Thursday, April 10, 2008

Meet The Bruins: Key Pillars

Go to Tobalev's Habs Preview.

So important are the playoffs that they warrant a special look at the special players on the other team for once. Of course, we'll still look at the Canadiens in depth, but this post should give people watching some idea of those guys on the ice that we suddenly finding ourselves hating with raging enthusiasm.

No, not the refs...

The Boston Bruins.

To begin, I thought I'd remind everyone of a few key thoughts:

1) The Bruins were better against all other opposition than we were this year

2) How is that possible?

3) Does it matter?

My blogging colleague explained to us why he thought the Bruins managed so many points without any one person that could be marked out. Russ from the Bruins Report (a great Bruins blog) – check it out if you have the time – said:

The Bruins were good against the rest of the East because they have, for the most part, played a solid, simple defensive scheme in their own zone that allowed them to minimize scoring chances down low, and kept the majority of the shots to the perimeter. Tim Thomas was more effective playing behind this style of defense, and allowed him to modify his "crazy flailing everywhere like Hasek only not as good"

So, I thought I'd have a peek behind the curtains and introduce everyone to those I see as important to this scheme and the Bruins success:

The last line – Tim Thomas

Drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, if nothing else, Tim Thomas has outlasted his fellow Quebec goalie draftees Thibault, Fiset and Tugnutt. His career, however, has taken a very different path to those once Quebec starters – taking him to a professional career in Europe and back to North America. Since his reclamation from the Finnish leagues, he has had quite substantial success with the Bruins.

This season has been no exception – Thomas has posted great numbers with the Black and Gold. Following the regular season, he ranked 4th in the entire league in save percentage with a gaudy .921 rate, with a respectable 2.44 GAA and 3 shutouts. In fact, he was having a Vezina trophy season until about the end of November where he underwent a temporary meltdown. When I defined an excellent game as one with a Save% of 0.920 or more, then I was fairly surprised to see that Thomas has 37 excellent games this year (out of 57 GP). In a way this runs contrary to the story on him that he runs hot and cold. For most of this season anyway, he has been running hot.

This statement does of course need to be qualified. He has been anything but hot against the Canadiens. He has been mediocre by his own high standards, and uncharacteristically has cost his team on one or two occasions:

In particular, early goals, which threw his team into their old habits against Montreal were his and Boston's undoing on a couple of occasions.

In any case, though he may not be favoured around the league's pundits, Tim Thomas is a top goaltender, a starter through and through. However, like Carey Price, Tim is an NHL playoff rookie, so won't bring years of NHL experience to the table. He does bring some from other competitions, much like his counterpart.

If a goalie's duel develops, Boston will be in good hands. I think that's the first thing on Boston's wish list and the last thing the Canadiens would want.

The Game Maker – Zdeno Chara

Chara comes advertised as the leader of this Bruins team. He wears that C on his chest and has allegedly been key in a lot of their success this season. In fact, if you asked a Canadiens fan who typified the Bruins we have seen this season, then many I'm sure would also say Chara. He has been sub-par on many occasions against the Habs, and downright comical on others. In any case, the thing to remember here is:

As Chara goes, so do the Bruins.

To give some idea, recently Chara missed 5 games when the Bruins were sitting pretty for the playoffs. His absence coincided with 4 losses (2 in OT) and one one close win (OT). All were against teams the Bruins had previously handled quite well. He was missed to say the least. had his absence been longer, the Bruins would be done and dusted and we'd be playing the Hurricanes. Phew for that one...

Statistically, he has also had quite a successful season. 17 goals and 34 assists for a defenseman is strong. His 17 goals put him 2nd in the league among Dmen. His 51 points rank 10th in the league. He has had 20 outstanding games (which I defined as games with either 2 points or with a +2 rating). In those games, Boston got points in 18. One was against the Habs, so blame the ghosts (like Sinden), not Chara.

But it's never really been the statistics with Chara has it? When he played with Ottawa (after he learned to skate), he was Montreal's worst nightmare. Whenever we played Ottawa, we could only realistically hope for about 10minutes in their zone – most of it when Chara was off the ice – because the big man and Redden were so effective at smothering the forwards. Something changed though – the rules. Now, Buffalo can exploit him, Carolina can and as we've seen, so can the Habs.

Chara is still an outstanding defenseman with an amazing shot, but he has been disarmed of one of his main weapons since the lockout – holding. Despite this he can still be excellent if teams choose to play a throwback style of hockey where screening and wrestling are preferred to passing and skating. Just another reason the Habs need to set the agenda for this series.

The Game Breaker – Marc Savard

Quite a tag for little Marc Savard from Ottawa. Not so little if you believe Yahoo, who call him 199 lbs or something. Other sites weighed him without his soaking wet equipment on and have him at a stocky 190ish.

He is the Game Breaker on the Bruins because if the Bruins need a goal they don't have too many other places to look. they will certainly look to Marc first (assuming he even plays).

Savard's NHL career has taken many twists and turns following a revelation or two in junior. Drafted and let go by New York, then tried but released in Calgary, finally success but disinterest from Atlanta, he has now landed in Boston with a huge raise.

Strange that his employers always seem to let him go without much of a fight. Even Calgary, who needed a passer of his pedigree and learned the small-man lesson the hard way with Martin St. Louis. The truth behind these occurrences probably lies somewhere between defensive disaster and costly for what you get. If rumours are to be believed, Marc has turned around his defensive game at the behest of Claude Julien, and now provides value for money on the Bruins.

Maybe not so surprising when you consider none of his teams have ever made the playoffs until this one. In fact, should he play, this will be Marc Savard's first ever playoff game at the tender age of 30.

In looking at his game log, I looked for multiple point games. You figure, top scorer, lots of multiple point games. Well, let's say Marc likes to be more consistent. He did have a respectable 19 multiple point games. 14 were Bruins wins, they got points in 16. Strikingly, only 3 were games where he managed more than 2 points. However, when you think about it, this probably says more about the Bruins than it does about the man.

One thing you could never deny about Marc is his ability to pass the puck. It goes back to WJC in 1993 even. People who watch him on a regular basis talk about his passes finding players who still thought they were fighting to get away from coverage. His mind thinks ahead of defenders, his stick can carry out his wishes (though apparently his wishes do not include shooting very often). This what people said about all the great passers. What's more, this season Marc ended up 3rd in the NHL for assists, just behind Joe Thornton and Datsyuk. Last season, third behind Thornton and Crosby. The man keeps good company. certainly a player to keep an eye on. besides, passes like the ones described are a thing of beauty no matter whose shoving the disc.

We have been hearing that Marc Savard will be available to play. However, if he doesn't it will be a gaping hole for the Bruins. To look beyond Marc Savard for a Game Breaker is hard work with Bergeron and Kobasew out. The obvious candidate will be Marco Sturm, whose more beneficiary than benefactor when it comes to making plays.

The Great Hope – Phil Kessel

The final man in the Bruins equation for me is Phil Kessel.

Less production in his draft year, he eventually slipped to 5th overall behind some serious prospects. If anyone remembers the year before that though, Phil Kessel was the American Sydney Crosby. In fact, in 2005, he was putting up more than a goal and 2 points per game in the US National development program. In other words, the boy has pedigree and the boy has skill.

What must not be forgotten is that he is still a young man. 20 to be exact. But for me, in his first NHL playoff series, he will be key to the Bruins chances.

For one thing, as we've mentioned, the Bruins don't have a wealth of scoring options, especially if you factor in the injured players. For a second thing, Phil Kessel is probably the best natural goalscorer among them anyway, any day.

A coach who knew his back was up against it – vs. the team that had defeated his rather unimaginative strategy 8 times in a row – might choose to put a wildcard like Kessel in a key role. Say, with a passer who could thread passes that other people wouldn't have thought of. Claude Julien is not this coach. At least he has not shown a willingness to be him yet – even with his team in dire straits following Chara's injury. In the last meaningful game, Kessel played with Schaefer and Sobotka. He managed to score anyway. in the last game against Montreal, more third line action with Krejci and Lucic, all while Kobasew gets to play with Marc Savard.

We have been lucky to see our young players come through this year in Montreal. it has been a huge factor in our success. If Boston are to succeed, I feel the same will be a requirement for them, with Kessel success leading the way. If he is let off his leash, Montreal should have someone new to concern themselves with.

Go to Tobalev's Habs Preview.

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