Haggerty: The days that changed the Bruins' season

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Haggerty: The days that changed the Bruins' season

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com

BOSTON There are turning points to every hockey season in both the "good" and "bad" departments.

There are, of course, high points when a team is flowing with confidence, churning forward with unstoppable momentum. Its easy to succeed and flourish in those moments when the team has its chest puffed out and everything is developing according to plan.

That's where the Bruins were when they ripped off a seven-game winning streak on a road trip through Western Canada at the end of February.

But there are also nadirs that plague even the most dominant of teams. The Bruins had their fair share of those adverse moments, as well, in a season in which they eventually finished with their second Northeast Division title in the last three years.

Lets point to a couple of the major highs and lows of the season, and also the key turning point that might have helped change things:

There was a couple of listless losses in mid-December to Buffalo and Montreal that left Bruins president Cam Neely unimpressed with what he was watching on the ice. The Bs head honcho openly wondered on the radio if his team was trying to win hockey games 0-0.

With whispers that Claude Juliens job security was in danger, the team was put in an early position to prove itself after a promising start coming back from Prague. Shawn Thornton fought and scored two goals against the Atlanta Thrashers in perhaps his greatest NHL performance.

That was the first indication that this edition of the Bruins was blessed with more poise and depth than its predecessors, and had a real opportunity to journey deeper into the postseason than it had in the last three years.

The common denominator for me is that the players are calm, general manager Peter Chiarelli said when asked what was the difference in his team this season. Youd see some frenzy here and there, but players would get past the frenzy and settle things down. We stressed going into the Flyers series that you see this quiet confidence and you want to bottle it and display it.

I thought we showed it against the Canadiens in the opening round. Weve won overtime games and thats really got to be considered the highest pressure point when it comes to the playoffs. There were times we had defensive breakdowns, but I saw guys settling pucks down and finding seams for breakout plays. Thats been growing as things go along.

There was more, though.

The Bruins suffered a hideous defeat in early January at the Bell Centre, squandering a two-goal lead in the final minutes and eventually losing in a Max Pacioretty overtime goal. Paciorettys impetuous actions toward Zdeno Chara after the goal led to an enraged shoving match between the Bruins' captain and the Montreal power forward.

The Bruins were both enraged and embarrassed by that game, and concerned they once frittered away a two-goal lead in the final minutes of a game.

So the team gathered in Pittsburgh for a Sunday practice at the CONSOL Energy Center and talked about burying the bad feelings and tendency to run around late in games. The next night the Bruins engineered one of two epic third-period comebacks against the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins, and immediately forced itself back on track with a show of heart and willingness to work.

The Bruins scored four third-period goals in that game to wipe out a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead.

The Bruins squeezed in a couple of fight-filled games against the Dallas Stars and the Habs that finally put to bed questions about their toughness and heart that had Larry Brooks, of all people, writing poison-pen columns about their unwillingness to stand up for each other.

It may not have been a coincidence the Brooks column and those two pugilistic pieces of hockey paradise happened within the same week. The two games were another chance to show that the Bruins were unfairly labeled as a soft team unwilling to protect each other after Marc Savard was the victim of a Matt Cooke cheap shot elbow a season earlier.

That criticism stung, and sometimes the hard times, losses and vitriolic responses are the things that teams learn the most from.

Thats perhaps why one last ugly defeat at the end of this season might just have been the tipping point for this season when it comes to the holiday success the Black and Gold members are enjoying now.

The Bruins were wrapping up the end of the regular season with an April 4 game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Bs had basically wrapped up the Northeast Division title, but the Rangers were a team the Bruins might face in the playoffs.

There were things to play for in Bostons case, as the top seeds hadnt been locked in, and the Bruins had played that way over the first 30 minutes while building up a 3-0 lead. Things looked good and the lead appeared iron-clad against a Rangers team struggling for offense. But it all fell apart in a theme that was all too familiar last year.

The defense shriveled, Tim Thomas started getting antsy around his cage as the defensemen started breaking down and the forwards looked shell-shocked once theyd lost control of the game. The result was five straight New York goals and a 5-3 loss.

Anytime youre up and you have a game or a situation under control, to give it up is such a bad feeling, said Brad Marchand. Weve been through it before and weve got through it on the other side before. We dont want to let anything slip or slide.

The biggest thing I remember from that Rangers game is guys saying afterward, If we play like this in the playoffs then were gonna get killed. You cant play like that and let leads slide like that. We were playing bad defensively and we were playing bad offensively too. There was a lot of talk after that game that if we play like that in the playoffs were just going to get run over. "

The image of the loss was Tomas Kaberle blindly assuming Ryan Callahan was going to dump the puck behind the net, and then vacating the front of the net while basically paving a golden road for Brandon Dubinsky to pot the game-tying goal with nobody around him.

It was the kind of game that -- 10 days prior to the playoffs -- set off all kinds of warnings bells and danger whistles so close to the postseason, and was a firm reminder of how quickly things can fall apart as the Bruins lost the lead with less than four minutes to go in the game.

It was good that it happened in the regular season, said Johnny Boychuk. There are no excuses when it comes down to the playoffs. I hadnt really thought it about much at all until you mentioned it, but at the time it was one of these.

Boychuk then proceeded to make a slapping motion with his hand back and forth to signify the wakeup call that the Bruins received that night on the Madison Square Garden ice.

Several Bruins players in recent days have pointed to the heated exchange in the MSG visitors dressing room following that April loss as one of the most important moments of the season.

The anger and frustration was very real in a game some on the outside thought didnt really matter. One Bruin painted the picture: Every player in the room had something to say and the playoffs were very much on the minds of everyone. The pit in the stomach of every player in the room was very real, and was all too similar to the "What the hell just happened?" feeling after frittering away a Game Seven lead against the Flyers the year before.The B's were doomed to repeat hockeyhistory if they didn't start learning from it.

I remember it absolutely. It kind of felt like exactly what happened against the Flyers in the playoffs. It felt exactly like it, said one Bs player that lived through both experiences. Guys were saying We cant have this happen. This is unacceptable. If this was Game 7 of the playoffs then that would be totally unacceptable. If its like that then itll be just like last year against the Flyers and we cant ever let that happen again. "

Perhaps the Bruins never would have had enough to get by that pressure cooker of a first round series against Montreal if they hadnt stepped into a trap against the Rangers last month. Nobody will ever know for sure, but the Bruins seem awfullyglad to be upat this point up 3-0 in the series.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Coyotes hire Craig Cunningham as scout

Coyotes hire Craig Cunningham as scout

The Coyotes have hired former player Craig Cunningham as a pro scout, keeping the 26-year-old in hockey after a cardiac episode ended his playing career this season. 

Drafted by the Bruins in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Cunningham played 34 games for Boston over parts of two seasons before he was waived and claimed by Arizona. He totaled 19 games for the Coyotes, but served as captain of the Tucson Roadrunners, the team’s AHL affiliate. 

Cunningham was hospitalized after he collapsed during pregame warmups on Nov. 19. He was kept alive by continual CPR, but had his lower left leg amputated the next months due to an infection from the episode. 

Known as a high-character player who was popular with his teammates, Cunningham’s transition to scouting lets him further his career after a scary break. 

"I'm very excited to begin the next chapter of my life with the Coyotes," Cunningham said in a statement released by the team. "I'm very grateful to John Chayka, Dave Tippett, the Coyotes and Roadrunners organizations, and all of the great fans across Arizona for the incredible support I've received over the past year. I'm looking forward to helping the Coyotes and I can't wait to get started in my new role."

Said Chayka, the team’s general manager: ”We're thrilled to have Craig join our hockey operations department as a pro scout. Craig was a smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game. We're confident that he will bring those same qualities to the Coyotes in his new role and that he will be an invaluable asset to our organization. We look forward to Craig helping us in several areas and are excited that he is staying with the club."
 

Morning Skate: Overreacting to the Oilers' window

Morning Skate: Overreacting to the Oilers' window

Here are all the links from around the hockey world and what I’m reading while really enjoying what the CW does season in and season out with the Flash.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Don Brennan says that the Senators fans not showing up for Game 6 is their way of sticking it to Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.

*The talk is turning to the next captain of the Buffalo Sabres, and what they can do to help open up communication up and down the roster.  

*A guy that wore a Habs toque on his twitter avatar writes a glowing, praise-filled article about the performance of PK Subban during these Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s undoubtedly been good, but he just might have been wearing his Montreal Canadiens footie pajamas when he wrote this one, and rattling his fist at Habs management all the while.

*Interesting piece by Jason Gregor about the “window to win” for the Edmonton Oilers, and an odd notion that the window will close when Connor McDavid has moved out of his entry level contract. I’d say that’s kind of ludicrous.

*The Colorado Avalanche coaching staff has been let go after last year’s dreadful season, and that’s too bad for a really good guy in former Providence College head coach Tim Army. I’m sure he won’t be out of work long.

*Colin White made his Stanley Cup playoff and NHL debut for the Ottawa Senators in Game 6, and helped push Ottawa to a Game 7. It will be interesting to watch the Massachusetts native and former Boston College standout develop with the Senators as White was one of the players that the Bruins skipped over to instead draft Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft. The others, Mathew Barzal, Travis Konecny and Kyle Connor, are all either in the NHL or knocking on the door as well, and it’s going to be a challenging road for both of Boston’s forward prospects to live up the justification of the B’s drafting them first. Granted DeBrusk and Senyshyn are also both doing their thing for the P-Bruins as they push into the conference finals of the Calder Cup playoffs, and they’re both bright prospects in their own right. It’s going to take years to determine the rights and wrongs of that first round, but White getting into the lineup for the Senators is proof of just how high that organization is on him.

*Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan says that Sidney Crosby handled the targeted abuse well from the Senators in a Game 6 loss that will push to a Game 7 between the Penguins and the Senators.

*For something completely different: A great message from Brookline homey and former Sox GM wonder boy Theo Epstein in his commencement address to Yale University.