins who can somehow still hold his own against younger NHL talent, and Wade Redden has replaced Tomas Kaberle as the veteran defenseman brought in at the trade deadline in a move that excited the Bruins players and front office way more than it did the fans. The biggest change from 2011 to 2013 has been in net.
Tim Thomas is not walking through that door…in fact, I’m not sure he’s leaving his bunker, but Tuukka Rask, who hails from Finland but looks like he may have grown up in Whoville, shares Thomas’ knack for stopping the puck. Significantly younger, bigger, and more fundamentally sound than Timmy, Rask was expected to be the starting goalie in 2011 before Thomas ended up having a record setting bounce-back season. When Thomas got hurt in the 2009-10 season, Rask assumed the starting duties as a rookie. Tuukka’s performance in the first playoff round against the Buffalo Sabres that year impressed a lot of people. He absolutely stood on his head and outlasted USA Olympic hero Ryan Miller (who also won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie that season) and carried the offensively challenged Bruins to a six game series win. That was great, but was largely forgotten because of the second round collapse of historical proportions against the Flyers.
A lot of factors went into the Bruins choking away that series: David Krejci’s broken wrist stifled the Bruins offensive momentum, Marc Savard had no business being out on the ice that soon after his concussion, and career grinder Daniel Paille was playing on the 1st line by the end of the series, but almost all was forgiven when the Bruins won the Cup the following spring. Well, all but Tuukka Rask, apparently, who did not play a single minute of that playoff tournament as Tim Thomas carried the team to the promised land. Now, a lot of fans are more worried about Tuukka blowing another playoff series than they are about the team’s inability to score. If the Bruins fail, Rask will certainly take some heat from fans, but that is not fair to him, nor is it fair to let those who have failed around him off the hook because they played during the Cup Run.
Tuukka Rask is the reason the Bruins are playing tonight. With a lesser goalie in net, the Bruins would be playing golf instead of making every hockey fan in New England nervous tonight. Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand have disappeared since the start of the playoffs. Chris Kelly and Rich Peverly disappeared in the regular season. Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton have not given a consistent effort night in and night out all years. Claude Julien has been too slow at times to make the necessary adjustments. Peter Chiarelli has re-signed the majority of the roster before they’ve even hit free agency, transforming a once young and hungry team into a comfortable and complacent team that makes it seem like winning the Stanley Cup two years ago absolves them from any lapses in play going forward. No one can blame Tuukka for any of those things. He’s just the guy that stops the puck.
Tonight will probably go down to the 3rd period or overtime like the Bruins usually do in these games. If they win, they live to fight another series, against either the Capitals or New York Rangers. If they lose, it is more of the same, and further proof that the Stanley Cup season was a fluke and not the start of a trend. Bruins president Cam Neely may want to consider some serious personnel changes. Maybe the coach should go, maybe the GM, maybe half the roster. The Bruins had their best season when everyone was on the hot seat after an embarrassing elimination the year before. We won’t know until it happens, and that’s why they play the game. I’d rather see this team win and stay together, but winning is more important than staying together.