May 11, 1972.
The Boston Bruins, with a 3-2 lead over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, sojourned to Madison Square Garden to clinch their second championship in three seasons. Bobby Orr, the greatest defenseman to ever put on a uniform, scored a goal and added an assist. Franchise legend Gerry Cheevers shut out the Rangers, and the Big Bad Bruins won 3-0, capturing the Stanley Cup.
That's the last time the Bruins touched Lord Stanley’s Cup. This was the same year Richard Nixon was elected president for a second time, tragedy marred the Munich Olympics, and the Rolling Stones released Exile on Main St. If it feels like a long time ago, that’s because, well, it was a long time ago.
The Bruins have lost in the Stanley Cup Final five times since 1972, once to the Broad Street Bullies, twice to the dynastic Canadiens and twice to the dynastic Oilers. They’ve finished the regular season with over 100 points three times this decade, but last season’s second round defeat at the hands of Carolina marked their furthest advancement of the decade as well.
It’ll be 38 Cup-less years come this May. But, for the first time since Cam Neely and Raymond Bourque made Causeway Street buzz, there’s something different in the air surrounding this franchise. It’s the feeling of hope, the feeling of having a chance, and the feeling that the Stanley Cup drought won’t live to be 39.
The offseason of tumult is over. The Walker goal and Tim Thomas’ sprint off the ice are distant memories. None of that matters now. After a strong preseason, the Bruins will open up Thursday night in front of a sold out TD Bank Garden against one of the league’s best squads, the Washington Capitals.
The Bruins of 2009-2010 will be deep. They’ll be well-rounded. They’ll be out for revenge. They’ll play smart. They’ll play tough. They’ll be well-coached. They’ll prey on weaker teams. They’ll give the best teams fits. They’ll not be rolling over for anyone.
The Bruins of 2009-2010 will be the best team in the NHL. Better than Pittsburgh. Better than Washington. Better than Detroit. Better than San Jose. They will win the Eastern Conference. They will win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 38 years.
I’m going to tell you why.
TOP TWO FORWARD LINES:
(LW) - 17 Milan Lucic (C) - 91 Marc Savard (RW) - 16 Marco Sturm
(LW) - 26 Blake Wheeler (C) - 46 David Krejci (RW) - 73 Michael Ryder
The only difference here is Sturm taking the place of Phil Kessel on the top line. I know I’ve used a lot of negative words here on Sturm, as recently as last week. But I want to believe that he can still contribute at a high level. Is he going to score 36 goals just as a result of playing with Savard? It’s doubtful. But he did score 27 goals in each of his last two full seasons. He doesn’t have to replace Kessel’s production. He just has to be part of the replacement, and stay healthy.
Savard is about to enter his walk year, and I’m ready to watch him explode for a career season. He scored 88 points last year, and the century mark is definitely within reach. Savard feels slighted after not being invited to participate in Team Canada’s Olympic training camp. Every time he takes the ice this year, Savard will want to prove to Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock that they made a terrible mistake. Between that and his contract year, Savard will be one of the best centers in the East.
And if you decide to mess with either Savard or Sturm, you’ll have to face the wrath of Milan Lucic. Just ask Chris Neil. The Legend of Looch grows by the second. At 21, he’s now the seminal young star of the Bruins with Kessel off to Toronto. He’ll look to improve on his 42 points from last year, and continue his development as one of the truly dynamic power forwards in today’s NHL. Bruins fans love Lucic. By the end of this year, the entire town will love him. He’ll be paid handsomely as an RFA next summer. ’09-’10 will be remembered as the season the Boston Bruins became Milan Lucic’s team.
David Krejci appears ready to play in Thursday’s opener, which is more than welcome news following offseason hip surgery and no participation in preseason games. It speaks volumes that Krejci was the first player the B’s worked to keep in a tough offseason. It also speaks volumes about Krejci that he was willing to take less to stay. The best thing about Krejci is that his finest years are still to come.
The beneficiaries of Krejci’s playmaking talents will once again be Wheeler and Ryder. There was a stretch in November and December where this line was simply unstoppable. Both Krejci and Wheeler declined a bit in production down the stretch, in particular Wheeler. The young, sizable winger added 15 pounds of bulk, and he expects to be able to keep a high level of play all year. Like Lucic, he’ll be looking to improve from the 40-point range. Oh, and adding a little toughness might not be such a bad idea, either.
Michael Ryder must be in love with Claude Julien. Something about Julien’s style brings out the very best in Ryder. A year after potting just 14 goals during his last year with Montreal, he returned to his former junior and Canadiens coach and scored 27 goals including 10 on the power play. He’s a true veteran sniper, a fantastic character guy in the room, and someone that really grew on me last year.
These top two lines should be amongst the best and most productive in the league. In the Eastern Conference, they’ll only be rivaled by Washington and Philadelphia. What’s impressive about these six forwards is that they’re all complete players, as evidenced by their plus/minus numbers from last season.
37 (1st in NHL)
36 (2nd in NHL)
Marco Sturm (19 games)
BOTTOM TWO FORWARD LINES
(LW) - 28 Mark Recchi (C) - 37 Patrice Bergeron (RW) -12 Chuck Kobasew
(LW) - 61 Byron Bitz (C) - 27 Steve Begin (RW) - 22 Shawn Thornton
Fact: The Bruins’ third line is better than the second line of 80 percent of NHL teams. Fact: The Bruins’ third line is going to be even better this year.
That’s because they’ll be getting full years out of both Recchi and Bergeron. Recchi is 41, and enjoyed his time with the B’s last year enough that he took a pay cut to return. A few days ago NESN was showing a classic Bruins/Penguins game from the 1991 Wales Conference Final and there was a young Recchi, scoring a key goal for the Pens in the old Garden. (That goal comes about three minutes into this video, but check out the whole thing. There’s some great goals by Neely, Bourque, Mario Lemieux, some horrendous hairdos, and, of course, the glory of Mike Milbury). Recchi has much less hair, much less speed, but still has the desire to win a third Stanley Cup.
As for Bergeron, it finally appears the concussion issues are behind him, and he’s ready to go back to the player he was from 2005 to 2007 (143 points in 158 games). With Krejci not expected to miss any time because of his hip surgery, the pressure on Bergeron will not be as significant as a result. It’s hard to believe Bergeron is only 24, and still hopefully has many great years ahead.
You have to have players like Chuck Kobasew if you want to win the Cup. At different times during the second half last year, the grit and guile of this team was questioned, but Kobasew was the one guy that gave 110 percent effort on every shift. I’ve made a lot about Kobasew’s ability to play in the postseason through two broken ribs, but that’s really all you need to know about him. If you want to see the living personification of what a hockey player should be, look no further than No. 12.
Byron Bitz, a Cornell man, is pretty close to Kobasew in terms of effort, and this will be his first full year in the NHL. Bitz has terrific hands and some fine moves around the net. Steve Begin comes over from Montreal to provide some fight along with Garden favorite Shawn Thornton, who proved last year that he’s a lot more than a goon. The B’s are also going to carry Vladimir Sobotka and he could start Thursday night if Begin’s groin is acting up. This fourth line will be tough, provide energy and might surprise teams with some scoring touch. I predict Bitzy scores 15 goals this year.
33 Zdeno Chara – 53 Derek Morris
6 Dennis Wideman – 21 Andrew Ference
45 Mark Stuart – 48 Matt Hunwick
Anyone who said Mike Green deserved to win the Norris Trophy last year over Chara because he scored 31 goals had to be kidding. Chara was the most indispensible player on the East’s best team. There was nothing he didn’t do well last year, whether it was getting the puck to his best forwards on the power play, shutting down the best scorers in the league, killing off five-on-threes all by himself, shooting the daylights out of the puck, or destroying opposing goons with his ridiculous fighting style. Can he repeat his performance this year? The odds are stacked against him. But he has more help this time around.
Gone is Aaron Ward, a great veteran with a stay-at-home style, replaced by a more mobile veteran in Derek Morris. It’s a different style for Chara to get used to, but Morris creates many more opportunities from an offensive perspective. He’s a leader that’s been around the league for a long time, and he’s been a perfect with Boston so far.
I hate to put too much pressure on these guys, but the success of the Bruins’ defense this year is mostly dependent on how Wideman and Ference play. Wideman scored 50 points last year and was a phenomenal plus-32, but his production faded in the second half. Ference had surgery on his pesky groin, and it’s expected he should be good to go for a full season. When he’s not busy pissing off old Bruins, Ference is a talented guy, but I’m not sure he’s a top-four defenseman on a Cup-caliber team. These guys have an awful lot to prove in my opinion, but they’re both young and both up to the task.
Mark Stuart played well in the postseason this past spring, and progressed significantly during the year. It appears he’ll be paired with Matt Hunwick, the spleen-less wonder with a newly-minted contract. His 27 points last year were actually amongst the best for NHL rookie defensemen, so he should be even better and will see time on the power play. He was also pretty versatile last year, playing some games at forward.
Johnny Boychuk, a 25-year-old scoring specialist, will open the year as the seventh guy. From top to bottom, I’m confident the B’s will have great defense once again. Switching out Ward for the younger, dynamic Morris won’t hurt a blue line crew that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL just a year ago.
35 Tim Thomas - 40 Tuukka Rask
The Tim Thomas story is one that you’ll likely hear a lot more about come Olympic time, when hopefully Timmy will be the starter leading the Red, White and Blue to a medal of some hue. Four years as a starter at UVM, several minor league stints all across North America, professional stints in Finland and Sweden, finally making his NHL debut with the B’s at age 28, then year after year of inconsistency and shuttling back and forth to Providence. Hell, even last year it seemed he’d have to share time with Manny Fernandez.
Fernandez got hurt, and Timmy took advantage. The numbers speak for themselves: 36-11-7, 2.10 GAA, .933 SV% and 5 SHO. He took home the Vezina Trophy and a $20 million contract for his efforts. Sure, the Walker goal looms large for Timmy more than anyone else. There’s plenty of questions about whether his wide-open, Brodeur-esque style is conducive to winning the Stanley Cup. I say yes. Umm, hasn’t Brodeur won three Cups? I don’t see it being a problem. Will Timmy be as good as he was last season? That’s an awful lot to ask. I’m doubtful he’ll be as good, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be. He can be close, and the B’s will be in just as solid of a position.
Behind him is Rask, the young phenom whose time to play in the NHL has come. I’d feel very confident going forward with the 22-year-old Finn should something happen to the 35-year-old Thomas. Rask was terrific in last year in preseason, in Providence, in his one NHL appearance shutting out the Rangers, and again this preseason. I’m stoked to see what kind of NHL goalie he’ll become. As an RFA after this year, he could be dangled as a trade chip.
Goaltending is the biggest gamble in this game. When you feel confident about your goaltending, that’s half the battle. I’m happy that goaltending is an area on the Bruins I scarcely have to worry about.
SOME OTHER ITEMS WORTH MENTIONING
Julien was honored last season as the NHL’s best coach with the Jack Adams Award, an honor he certainly deserved. The Bruins, after finishing 8th and exiting following an epic first round tilt with the Dirty Habs in ’07-’08, weren’t expected to be one of the top teams in the East this past season. I remember just being excited about them potentially having home-ice in a first round series. Expectations were exceeded throughout the regular season.
The question now is whether Julien can guide his troops through a season where expectations are high. The target will be on their backs after so much success last year, and people like me believe they should be the league’s best team. Julien is a strong motivator who stresses defense and complete play, so I personally don’t expect a letdown from these guys. The way last season ended should be motivation enough for the many returning warriors.
Peter Chiarelli has minimal cap room but has five of the first 60 picks in next year’s draft, which is expected to be much deeper than this year’s draft. I mentioned Ilya Kovalchuk in my NHL preview last week. He’s likely to be the top name available at the deadline if he doesn’t come to an agreement with the Thrashers before then. It’s possible the B’s won’t need someone like Kovalchuk, and based on what I’ve gone over here, perhaps adding a big defenseman will be more important. It’s hard to predict that now.
OK, time to wrap this up. It’s been a tough summer, dealing with the hurt from how last season ended. I don’t think I’m crazy in believing the B’s can win the Cup this year with the complete, strong team they have. They just have to get it done. Thirty-eight years will not become 39. It starts Thursday.
Expect some live-tweeting action as the Bruins look to embarrass Alexander Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals. See you then.