Tagged: Canadiens

Julien to Montreal

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A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.

Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.

This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team). 

For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.

Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.

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That Hurts

Well, that was disappointing. I had to take a breather from the Internet for a couple days following my Boston Bruins’ 3-1 defeat in Game 7 at the hands of the hated Montreal Canadiens. It was a great season, but it was a horrible way for it to end. The Bruins got beaten by a team they underestimated, and squandered a great chance to raise the Stanley Cup once again. It wasn’t Pittsburgh waiting for them in the Conference Finals, it was a very ordinary New York Rangers. After that, I’d take my chances with any of the teams left in the West. Instead Montreal if the team moving on, and there is no worse feeling as a hockey fan.

The Canadiens were just better in this series. Their best players were their best players against the Bruins. Carey Price. P.K. Subban. Max Paccioretty. Thomas Vanek. The best contributions for the Bruins came from the likes of Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg, and Matt “FroYo” Fraser, not Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, or David Krejci. It’s not all Krejci’s fault, but the fact that he went without a goal in the playoffs when he’s normally their best playoff scorer is troubling. Brad Marchand is another one who deserves a lot of blame. He, like Krejci, did not score in the playoffs. He’s an agitator. A big part of his job is to get under the skin of the other team and draw penalties, but against a team like Montreal, who isn’t phased by Marchy’s antics because they are a team of rats and weasels, he’s useless if he’s not scoring, especially in a stingily goaltended series where pucks in the back are worth their weight in gold.

Marchand and Krejci aren’t the only ones to blame, though. Peter Chiarelli played it safe at the trade deadline, adding Corey Potter and Andrej Meszaros for depth on defense, but not adding any forward depth, when they could have added Thomas Vanek. Instead, the New York Islanders dealt Vanek, who has had success against Boston his whole career, to Montreal, as the Habs were loading up for a run-in with the Bruins this spring. Chiarelli was looking long-term when they had a short-term chance they should have capitalized on. Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger, much the way the Patriots only have a couple more chances to win the Super Bowl with Tom Brady. The Game 7 defeat this week felt the the type of game the Patriots lose in the playoffs, too. They were in it, but they weren’t scoring, and a player they could have or should have had (Vanek in the Bruins’ case, Wes Welker in the Patriots’ case) is contributing for the other team like every fan feared going in.

What’s really frustrating is that the Habs are not that much better than the Bruins, and looked very beatable in their 7-2 Game 1 home loss against New York on Saturday. The Rangers are a team the Bruins match up much better against, but hopefully they can roll over the Habs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Price looked like Ken Dryden against the Bruins, but looked more like Marc-Andre Fleury against the Rangers. That’s hockey, I guess, and it’s another summer where Bruins fans have to sit there wondering what might have been.

 

Knotted at Two

It took until overtime, but the Boston Bruins finally managed to pepper the net enough for a puck to break through the brick wall that is Carey Price. The B’s and the Montreal Canadiens traded scoring chance after scoring chance, but Price and Tuukka Rask were both playing like goalies from another planet. This second round series is now tied 2-2, with the teams heading back to TD Garden for Game 5 on Saturday. The Bruins needed this game, and an unlikely hero delivered for them. In a series where historical playoff hero David Krejci has struggled mightily, the Bruins needed to get scoring from non-traditional sources, and once again Peter Chiarelli looks like a genius for trading away a star player at the right time.

Matt Fraser, who was traded to Boston from the Dallas Stars last summer as part of the Tyler Seguin Trade (along with Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Joe Morrow) was called up from the AHL affiliate Providence Bruins earlier in the day, to replace Justin Florek on the roster and replace Jordan Caron in the lineup. The 23 year old Red Deer, Alberta native was tasked with playing his first Stanley Cup Playoff game in hostile territory as part of hockey’s most storied rivalry, and if the moment was getting to him, you didn’t know until he started rambling about frozen yogurt to Pierre McGuire after the game (Seriously, the frozen yogurt thing was out of left field. It’s like he was trying to get quoted in Joe Haggerty’s game recap or something). Claude Julien put Fraser on the 3rd line alongside Eriksson and Carl Soderberg, and that line was a force for the entire game.

It was early in overtime when Fraser poked in Price’s rebound of Soderberg’s shot, but the game was tense all the way through. Once again the Bruins got a playoff goal from a guy who didn’t make the team picture, but Fraser is knowing he has a knack for this kind of thing. This spring, he has become the first player to score overtime goals in both the AHL and NHL playoffs in the same year. He was called up from Providence because Boston needed someone who could finish on a very hot, very talented goalie, and he did just that. It was such shrewd “personnel management” that it managed to catch the attention of Bill Belichick on the first day of the NFL Draft.

Besides Matt Fraser fellow third-liners Eriksson and Soderberg, the hero of the game was goalie Tuukka Rask. Up until that point in the series, Tuukka hadn’t played poorly, but he wasn’t stealing games for the Bruins either. Fairly or unfairly, Rask will always be compared to Tim Thomas, and many new Bruins fans see the way Thomas stood on his head and took a Bruins team that was less talented and less deep than this current roster to the Stanley Cup as the benchmark for goaltending in Boston. To some, anything less than what Thomas did is a failure in net. Rask doesn’t make as many highlight reel saves as Thomas, but that’s because he’s a more fundamentally sound goaltender, and does not get caught out of position as much. Last night, Tuukka matched the level that Price had been playing at for Montreal, and the B’s came away with a win in the Bell Centre. They needed this game, and they needed a big boy performance from Tuukka because Price wasn’t letting anything in, and that’s what they got.

Neither team was giving an inch in this game, and that’s been the story of the series through four games. Nothing will be handed to you, so it’s important not to make mistakes. These are two evenly matched teams that hate each other’s guts more than any two teams in the NHL. It’s a best of three series going forward, and both team have proven they can win on hostile ice. It’s far from over, and there’s plenty of stress, frustration, and anguish to be had on both sides of the border in the next week, but I’m sure fans in Boston and Montreal wouldn’t want it any other way.

Days of Future Past

If I were to quantify how much I hate the New York Yankees, and multiply it by how much I hate the Los Angeles Lakers, it would still not be as much as the hate I have for the Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruin find themselves down two games to one to their bitter rivals heading into Game 4 tonight at the Bell Centre. It’s a tough position to be in as a fan, and I can only imagine what it’s like as a player. Whenever these two teams face off against one another, history rears its ugly head.

To give credit where credit is due, Carey Price and P.K. Subban have been unbelievable in this series. Price is starting to look like a young Ken Dryden, who shut down the regular season record setting 1971 Bruins in the first significant playing time of his Hall of Fame career. The B’s won the Stanley Cup in 1970, and again in 1972, but Ken Dryden prevented them from three straight and being a dynasty. Subban is good enough to play with the Habs teams of the 70s as well. His slap shot is filthy, and if he were a Bruin, he’s be a fan favorite in Boston. The Bruins have had their chances, but the Habs have been the team making them pay for their mistakes. The series is far from over, but it’s hard to feel good about all the chances the Bruins have missed.

The Bruins need to get better scoring opportunities. I feel whenever I watch the Bruins that I’m shouting “shoot the puck!” more than anything else. They try to get cute, and everyone tries to make the extra pass rather than just burying it. It’s refreshing to see defensemen like Johnny Boychuk, Torey Krug, and Dougie Hamilton ripping shotts from the blue line. It’s not a high percentage play, but it gives them a chance, and it created rebound and redirect chances in front of the net as well. The Habs have not had as much of a sustained attack, but are ahead in the series because they’ve put the puck in the direction of Tuukka Rask with more regularity. Carey Price is a good goalie, and he was a big part of Canada winning the Gold in Sochi earlier this year, but he’s not Ken Dryden, and he’s not even Tuukka Rask for that matter. Subban has picked his spots, but he’s made Rask pay so far in this series. At some point, the Bruins need to break through and start scoring, but that needs to happen before it’s too late.

If the Bruins lose this series, blame will fall back on the trade deadline. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli did not do as much as he could have at the deadline, while Montreal added Thomas Vanek (who has killed the Bruins his entire career and the Bruins should have pursued) and Dale Weise, who have made significant contributions to the Habs in this series. Instead the Bruins acquired a couple of depth defensemen in the form of Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter. Meszaros played the last two games ahead of Matt Bartkowski, but that’s a move that makes it easy for fans to second guess Claude Julien. Neither of those guys would get a sniff of the ice if Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid were healthy, but that’s out of our control. The B’s could have done more at the deadline, but did not, and it’s come back to bite them this round against the Habs, who were anticipating a showdown with Boston.

If the B’s have any hope of rallying back, they need David Krejci to play the way he usually does in the playoffs. Through eight playoff games, Krejci has yet to record a goal. Krejci, more than Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, is the guy that needs to be at the top of his game for the Bruins to win this time of year. Bergeron and Chara give you the same honest effort every time they are out on the ice, but Krejci is the guy who usually leads the team in scoring in the playoffs. When the Bruins collapsed against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, it was directly correlated with Krejci going down with a season-ending wrist injury. When they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and 2013, Krejci was leading the way on offense. If Krejci can get going, so will Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla. If they pepper the net, maybe Price will look human again. It all starts with David Krejci.

This series is not over by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bruins have their work cut out for them. It might not be Dryden in net for Montreal, or Ray Bourque lacing up for Boston, but it always feels that way. As long as hockey is played the philosophical debate between skill and toughness, between Black and Gold, and Bleu, Blanc et Rouge will rage on. It’s tense, and it’s aggravating, but it’s as good as it gets.

One Series Down

The Boston Bruins have defeated the Detroit Red Wings four games to one. At times it was a tighter series than that, but with another bounce of the puck, it could have been a sweep. The Bruins now get the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

The Red Wings continued their streak of 23 years in the playoffs, but this was by no means a Red Wings team like the ones that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. They still had Zetterberg. They still had Datsyuk. They still had Kronwall. They still had Franzen. They had a lot of youth and inexperience, too. They fought the good fight, but they ran into a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and was in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013.

The 2013-14 Red Wings reminded me a lot of the 2007-08 Bruins. The B’s had been bad in the first two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, but with the hirings of Claude Julien behind the bench and Cam Neely in the front office, the B’s took a big step in the right direction. That team had a good mix of youth and veteran presence, and got strong goaltending from some guy named Tim Thomas, who would win two Vezina Trophies, an Olympic Silver Medal, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Stanley Cup before his tenure in Boston was over. Peter Chiarelli had more veteran leadership in the form of Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, and Marc Savard to go with the aging Bruins mainstays Glen Murray and P.J. Axelsson. They also got good contributions from Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Phil Kessel (who was traded to Toronto in 2009 for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight), and Mark Stuart. Patrice Bergeron missed most of that season due to a severe concussion he suffered in a game against Philadelphia. I still can’t help but wonder how far that team might have gotten if Bergy was healthy in the playoffs.

Claude Julien and P.J. Axelsson at a Bruins game earlier this season.

The 2008 playoff run for the B’s was the start of the run they have been on the past few years. They were the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, and matched up against a #1 Montreal team that nobody in Boston expected them to beat. The Habs were really good that year. In a year when the Celtics won their 17th championship and their first in my lifetime, the Bruins landed back on the map in Boston. That team had a lot to be proud of, and so does this Wings team. It’s a disappointing end for a guy like Daniel Alfredsson who does not have that many years left to win a Cup, much like Murray and Axelsson were in 2008, but there is a lot for Detroit to be excited about with Nyquist, Smith, and Abdelkader joining the party. Mike Babcock will be able to coach those players up and have them learn from this season, much the way Claude did here in Boston.

For the Bruins, it’s good to finish a first round series in less than seven games for the first time since 2010. These are series the Bruins should win, and while they did finish the job in 2011 against Montreal and 2013 against Toronto, there is always a chance that you will fall short like they did against the Washington Capitals in 2012 if you’re taking it to sudden death over time of a series deciding seventh game. The Bruins and their fans have know for a few days now that Montreal is waiting for them when the series is over, as the Habs disposed of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four game sweep. It was reassuring to see the Bruins bounce back from a tough 1-0 defeat in Game 1, and to overcome a 2-0 deficit in Game 4. The scoring has come from many sources, and young players like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Justin Florek, and Jordan Caron have stepped up and put pucks in the net. While the veteran core of Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, and Johnny Boychuk is still there from the 2011 team, it looks a lot different with the young players contributing who were not there before.

The anchor of the Bruins’ success, much like last year, has been goaltender Tuukka Rask. I’ve been a Rask fan since the first time I saw this video from his Providence days five years ago, and was excited when the B’s parted ways with Manny Fernandez to make room for Tuukka behind Tim Thomas. He had an excellent rookie year in 2009-10 and even beat Thomas out for the starting job in the playoffs, that was forgotten by many because of how that season ended (I’d really rather not talk about it again), and because of the historically great season that Timmy had in 2010-11. When Tim Thomas achieved cult hero status in Boston for bringing the Stanley Cup home for the first time since 1972, Rask gained himself many critics and detractors within the fan base for being the young replacement, when he had really been the plan for the future all along. Last year he shut a lot of those critics up, but the Bruins couldn’t finish the job, but it was enough to earn a big payday last summer. After a great showing in Sochi this February, helping Team Finland medal by shutting out Team USA in the Bronze Medal Game, and putting together a phenomenal regular season and has allowed just six goals through five playoff games. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was still playing for a contract.

There is still a long road ahead for the Bruins, but knocking off the Red Wings was an important first step.

Is It Playoff Time Yet?

It’s become almost boring to write about my beloved Boston Bruins because so little has gone wrong as of late. They have been a winning machine for the bulk of the season.

To summarize: they were hot before the Olympics. Patrice Bergeron won his second career Gold Medal. Loui Eriksson won a Silver Medal. Tuukka Rask won a Bronze Medal. They lost two games after the Olympics, but gained a point in one of them. They won 12 games in a row. They lost in a shootout to the Montreal Canadiens. Since then they’ve beaten the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks 3-0, putting last year’s Stanley Cup Finals in the rear view mirror in the process, and the Philadelphia Flyers on the road in a shootout.

I could have written an angry post about how the B’s can’t shake the Habs, and how those gutless-chicken-divers-to-the-north could be the one thing holding them back in the East, but I’m not sure that’s the case. The Bruins dominated that game even strength. If they can stay away from the stupid penalties (which is easier said than done, I realize, given Montreal’s tendency to play for the penalty rather toughing it out even strength), then they can handle Montreal, too.

On every other front things seem good. The Bruins seem like a better team than the one that got to Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, and are in great position to run the table in the Eastern Conference, but that kind of confidence in any of the teams I root for always makes me nervous. I started following sports in the mid-90s, which was perhaps the most futile few years Boston sports fans have ever had to endure. None of the four teams won a championship, and the only Finals appearances were by the Bruins in 1990 and the Patriots in 1997. Neither one really stood a chance to win it. Because of that, I’m almost more comfortable with my teams as underdogs. I know this sounds spoiled, and we have been spoiled with three Super Bowl victories, three World Series titles, an NBA championship and a Stanley Cup championship since 2002, while Buffalo’s best decade yielded four Super Bowl losses and a Stanley Cup Finals loss, and the state of Ohio has not won a professional championship since 1990, but for every big win, there are crushing defeats on the biggest stage, and those hurt so much more. Boston is a city that identifies with its sports teams as closely as any city in North America, and eight titles later, the passion still shows.

The Bruins’ greatest strength is their depth. Tuukka Rask can take the night off, and the team won’t feel any less confident with Chad Johnson between the pipes. They have more able bodied defensemen than can dress each night (and that doesn’t include Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, who have not yet been ruled out for the playoffs), which creates a level of competitiveness that keeps everyone playing their hardest in a time of year where Bruin teams in the past have started to coast. We won’t have to worry about the Bruins having to flip the switch to turn the intensity on this spring, because they’re already there.

This is the first regular season in the Claude Julien Era where I can sense that the team is hungry for more before the playoffs have started. They were so close to the Stanley Cup last year that it’s been eating at them ever since. The summertime acquisition of Jarome Iginla, who was on the Pittsburgh Penguins team that was swept by the B’s last spring, adds another guy who is hungry for the Stanley Cup, and who just so happens to be one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the NHL. Iggy has provided consistency to the B’s top line that I have never seen, and it’s made David Krejci and Milan Lucic into more reliable regular season players than I ever thought they could be.

In the game this past week against Chicago, the Bruins honored the Boston Fire Department, and it was reminiscent of the way the city used sports (particularly hockey and baseball) to heal in the wake of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last April. Boston’s Firefighters were the 1st Star of that game (Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask were 2nd and 3rd, respectively), and the Bruins players really seem to get that this is a great city and a special place, not just another town where you can play hockey and get paid.

Bruins fans have been waiting for the 2014 playoffs as soon as the 2013 playoffs ended with the other team raising Lord Stanley’s Cup on the ice of the TD Garden. It’s a few weeks away, and it still can’t come soon enough. Let’s go.