The 2011-2012 Boston Bruins season is over. There will be no repeat Stanley Cup championship. There will be no parade throughout the streets of Boston on duck boats. There will be no champagne and beer flowing from Lord Stanley’s hearth. And there will be no banner raising ceremony in the fall when the team reconvenes for their 2012-2013 edition.
There are varying degrees of emotions running through the streets and sewers of New England today. Some are sad, some are angry, some are moving on. Some are happy with the performance of the team this season through the odds, some are apologetic for the way it ended. But no matter what anyone thinks, says, or does, the NHL Playoffs are rolling on, and the Boston Bruins are not a part of it.
The Bruins become the third team with home-ice advantage in the first round series to be eliminated, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins (fourth seed in the Eastern Conference) and the Vancouver Canucks (top seed in the Western Conference and President’s Trophy winners as best team overall during the regular season). They could be joined tonight by the top seed in the East (New York Rangers) and the 3rd-seeded Florida Panthers, both of which are in Game 7 against their respective opponents.
The only questions that remain on the 2011-2012 Boston Bruins are why and how, as in why did this happen to them and how did the Washington Capitals, as the #7 seed in the Eastern Conference, knock off the team proclaimed as one of the biggest and baddest?
Reason #1 – Seeding Really Doesn’t Matter in the NHL Playoffs
It really doesn’t. Last year, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup as the third seed, nearly losing to the #6 seed in the process. The top seed was upended by the #5 team in the conference, and this came a year after the 7th and 8th seeded teams in the East met for the conference championship. Carolina went to the Stanley Cup Final as the second-worst playoff team in 2002 (despite being the third-seed as a result of winning a weak division), and both Anaheim and Edmonton have gone to the Final as a 7th and 8th seed, respectively.
13 teams in the Eastern Conference finished with 80 points or better, and the worst team in the conference was borderline-.500 at 31-15-16 (Montreal with 78 points). Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay scored 84 points or better and missed the playoffs. The Eastern Conference was completely stacked this year to the point where anybody could beat anybody on any given night. There’s just completely parity.
So you end up with a scenario where the lower seeds in the Eastern Conference are capable of being just as good as the top seeds. And look what’s happening – both Ottawa and Washington had the chance to knock out the top two seeds of the conference in six games. Los Angeles, the supposedly-worst team in the West, already eliminated the best team in the league, and the team favored to win the whole damn thing was bounced by their in-state rival (we’re looking at you, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia). The seeds are only numbers at that point, not indicative of true talent on the ice.
Reason #2 – Washington is still a really good hockey team.
The Washington Capitals were last year’s top seed in the Eastern Conference. They fired head coach Bruce Boudreau after a slow start this year, rebounded just enough to sneak into the playoffs as the #7 seed, and never really seemed like the explosive team they were a year ago. Still, that doesn’t change the core of the roster, built around offensive wizardry, with the capability of scoring. They rebuilt and transitioned on the fly, which isn’t easy to do, but in the end, on natural talent, they’re still a solid, solid hockey team.
Dale Hunter molded this team into a blue-collar hockey team, which is something Boudreau tried to do and failed miserably at succeeding. He gave them a pinching style that stopped the Bruins breakouts cold in their tracks, then utilized skating ability to fly. The Bruins were flat-out outskated for big swaths of hockey, and as much as everyone wants to talk about what they could’ve done more of to win, it’s actually just that Washington, for this series, was the much better hockey team.
The Caps will always be a team with an offensive mentality, but their defense and goaltending won the series. Nobody’d heard of Braden Holtby before this series, but nobody in Boston will ever forget him after this series. He went out and made the stops when he had to, playing behind a protective covering the Caps never before employed. This was not a #7-seeded hockey team.
Reason #3 – Let’s Face It. The Bruins Just Weren’t That Good.
As the #3 seed last year, everyone looked at Boston and saw what really wasn’t there. They saw the intangibles, they knew the drive of the team. Nobody could outwork the Bruins last year, and that gritty determination became the hallmark of a tough, physical team that’s sparkplugged the game of hockey back to the national forefront. They had the offensive firepower to pile up goals, but they were hungrier and wanted it more than any other team since the NHL Lockout ended. Let’s put it this way – the Bruins were ending their championship drought last year. Period.
This year’s Bruins team didn’t have that same fire. After the short offseason, they opened up slow and tired. There were obvious holes in their game, and they looked weary by the playoffs. The Stanley Cup Hangover, as it were, had nothing to do with the middle part of the season when they were killing teams; it had to do with their ability to push when they had nothing left in the tank.
Brad Marchand converted from an instigator and a scorer to a diver by the playoffs; his play went from borderline and edgy to a style that even Boston fans didn’t really like (the ones that know the game at least). Milan Lucic became invisible in big games (even moreso than in the past). And Tim Thomas, despite statistical greatness, seemed to lack the ability to shut down the one big goal that was coming in the last five minutes. They didn’t have anybody who could step forward and score that goal by the end of the season, the way Nathan Horton did last year. And they just flat out ran out of gas against a team that outhustled, outworked, and, in some opinions, wanted it more.
That’s not to say the Bruins aren’t a good team; they accomplished a lot this year. But by the end, they were tired and weary, and even some fans had resigned themselves to the outcome. A win would’ve delayed the inevitable; this team just plain lacked that “it” factor that teams have when they win the Cup. It’s why there hasn’t been a repeat champion in over a decade.
Reason #4 – M*A*S*H Unit, Boston
It’s hard to determine if Boston would’ve won the series with Horton or Adam McQuaid. With Horton, the Bruins probably get more out of David Krejci, since the duo seem to make each other better, which occasionally opens up the door for Lucic to not stink for a few shifts. It would’ve sent Marchand, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron back to second line status, which would’ve made them substantially better since they would’ve been paired with a different Washington defensive matchup. And it would’ve helped the anemic power play, which was so bad, we won’t discuss it in this briefing.
Had McQuaid played, the third defensive pairing wouldn’t have been as bad as it was. Joe Corvo was abysmal, and Greg Zanon was badly exposed, especially on the series-winning goal. Mike Mottau wasn’t who the front office thought he’d be. McQuaid is able to overcompensate for a weak defensive linemate, as he did last year when he was paired off with Tomas Kaberle. He is able to take on multiple forwards on his own, and his physical presence occupies enough space to let the linemate actually do something besides sit and watch the breeze blow by. Corvo was an unmitigated disaster for parts of the season, and Zanon couldn’t do what McQuaid did. It’s no shocker the goal was scored because Zanon was on the ground and couldn’t clear the puck on the rebound.
And, of course, that leads us back to Bergeron. His injury, undisclosed, is not an excuse by any means. And he absolutely had to be on the ice down the stretch. But he missed the game-winning goal on a wide-open net, and the first excuse everyone has is “injury.” If he’s on the ice, he’s expected to play reasonably well in comparison to his fully-healthy status. If he can’t, then he needs to either get onto a different line or not play. Shawn Thornton did not play over an injured Bergeron. If Bergeron was that incapable because of injury, then Thornton should’ve been in the lineup. Otherwise, there’s no excuse for Bergeron missing that open net. Still, his inability in the faceoff circle (where Thornton wouldn’t have been effective) can be directly linked to his undisclosed “upper body” injury. If he’d been healthy, those offensive zone faceoffs would’ve been slightly easier to win.
Reason #6 – Welcome back, Claude. We missed you.
Last year, several people made the observation that the Bruins simply outplayed other teams and that coaching, at some point, had nothing to do with anything. There’s a point during the playoffs where your team becomes self-aware and no longer needs the coach to do anything. Until that point, they still need some type of coaching.
For the Bruins, they stopped needing Claude Julien early on, when urban legend states that Mark Recchi kicked him out of the locker room between the first and second overtime periods of Game 7 against Montreal. When that happened, no matter what Claude said, this team was self-aware and could’ve taken themselves to the championship. There were still moments where Claude had to draw up a play or schematic to shut down a particular area at a moment, but the team really didn’t NEED that.
This year, it hadn’t happened yet. The power play unit, the offensive style – everything about the Bruins was overmatched. Dale Hunter knew what Boston would do, and his team did the right things to beat Boston. They didn’t limit shots, but they limited quality selection. They forced the puck outside and away from the dirty areas, then didn’t allow Boston to get moving in the dirty areas. They pinched, forced the puck deep into the corner, cut off the passing angles. They disrupted everything Boston was doing.
Julien responded by shuffling lines. But he never, ever touched the style or scheme. There’s the point to be made that a) they won the Stanley Cup last year with him at the helm and b) hindsight is always 20-20. There’s a c) to be made as well, stating that the coach is always under the microscope when something like this happens. But Julien breaking up line chemistry and not adjusting the team’s style was a poor mistake. The power play never did anything, and the offense just got stuck in the neutral zone. At some point, you’ve got to make some type of adjustment to where you’re moving the puck. He needed to identify the weakness in Washington and attack it; he didn’t.
This didn’t happen last year because the team didn’t need him to point them out; as was pointed out earlier, they were WINNING THAT TITLE no matter what last year. This year, he needed to get them motivated, make the changes, and get them up. He didn’t. It’s that simple.
Reason #7 – It Just Wasn’t Meant to Be.
Washington was a bad matchup. The Bruins were tired, worn out, and just didn’t win. Sometimes, the hockey gods don’t see things to be fit that way. Teams can learn a helluva lot more from losing than from winning, so in some capacity, this will hopefully work out. Training camp starts in September.