Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 23, 2017

Progress Or Wishful Thinking For The Bruins?

The optimists in the crowd will say that the glass is half full. After all, at least this year’s edition of the Boston Bruins made the Stanley Cup playoffs. The hopeful ones will assert that’s progress after the team missed the postseason the two previous years. They will point out the Bruins made the playoffs by going 18-8 over the last two months of the season, after head coach Claude Julien was fired and replaced by Butch Cassidy, the longtime coach for Boston’s AHL farm team in Providence. Those who only walk on the sunny side of the street will remind anyone willing to listen that all six games of the first-round series against the Ottawa Senators were decided by a single goal, with four of the contests going to overtime. That included Sunday’s decisive Game Six, won by Ottawa 3-2 on a Clarke MacArthur shot six and one-half minutes into the extra period. So close they will say, so very, very close. Surely next season can only get better.

There’s no contesting the factual statements, but those fans who see in them the certainty of a rosy future for Boston’s hockey fortunes are guilty of cherry picking. Making the postseason is obviously a first step, but a first-round defeat in six games is a clear reminder that the Bruins are far from one of the NHL’s elite teams. The playoffs always have an element of unpredictability, and sometimes bad things happen to very good teams, as fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Western Conference’s number one seed, learned to their horror a few days ago. But the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are safely through to round two, and the Washington Capitals, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record, are one win away from joining them. In the Western Conference the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, the top two teams in the Pacific Division, dispatched their first opponents with relative ease. But for Chicago, the teams that most analysts expected to be serious contenders for the Cup are still contending, while the Bruins head for the golf course.

A team that had been particularly lethargic on offense did indeed respond to Cassidy’s exhortations, but it’s certainly not unusual for a coaching change to have a positive short-term impact. Given his history, Julien was unemployed for only a matter of days before the Montreal Canadiens put him behind their bench, and that team also responded by breaking out of a mid-season malaise. Still it is fair to say that after his long years at Providence Cassidy has won the right to have the interim removed from his title in Boston. But whether he is the head coach the Bruins need to advance to the next level remains to be seen.

For one thing two of those eight losses under Cassidy came in the last two regular season contests, both of which were played at TD Garden. Aside from costing Boston in the final standings, they were reminders of a persistent inability to finish that has plagued this franchise for the last three years. In Sunday’s decisive overtime period the Bruins, with their season on the line, looked disorganized and overmatched.

The losses were also painful reminders to Bruins fans, as if any were needed, of their team’s inability to defend home ice. Of the sixteen teams that made the playoffs, only one had a lower home winning percentage than Boston. It was really no surprise when Ottawa was the team celebrating at the end of all three playoff games played at TD Garden.

Those last two regular season losses very nearly cost Boston a spot in the playoffs. After all eighty-two games were complete, had but a single Bruins victory instead been a defeat, the team would have been sitting out the run to the Stanley Cup for a third straight season.

The series with the Senators was indeed a nail-biter, and fans and pundits will be able to point to various plays or officiating calls that might have led to a different outcome if they had only gone a tad differently. But the close scores and four overtime contests disguise the reality that Boston was fighting uphill throughout the series. When Drew Stafford scored to put the Bruins in front 1-0 at 18:13 of the first period on Sunday, it was the first time Boston had an in-game lead in more than a week, since midway through the third period of Game Two. With all the overtime play the six games had more than 404 minutes of ice time, but the Bruins skated with a lead for barely more than 24 of those minutes. Were it not for Tuukka Rask’s stalwart performance between the pipes the Senators would have moved on to the next round much sooner.

Now another offseason arrives much earlier than desired for Boston hockey fans. Those halcyon days when their team ended a four-decade drought by winning the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2011, then went to the Finals again in 2013 and followed that by winning the Presidents’ Trophy one year later, seem increasingly distant. The optimists in the crowd will say great things are in store for the Bruins. The rest of us, inured to disappointment, will wait and see.

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