Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Habs Lessons: 2002, 2004 and 2008

I don't know what people are comparing the Bruins of 2008 to the Canadians of 2004 for. It's 2 years off.

Think about it:

1) First place vs. eighth place in the East

2) A number one centre to return after missing the entire season

3) A team with little goalscoring depth

4) A team carried by a goaltender to squeak into the playoffs

5) No dormant Russian superstar waiting to break out

So, should that give the Bruins hope?

What? Having players whose redeeming quality is that their career paths and potential are mirroring those of Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackell and Shaun Van Allen?

It shouldn't, but it will. If you listen to Bruins fans, they are talking about Jan Bulis the second (Vladimir Sobotka) and his speed and ability to be a great 3rd liner. PJ Axelsson is still there (Dackell), chipping in his annual 30 points.

I have nothing against the 2008 Bruins themselves, nor the 2002 Canadiens for that matter. Half the league or more fits into this category. Most Habs teams for the past decade, too. But know this, Bob Gainey has been diligently working and building for 5 seasons since then to make sure we can ice better teams on a consistent basis than the 2002 Canadiens.

What can the Canadiens learn from history? How can the 2008 Canadiens avoid the fate of the 2002 Bruins?

For this answer, it's interesting to remember what befell the Boston Bruins in that series. Going in, there was this:


Ranked 1st in the East

Record: 43-24-6-9
101 points
236 GF 201 GA

It's been quite a turnaround for the Boston Bruins.

After missing the playoffs by one point last season, the Bruins made sure that they didn't have to go through another physically draining post-season race, coming together as a team to surprise the rest of the Northwest Division and become the class of the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins didn't blow away their opposition with offence or stifle them with defence, but the team showed a tremendous knack for pulling out a win in close games.

Of the Bruins 43 wins, nearly half have been by one goal.

After tempting Bruins fans for the past two years with the odd flash of talent, Joe Thornton took his game up a level this season, challenging for the scoring title until he injured his shoulder in early March.

The Bruins' offence is the team's biggest strength, with a number of
forwards capable of shouldering the load.

In addition to Thornton, the team has 40-goal scorer Bill Guerin, Russian sniper Sergei Samsonov, Glen Murray and Brian Rolston.

Boston's defence rarely contributes to the scoresheet, but it is a solid unit led by Hal Gill. If the blue line makes a mistake, it is usually covered by goaltender Byron Dafoe, who will be a huge factor in how far his team can go.

Ah, a team led by offense that missed the playoffs by a point. So what happened to these mighty Bruins?

Well, what you might say is they were a bit unlucky to meet an eighth place team that would not have normally been an eighth place team. The Canadiens with Saku Koivu in uniform all year, on top of a Vezina and Hart trophy season from Jose Theodore would have surely had point totals in the 90s and would have been looking at a different opponent.

The first 4 games of the series went by in a flash for the Bruins, with Koivu hitting stride after 6 months of chemotherapy. Koivu and Zednik were unstoppable at times, each posting up 8 points in the first four games to lead the NHL playoff scoring. They cam back from Boston with a win, then took the next in Montreal. They might have taken Game 4, but Zednik was ousted with one of the most blatant elbows you will ever see, thereby by costing us the game. What happened next though was the key. Jose Theodore, who was basically watching the offensive duel in games 1-4, stepped up in a big way and stymied the Bruins in the next two games. I'm sure we all remember the hallmark save off the series, where Theodore spins on his back and saves with his blocker.

So, I put forward that it was the Canadiens that outperformed the Bruins in this series, first with offense, then with goaltending, to win. It was not the Bruins who self-destructed, it was not for a lack of ideas or effort.

Are the Bruins a wolf in sheep's cloting? Are they a better team than their points total represents? I think probably slightly, but by and large, no. Though, the Bruins of 2008 resemble the Canadiens of 2002, it is questionable whether Tim Thomas is Jose Theodore 2002. It would be a stunning return for Bergeron if he had 8 points by Game 4.

However, despite all that, the key difference does not lie in the argument of how similar the Bruins from this season and the habs from 2002 are (fun as it is). The important issue is that the Canadiens of 2008 are not the Bruins of 2002 - they can rely on a number of key advantages that the bruins from 6 years ago could not:

1) Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Roman Hamrlik and Mark Streit are miles better than Boynton, Gill, O'Donnell and McLaren. Two top scoring defensemen, two of the top PP specialists in the league, playoff experience and skating come to mind as ways in which our defense this year would be able to outdo that Bruins group.

2) Carey Price is leagues apart from Byron Dafoe. Rookie sensation vs. perennial drifter.

3) A top scorer who can stay out of trouble. Joe Thornton was taken out of the equation in 2002 by getting him to take stupid penalties. Kovalev may take a few, but is unlikely to be as immature as Jumbo Joe was.

4) Hooking is no longer allowed. Clearly Boston was a more skilled outfit in 2002 than the Habs. Guerin was on his way to earning that ridiculous contract, Samsonov was still an effective player and Thornton was starting to perfect his passing. The Canadiens had to use lots of effort and annoyance tactics to slow those players down, especially in Games 5 and 6. Well, no longer. That stuff is now illegal and should, at least in theory, be called. If it is, the number one PP in the league will be there to answer the call.

If the Habs stick to their game and believe what they have accomplished since Game 31 of the season is real, then they should be able to put any worry of Boston-Montreal 1-8 bugaboos out of their minds.

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