When Peter Chiarelli first came to Boston four seasons ago armed with a master plan to turn things around, he arrived bearing a plan bent on making a run for Lord Stanley’s Cup by the fourth and final season of his original contract.
That season was going to coincide with the final year of Marc Savard’s free agent deal and would be the second-to-last year of a five-year contract with Zdeno Chara still in his prime as a larger-than-life defenseman. However, that Cup-worthy year came 365 days premature for a group of veterans enjoying career seasons paired with a litter of young players blossoming into NHL talents at an incredibly rapid pace.
The expectations were raised last season, but artificially swelled so high by in-season performance that it was nearly impossible to match the regular season output in the playoffs. The B’s used coach Claude Julien’s defense-minded system to install the NHL’s stingiest defenders in front of Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Tim Thomas. Add to that the NHL’s deepest, most productive offense this side of the Octopus-tossing Winged Wheels in Detroit, and anything less than a Cup finals run turned into a disappointment.
Everybody knows that the B’s had seven 20-plus goal-scorers last season and will boast three healthy, prime-time centers in Marc Savard, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. Each one of the centering trio could push 70-plus points. The B’s modus operandi should be similar to last season when the forward depth simply overwhelmed most opponents and Boston turned the third period into a winning time.
The Game 7 overtime loss to Scott Walker and his surprising Carolina Hurricanes acted as something of a gut-punch to a team busting out with momentum and good will, but it — along with a challenging second half of last year’s regular season — will have a lasting, positive effect this season.
Respected publications such as Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News are predicting great things for the Bruins — much to the chagrin of an excitable Jack Edwards always looking for motivational tools — and the B's won’t sneak up on overconfident opponents as they did through the first two or three months last year. It’s similar to the bull’s-eye placed squarely on Boston’s back during the second half of last season, when teams trapped, scrapped and pulled out Grade-A efforts against a Bruins unit cruising along as the class of the East.
The 2008-09 edition of the Bruins won the Northeast Division, captured the Eastern Conference crown and rolled through the regular season with relative ease. It’s now about taking each game separately, and expecting exhaustive efforts from each and every team shooting to make statements vs. the B’s.
“I think it’s something we really have to pay close attention to because it’s a completely different dynamic this year,” Chiarelli said. “Even when you talked about last year, when we had been in first for so long, we had people gunning for us and we adjusted to it. But I think we could have adjusted even better, and that’s part of the evolution of a winning team. You have to know now that teams are coming after us.
“It’s something to keep our eye on and it’s something Claude and I have talked about. We have to focus on the day-to-day tasks. It’s not about, ‘Hey we’re preseason favorites, so let’s just wait until we get to the playoffs.’ It’s day-to-day for us.”
The gas pedal was pinned to the floor for much of Boston’s regular season. The team crafted an identity as a skilled, deep bunch incapable of kowtowing when belted across the face. Immense energy was expended on the regular season, and then even more was burnt off during a cathartic four-game dismantling of a crumbling Canadiens outfit.
There was little remaining in the energy reserves when the B’s turned to the Canes in the second round after the long layoff and spirited first round and — for a few games, at least — the high-octane Bruins outfit searched for fuel and lost sight of the ultimate prize.
Don’t expect that to happen again this season.
Perhaps the Bruins don’t roll through the regular season in the same dominant fashion as last winter, and maybe there is a bit more even-keeled pace to the way Boston goes about its business.
The “day-to-day” business of hockey that Chiarelli and Julien preach becomes the goal, and No. 1 seeds, individual awards, winning streaks, losing streaks and revenge games pale in comparison to simply getting better every day.
“Our expectations are very high, and are to be even better than last year,” said Mark Recchi. “Whether that happens ... and we have 116 points or whatever it was, the bottom line is that we’re a better team at the end of the season than we were last year.
“People won’t hand it to you and you have to go out to prove it to people, and pay the price. Last year we had 116 points and that’s a tremendous amount, and who knows if we’re going to get that again? But the process is that we have to get better as the season goes on, and that’s the way we have to look at it. If we have 110 [points] and we have a better hockey club, that’s the goal of it. I know the management, the coaches and the players are all focused on being a better team at the end of the year and being a better team in the playoffs than we were last year.”
All the Bruins need to study is the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. The Pens appeared out of the playoff race at times over the first half before getting healthy and making the deals (Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin) that put them over the top. The Pens were playing their best hockey at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, and the B’s put together a solid, but not spectacular, 11-7-1 record over the final two months of the season.
One of the biggest second-half wakeup calls the Bruins received to inform them they weren’t quite ready for postseason prime time was a 6-4 loss to the Pens at the Igloo in the middle of March. Chris Kunitz scored a pair for a Pittsburgh team that poured on four goals in the third period, and postgame the Bruins searched their souls in one of the quietest return trips to Boston the team would make all season.
Those Bruins players stormed into that game against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hell-bent on making a statement about the upcoming playoffs, but instead realized they had massive work to do if they intended to keep pace with a title-worthy team hitting its stride. The littered-with-talent Pens just kept improving from that day forward, and the B’s played boom-or-bust for the rest of the season before crapping out against the Canes.
The Bruins didn’t quite peak during the playoffs after overwhelming a lesser Habs team in the first round, and that’s something the team will look to change. A good hockey club learns and adapts from past experiences, and the Bruins will get plenty of chances to prove they’re older and wiser after falling short in a year they were legitimately good enough to capture the Cup.
The first of those tests begins Thursday night against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals at the TD Garden, and it continues right on through the season that Chiarelli designed as “The Year” in the original blueprints of his Hub hockey team makeover.