Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2016

Much Is Known, But Not In Boston

Ten days remain in the NHL’s regular season, yet hockey fans already know certain things about the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. For starters they know that the Washington Capitals will have home ice throughout the postseason. With fifty-four wins and a plus sixty goal differential that is nearly twice as large as the next best team the Caps have clinched the Presidents’ Trophy with a half-dozen games still to play. Perhaps this will finally be the year when Alex Ovechkin adds “Stanley Cup Champion,” hockey’s ultimate team accomplishment, to the lengthy list of personal achievements on his professional resume.

As happy as they are, Washington fans may not want to make plans for the celebratory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue just yet. Only two of the last twelve teams to claim the Presidents’ Trophy, the NHL’s award for the best regular season record, have gone on triumph in the playoffs. One of the many squads that came up short was the 2009-10 edition of these same Capitals. That team tallied 121 points and an eye-popping plus eighty-five goal differential. All that mattered little to the Montreal Canadiens, who stormed back from a three games to one deficit to stun Washington in the opening round of the playoffs.

Fans may not know if this year’s Capitals will face a similar fate, but they can be certain that during the postseason Washington won’t be facing Montreal, or any other Canadian franchise for that matter. Wednesday night the Flyers defeated the Capitals 2-1 in a shootout, and one consequence of Philadelphia’s victory was to eliminate Ottawa, the last remaining team from north of the border with a shot at the playoffs. For a nation that has declared hockey its official winter sport by an act of parliament and whose men’s and women’s Olympic teams have won more gold medals than any other country, it’s bad enough that the last Canadian team to hoist the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993. Now for the first time since 1970 no Canadian squad will even skate in the tournament.

Back then the two Original Six teams in Toronto and Montreal were the country’s representatives in a 12-team NHL. Both were in the league’s East Division, and while the Maple Leafs were cellar dwellers, the Canadiens still had a shot at the playoffs when they took the ice for that year’s final regular season contest. A win or a tie against Chicago would have given Montreal the points it needed to move ahead of New York. Failing that, scoring at least five goals in defeat would tip the tiebreaker then in effect, total goals scored, in the Habs favor. Trailing 5-2 with half of the final period still to play, Montreal coach Claude Ruel started pulling goalie Roger Vachon every time the Canadiens skated into the Chicago zone, in a desperate effort to add offensive pressure. But all the tactic produced was a series of open net scores by Chicago in an eventual 10-2 victory.

Now there are seven franchises north of the border, and one year after five of them played on after the regular season’s 82nd game, the players on all seven will be free to start tuning up their golf games shortly. In a league in which more than half the teams, eight from each conference, make the playoffs, the three Canadian teams in the Eastern Conference are currently 12th, 13th and 16th. Their four Western Conference counterparts are 11th through 14th, the last four places in that conference’s standings.

At the start of the season expectations were low for Toronto and Edmonton, despite the addition of star head coach Mike Babcock in the former and overall number one draft pick Connor McDavid in the latter; but no one foresaw the failure of all seven teams. The Calgary Flames were one of the busiest franchises during the offseason, but all their moves have proven good enough for just 11th place in the West. The Flames are one point better than the Winnipeg Jets, who looked promising on paper after adding several talented young skaters to the squad that claimed a Wild Card spot last year. Montreal was the hottest team in the league when the season started. The Canadiens set a franchise record with nine consecutive wins to begin the campaign. But then goaltender Carey Price got hurt and Montreal went from first place to the team’s worst collapse ever in rapid fashion. As the season came unraveled head coach Michel Therrien was reduced to engaging in open name-calling with star defenseman P.K. Subban.

But while fans already know that in addition to being first in war and first in peace Washington is also first in the NHL, and that the Canadian national anthem may need be changed from O to No Canada, there are still matters that hang in the balance in these final ten days. Nowhere is that more true than in Boston, where fans are reeling from what looks like another all too familiar late season implosion by their beloved Bruins.

It’s now been five seasons since Boston last won the Stanley Cup, and three since the team skated in the Finals against Chicago. Two years ago the Bruins played the role of this season’s Capitals, roaring to the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 regular season points. But just when their postseason push was supposed to be getting started the B’s were upended in the second round by their most hated rivals, the skaters in the red, white and blue sweaters from north of the border. Then last season a string of seven consecutive playoff appearances under head coach Claude Julien was snapped by a crucial six-game winless streak in March, followed shortly thereafter by an 0-2-1 finish. The final regular season loss came against an inferior Florida team when two points would have pushed Boston into the playoffs.

This year the Bruins were atop the Atlantic Division after a 3-1 victory over the Islanders at TD Garden on March 12th. In the Eastern Conference they trailed only the league-leading Capitals. Then in a sad reprise, March disaster struck again. Boston lost all four games of a road trip while being outscored 14-5. A fifth straight defeat followed at home, and a lone win at Toronto was negated by another loss at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, a team that has little chance of making the playoffs.

The Bruins could well join the Devils on the first tee all too soon. After the recent slide Boston now clings to third place in the division, just one point ahead of Detroit. Were the Bruins to fall out of third, they would find themselves looking up at both of the teams currently holding the Wild Card spots. Boston must play St. Louis and Chicago, two elite Western Conference teams on the road, before returning to Causeway Street for the final three regular season tilts.

Whether those games are the Bruins’ final three for this campaign, period, may well turn on the second of them, a match against the Red Wings next Thursday. With the two tough road contests before then, the Bruins may well be trailing their opponent in the standings when two desperate teams take the ice. For all his accomplishments, including the most wins of any head coach in Bruins’ history, Julien’s job, and the roster spot of many of his players, will likely hang in the balance. Ten days to go, and much is now known about the Stanley Cup playoffs. But to the dismay of fans here in New England, for the Bruins the only thing certain is the uncertainty.

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