WILMINGTON -- I can’t wait for this series to begin. I can’t wait to see how the Bruins have handled their week of rest and preparation.
I can’t wait to see if they are fully capable – as I believe deep down they are – of upsetting the Penguins. I can’t wait to see if we’re looking at the chance of a second Stanley Cup rally in three years in the big parking lot in front of TD Garden.
When you cover a team for a certain period of time, and you’re around the players and coaches on a regular basis during their work day, you get a feel for what they’re like. Their temperament, their moods. You watch extra-closely during practice which, thanks to the Bruins and the NHL, is very open. How many sports would open their FULL practice to the public in the middle of the playoffs? There was even a trumpeter on hand to serenade the Bruins on Friday morning before their final Ristuccia Arena practice.
During their shortened season, I had been around the Bruins on a limited basis during the week but most of my energy in the last three months, after the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship, focused on the Celtics.
When they went out in the first round to the Knicks, it was finally time to immerse myself in the Black and Gold.
Let me make something very clear: I very much enjoy covering the Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox when they are all in season. They are all organizations filled with great people and true professionals, even if some (ah hem, Patriots) talk a little bit less than others.
But the Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs are different. Once an actual series begins, it’s ups and downs every other night. It’s hand-to-hand, stick-on-stick combat for 60 minutes and maybe more.
The Bruins are a hard-working group of players that love the sport, make the ultimate sacrifice of mind and body for the sake of the team and it shows.
Bruins fans are as loyal as they come and the real fans were either in the building or still watching Game 7 against Toronto when it appeared all hope was lost with 11 minutes left.
When that game was won, the bandwagon got a lot bigger.
This is a team that has it all – recent championship success, a mix of veterans like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Dennis Seidenberg and now, 41-year-young Jaromir Jagr, to go with new blood in Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski. There's the top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, all of whom peaked at the right time in the 2011 Cup run. There's young goalie in Tuukka Rask, entering the prime of his career. There's the tenacity of Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, a key factor in the victory over the Rangers in the second round.
Throw in a general manager in Peter Chiarelli who has added the right parts at the right time over the last three seasons and a coach in Claude Julien who has the perfect temperament for his team and you have a team fully capable of knocking off a highly-skilled Penguins team in a seven-game series.
Everyone covering the Bruins has exhausted their creative reserves trying to come up with cute ways of getting into the minds of players and coaches this week. Julien was actually asked Thursday if he gets away from hockey for a while by singing karaoke.
“Karaoke is definitely not my style, not because I don’t like to go there, but I can’t sing. That’s admitting your weaknesses. No, I mean, I go about my own business. What you see in me here in Boston is what you see in me for the most part. I know for a fact I’m not a self-promoter, I don’t need that in my life, I love my job. I like going out there and doing my job and doing what needs to be done. For me, winning – and I said that when we won – I was so happy for the guys around. It really, that’s just the way I am.”
Bingo. Just the way he is. The players understand it. The fans understand it. That’s Julien’s style. He wasn’t going to change it after 2010. He wasn’t going to change it after winning the Cup the next year. And he’s not going to change it now.
“I can’t change myself,” he said. “I accept myself the way I am and I’m comfortable with it. I guess the biggest thing is, I spent most of my career in the minors and the one thing you want to do is treat your players with respect. I’m not saying we weren’t in the minors, but those bus rides and things, you build some appreciation for the game and for everything else.”
As Bill Belichick proves every time he stands behind a microphone, it really doesn’t matter if the fans or media like his answers. All that matters is what goes on in the dressing room, and whether the players listen to and respect the coach. We all saw with the 2012 Red Sox what happens when a coach/manager fails in this.
“At one point, it’s treating them with respect, but I always said, that fine line that exists between respect and authority,” Julien said. “I always keep that in my mind. They know who’s in charge, but they know that there’s some respect there and they can come knock on my door any time they want. There’s a time when you can joke around with them and then on game days and before games, they’ll see me just like they are, my head is into the game and it’s all about focus. So there’s some intensity in myself when it gets close to games. Guys have learned to know me, just as I’ve learned to know them.”
When you have the respect of the players, you can let the leaders in the room lead. Doc Rivers is a master of this with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and more and more with Rajon Rondo. Julien has no worries in that regard at all.
“There’s some great leadership in that dressing room,” Julien said. “We’ve said it all along. They police themselves extremely well. Every coach will tell you that you can give your team a message, but at the end of the day, it’s how they take it and how it’s shared and delivered to one another. You can walk out of the room and some players might say, ‘He’s full of you know what’, or they might say, ‘Listen, he’s making sense. Let’s make sure we follow that.’ So that’s where leadership comes in huge. We’ve had some great leaders here in the past and right now in the present.”
In the present, this series reminds me a lot of watching the Eric Lindros-led Philadelphia Flyers with John LeClair and the Simon Gange-Danny Briere Flyers of three years ago with loads of scoring but a big question mark in goal.
So far, Tomas Vokoun has been the answer, in part because the firepower in front of him has taken away most of the pressure. But that was against Islanders and Senators. Vokoun has a 1.88 goals against average. But how much has he really been tested?
The Bruins have the firepower to test Vokoun much more than the Senators and make this a game won in the corners and in physical battles.
Who wins? I’ll take the Bruins in seven.
The Bruins may or may not win this series but I really can’t wait to see how it unfolds. As Claude Julien joked Friday before taking off for Pittsburgh, “Yeah, it’s been a good week. Should be a real fun series. Four days straight of this stuff and you’re loading up with four questions a day. You probably don’t sleep at night.”
Thankfully, the jokes about questions and karaoke end Saturday night.
Now to the Trags Bag for a sample of what Bruins fans are thinking about the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals:
@Big3Sports Great sign for the B's. Health = major factor in playoffs.
@oldtimebasebal1 I felt Bruins were on fumes last time they played Pen's. I can't help but think this extended rest benefits B's more than Pen's????