The Bruins’ hopes and dreams for the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs hinge on something pretty simple. With a challenging 48-game regular season, a killer two-month stretch of iron-man hockey, and a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference squarely behind them, it's now all about getting back to the basics of Big Bad Bruins hockey.
If they can summon the attitude and work up the intimidation factor that characterized their hockey club two years ago en route to a Stanley Cup, they will enjoy another deep, successful run through the postseason. Certainly the potential is there and nobody doubts the Bruins can raise their game to an intense level that few in the league can match, or more importantly, endure.
“I would hope that there’s an element to their character, with the experience that they have, that they’re going to step up their play,” said Peter Chiarelli, who watched that set of players finish with a 2-5-2 record and only 18 goals scored in their final games of the season.
“I see that actually coming a little bit. I think it’s happening a little bit, but I still stand by what I said: You can’t turn off and on a switch and just expect you to have success after not performing at the proper level. But the last three games [of the regular season], I’ve seen snippets here mainly from the emotional, physical viewpoint. So, we’ll see.”
While there have been some encouraging signs over the last three games, nobody has seen this year’s edition of the Bruins achieve that highest level of play consistently. There has been almost no evidence of the Bruins playing consistently hard, grinding hockey for 60 minutes, as they did while overwhelming opponents on their way to the Stanley Cup.
It’s comes in spurts, with good periods or dominant stretches in games. But this season’s complete, winning efforts can be counted on one hand without using all of the available fingers.
The hope is that the Maple Leafs and their relative truculence -- yes, they are still truculent even without Brian Burke as their GM these days -- will engage the Bruins from the very beginning. If their comments leading up to the series are to be believed, then it would appear that the Bruins have their game faces on before the first puck is even dropped. That shouldn’t be surprising after experiencing the burn of being a first-round playoff victim last spring and admitting after the Washington series was over that they had difficulty tapping into that highest level of emotion needed for the postseason.
“It just seems like guys are out there trying to hurt each other,” said Brad Marchand. “During the season it gets long and grueling, and sometimes guys are going through the motions and not battling as hard as they need to. But in playoff time it all goes out the window. Guys are trying to hurt each other.
“Everything you ever dreamed of is on the line, and it gets pretty physical and aggressive. We have to be prepared to match that [physicality and aggression] with Toronto in that series.”
The physicality and nastiness that the Bruins showed in the final three games of this season is exactly the what they should have planned for their playoff opponents. Milan Lucic helped his team reclaim that nastiness by playing with a surly attitude after returning from being a healthy scratch on April 20, and many of his teammates followed his lead. When that happens, they're hard to stop.
“It all comes down to Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic for the Bruins,” said one Eastern Conference scout that’s seen plenty of Boston games over the last few years. “If those two are playing mean then the rest of the players follow their lead, and start playing mean just like them. They can be tough to beat once that’s happening. If those two aren’t playing with kind of an attitude, then the Bruins are a much easier team to beat. I tell our guys not to wake them up or get them emotional, and to just let the sleeping giants be. That’s the best way to beat the Bruins.”
Just as Lucic has recently located his board-shattering game after he “hit a wall” during themiddle portion of the season, Chara needs to find that snarling, punishing defensive game he’s become famous for. The 36-year-old faded badly in the second half of the season while logging 26 plus minutes of heavy-duty ice time per night.
“He’s obviously a very valuable player, one of the best, if not the best, defensemen in the league. Obviously you want him to be firing on all cylinders, so like the rest of [the Bruins players], he’s got to get his game back,” said Chiarelli. “With 'Z' it’s about a strong defensive game, nothing fancy, big shots, and a lot of straight lines. He is obviously important to the team, and what he does a lot of guys follow. He’s got a lot of experience. We expect him to get his game where it has to be.”
It will be mandatory for Chara to find his snarl as he’ll once again get the call every time Phil Kessel hops over the boards in the series. The B's captain will be expected to once again turn No. 81 into a pile of quivering Jello with a Leafs sweater on.
There has been plenty of talk about the lack of Bruins offense and their inability to finish off plays at key times in games. It’s all legitimatecriticism, and it’s been the biggest drawback for the Bruins team since the season got going in mid-January.
The goal-scoring might become a little easier against Toronto's middling defensive corps and average goaltending with James Reimer attempting to prove himself in his first NHL playoff experience. But the easiest way for the Bruins to get their scoring mojo back is to start playing to their identity, punishing Toronto defensemen, and knocking bodies all over the ice.
The success for the Black and Gold in all departments comes from playing with emotion and attitude that borders on old-time schoolyard bullying, and that’s what the Bruins need to tap into immediately on Wednesday night.
Red Sox designated hitter and noted F-bomb enthusiast David Ortiz likes to call it his “mean face” when he steps into the batters box with a look of concentration and fierceness on his usually smiling face. The Bruins need to find their “mean face” over the next few weeks with Toronto if they’re going to be something close to the hockey club everybody expected to see out of the gate back on January 19.
If they can do that now with the playoffs upon them, then nobody is going to remember an April loss in Philadelphia or a 2-5-2 finish to the regular season.
PREDICTION: The Bruins will find ample time and space to score some goals against an average Toronto defense, and will utilize their postseason experience to defeat the Maple Leafs in six games and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.