Haggerty: Cream rises to top in 2013 Cup playoffs

Haggerty: Cream rises to top in 2013 Cup playoffs
May 31, 2013, 10:45 am
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WILMINGTON – Six years ago it would have been foolhardy to think the Boston Bruins would someday soon be considered among the NHL elite. But that’s exactly what the Bruins have become in qualifying for their second conference finals in the last three years, and winning an invite to an exclusive Stanley Cup tournament featuring the four best hockey teams that the NHL has to offer.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Bruins and Los Angeles Kings have won the last four Stanley Cups in that consecutive order, and now they represent the final four hockey clubs remaining with the conference finals set to begin Saturday night. There were no Cinderella teams this season, and instead the NHL’s best and brightest made it to the very end of the season.

It’s a select fraternity, to be sure, but it’s also one that the Bruins fully deserve to be included in.

“I think it’s pretty impressive, knowing about the parity in the league and how hard it is to get back there,” said Claude Julien, who has guided the team’s steady rise to the top of the NHL heap over the last six seasons. “To know that somebody is going to win it twice in, at the most, four years is pretty impressive.

“That’s what we have here, you know, it becomes harder when you win. We won a couple years ago and [Peter Chiarelli] has managed to keep the core and most of the players around. He’s done a great job. To have an opportunity to coach a team that’s deep because of the players he’s provided us with, that’s a credit to him and his group. The coach is as good as the people that surround him; that means the assistant coaches, but also means the players, and obviously management.”

The Bruins organization is also just as good as any of the other three organizations that stand just eight wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. This season is the first time since 1945 that the previous four Cup champions were left battling it out as the NHL’s final four in the playoffs, and it should lead into the best month of playoff hockey anybody could ask for.

Each of the four teams has their own strengths and weaknesses, of course, and things will sort themselves out in the conference finals. The Bruins are the biggest, strongest hockey team on the block, and will use that Big, Bad style along with underrated skill and staunch defense to achieve their goals. The Penguins have arguably the best individual players left in the postseason field with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and have incredible scoring depth that’s meant to overcome a small-ish defensemen corps and some questionable goaltending.

The Los Angeles Kings rely on the stellar goaltending of Jonathan Quick, and the ruthless competitiveness of players like Dustin Brown and Mike Richards to make them greater than the sum of their parts. The Chicago Blackhawks are arguably just as talented and deep as the Penguins with Jonathan Toews, Pat Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa headlining an All-Star cast.

Together they represent the NHL’s best of the best, and ensure that whatever team wins the Stanley Cup at the end of June truly deserves it.

It’s something the Bruins are understandably jacked up about as they get ready to end a week away from playoff games, and finally suit up against the 2009 champs in Pittsburgh for Game 1 on Saturday night.

“These are pretty well-developed teams, and these are the past four winners from the last few years,” said Tuukka Rask. “It certainly tells you something. It’s funny how it goes.

“When Los Angeles won they were saying that they were trying to build a team like us from the year before, and the Pens had a couple of first round losses, but they still held on to the same guys. It’s kind of funny how things work out.”

It’s clearly unpredictable how things work out for any NHL team, but the core members of each hockey team have remained intact. It’s pretty self-evident why things have worked out this season for the Bruins, just as they have in the recent past: Bruins management fought to keep the team’s nucleus intact under the NHL salary cap.

The determination to keep a championship team together certainly paid dividends during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic were all identified as key factors in Boston’s success, and each of them was rewarded handsomely for it when free agency potentially beckoned.

It’s no coincidence that all of those players responded with important game-winning plays when it mattered most against the Maple Leafs and Rangers in the first two rounds. That Bruins leadership group understood that a first round exit would undoubtedly mean significant organizational changes, those key players refused to let the Bruins fade into oblivion when jobs were on the line.

Some, including this humble hockey writer, cautioned that there were signs of complacency and self-satisfaction with a Bruins team full of young multi-millionaires seemingly resting on their Cup championship two years ago. That seemed to be the case during the 48-game regular season with a Bruins team that admittedly prefers do things the hard way. But it was also a challenging season to really gauge anything given the nature of the 48-game shortened season, and a stretch through March, April and May when the Bruins played a whopping 45 games in 85 days.
But the veteran Bruins players have learned over the last few years that the Stanley Cup playoffs is where reputations are built, or destroyed around the league.

Boston’s six straight years in the playoffs under the leadership of Chiarelli and Julien is nice, but their second appearance in the conference finals in the last three seasons is proof the Bruins know what it takes in the postseason. It’s also proof Chiarelli and Co. knew what they were doing in retaining 17 players from the Cup championship team of two years ago, when so many short attention span hockey fans wanted the Bruins chasing after shiny new toys like Zach Parise, Rick Nash or Ryan Suter.

Standing pat and keeping a successful hockey team together isn’t splash-worthy or sexy, but it’s a proven formula for the Black and Gold.

“Things change so quickly. You’ve got to move with the changes and the trends. We’ve got a real good foundation and we’ve had success,” said Chiarelli. “Things can change quickly, and you’ve got to move quickly to make decisions soundly and quickly. You have to be proud of what we’ve accomplished here. But having said that, it’s a demanding town and they expect the best. We try and give it to them.

“There’s a fine line between loyalty to these players and making the right decisions. That’s what I have to do as a manger. Two years ago you [win the Cup], and you see how these guys work and how they will go to the wall for you. The initial premise isn’t difficult. Its like, ‘wow, we’ve won.’ Historically, it’s been a difficult exercise for teams that have won, and then have tried to keep the core together. It’s easy to say ‘let’s just keep everybody and see if we can do it under the cap’ and all that, but that’s not always the right thing. It’s a challenge…it is a challenge.”

The challenge right now for the Bruins is to find a way to get past the Pittsburgh Penguins, and give themselves another Stanley Cup Finals appearance against one of their fellow final four finishers. The Bruins have the toughness, the knowhow and the determination to wear down even the best opponents when they’re on top of their game, and they sit in a unique position this postseason.

Whoever wins the Stanley Cup this season will truly be able to say they conquered the best of the best in the NHL during the playoffs, and the Bruins have as good a chance as anybody else thanks to the careful construction of the team over the last six years.