Pending an abrupt, heartbreaking injury interruption to the best season of his short, twilight career, Tim Thomas will win the Vezina Trophy in 2011. Thomas and Tuukka Rask leave little to the imagination for the modern day sports writer, in his or her quest to write about who the best goalie in the NHL is, or what team has the best goaltending core or tandem. Rask in is own right, at the moment, has the fifth best save percentage in the league, and would look much better from a stats perspective, given goal support. The Bruins are a team who can score goals, a statement I couldn’t make last year without laughing, or crying, or both. That being said, it isn’t talent in front of him that leaves him at 4 and 9, its respect. He earned it last year, yet it flickered in the light of a blinding collapse. He will have to earn the trust from the Bruins offense, if he is to stay successful in the years to come, a feat I think he is already beginning to conquer. Thomas on the other hand, holds the number one slot in the Save Percentage category, as well as in GAA and Shutouts, and a loaded second seed in wins, due to Rask’s 14 starts. I had personally called for this to be the year Tuukka broke out; this being before Thomas’ final glory season as the number one was cut short last year due to injury, and before the bad Bruins’ press to pressure Rask into the number one role, came way too soon. Leaving last year behind us, finally, and moving forward onto what a healthy Tim Thomas can bring to this team, the Bruins will get a hefty bite of the playoffs this season, no doubt, and will end with their stomachs full and their heads resting comfortably on the couch. There will be no collapse this year, and if the goals are flying in for Boston, Thomas will be standing on his head, as the unconventionally built brick wall, with a style no one should have the gall to knock or the audacity to criticize.
How did the Bruins build an offense after ridding themselves of what was referred to as there only offensive threat? For the satirical sake of asking a question, and than answering in a sarcastically and egotistically knowledgeable fashion, first thing’s first; Phil Kessel was not a Bruin. At least, not a Bruin in the sense that Claude Julien was ever going to be able to properly configure him into the winning structure of a playoff ready hockey team. He is weak, gutless, and only scores goals. Julien, as I and so many have beaten until the neighing has silenced, coaches a boring and defensively layered style of hockey. Every forward has to play physical, every forward has to be willing to play the body in order to play the puck, and you have to have integrated scrap players, dogs who will get their tails filthy to score goals or break noses. Kessel was none of these things, except of course a tool to score the occasional goal. A perfect, current situation which parallels my undying distrust towards Phil Kessel and my forever gratitude for his departure is the flaccid play of Michael Ryder. Take out the fact that he was a Montreal Canadian and take out the fact that he had a clear shot at Matt Cooke after the “Incident” with Marc Savard, and didn’t lift a damn finger, he has a wrist shot with a cold streak, and an uncanny ability to draw stupid penalties, and a lot of them at that. Some may argue he is a key to the Bruins’ offense. I say, replace him with a broom, and either Savard, Krejci or Bergeron could make it a 20 goal scorer. But all that being said, and back to saying goodbye to Philly K., I say the building happened after the so called demolition. First, the Bruins kept the three previously mentioned centers, arguable first liners on 50% of the teams in the Eastern Conference. Second, the acquisition of Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, and not just because the Bruins scouting eye was dead on balls accurate in seeing Nathan Horton’s potential, or because Gregory Campbell could coach, sweep the benches, keep score, etc. (the guy does absolutely everything, including fight, and does it well), but because they acknowledged, once and for all, they have a weak defense, and that the fix started with the inevitable shit canning of Dennis Wideman. Third, they harnessed Lucic to his fullest potential, putting him on lines where he can score goals and bang heads. Injury prone yes, but with Horton on the opposing wing or Savard shooting pass after pass onto his stick, he has become a superstar in the black and gold. Put Lucic in front, Horton or anyone for that matter cycling above the center circles, and Krejci or Savard along the boards, and there isn’t a spot in the offensive zone these guys can’t score from. The fourth and final keys to this offense are Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand. One is a second pick overall and the other is a Providence Bruins farm system call up. Both have played exceptionally well, the latter adapting better to the fast paced National Hockey League, a shorthanded goal machine to whom I would pay money to invest in, and the first showing hints of flash and skill which we only hope to see flourish and remain under the Boston spoked ‘B’.
What do these acquisitions, these pieces to the puzzle, these 8 out of 12 do to the remaining forwards, something so obvious, I shouldn’t even be addressing it? They make them better. These select players above, playing at the highest skill of there current potential, are displaying the missing ingredient to last year’s failure bound, Bruins playoff team; heart. They are spreading so much heart, that they have made Mark Recchi immortal, as a pin ball pillar for puck’s to bounce off of. Picture a 50 year old Recchi and 26 year old prime time superstar Tyler Seguin, playing “Katie bar the door” close to the crease hockey, because I sure as hell can. Blake Wheeler has actually stepped it up a notch, in his quiet role of using his stature, and not screwing up all the time. He has his moments, but for the most part, this is the first year he has substantially improved. The last notable mention as a forward, is a man who needs no introduction, a man whose heart I never question, and who’s nose will never quite look straight on his face, Shawn Thornton. He’ll fight, he’ll score, and he’ll play it clean. He is the perfect fourth line forward, and with this depth, this all too apparent box of tools, role players, physical forwards, European and Canadian finesse, and a mixture of youth and experience, all of this chemistry equals that goal support, equals offense, and as of late, and with plenty more to come, equals wins. The key to hockey is not to score goals, it is to win games. That may sound absolutely ridiculous, but if you ask Claude Julien, or any member of the Boston Bruins, preventing goals is just as important, if not more important, then scoring them. Scoring them however, having recently outplayed Carolina over a two game home and home, winning both by a combined score of 10-2, shouldn’t be a problem. The Bruins have proven they can skate with any team offensively in the Eastern Conference, and with a tight pack this year, and many surprising front runners, to stand out at all proves they can beat any team as well.
Defense, then, will be the gating factor, the key to all teams’ collapses, and the make or break for the Bruins this season. On the wake of Zdeno Chara’s first career Hat trick, even though he hasn’t been able to consistently get a shot through to goal all season, and it being common knowledge that Johnny Boychuck and newcomer, and hopefully soon to be defensive staple, Steven Kampfer, can both bomb it from the point, and stick handle to the goal, the team’s defensive-offensive point threat will not be in question. The defense stepping up in the play will be of no concern either, and holding the points, players like the defensive minded Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard, who can play anywhere on the ice, and defensemen like Chara and Mark Stuart, can do quite well, will be a practiced and remain an integral aspect of play for the Bruins. So what is the problem on defense? It is the same problem as last year, which plagues the Julien system; getting the puck out of their own zone, and not allowing pressure build up near the crease, as players get tired, due to their inability to transition. Layered defense means, layered offense. The puck starts from the defensive end and works its way up the ice, into the offensive zone, and at times, into the goal. If you are missing this key, back end support system, this layering will fail. Chara has played poor defensively this season, and is noted because of his name, slapshot and size, as an All Star. Sedeinberg is solid defensively, if he is not tasked with moving guys out of the front of his net, or controlling the puck in the defensive zone. Kampfer and McQuaid are both young, and for the time being, playing boring, yet controlled defense which I can’t actually criticize. McQuaid will throw his flailing punches at anyone, and Kampfer’s strengths have been highlighted, but structurally there defensive positioning is sound. Andrew Ference, when healthy, to me, is just as bad as Wideman was, never hitting the right angles, and never placing the puck correctly to his forwards for transition. I do, however, have a new found respect for him, since his reaction to an elbow Lucic took in the head. His behind the back tackle on Atlanta’s Freddy Meyer was a revelation. Mark Stuart, as I have and will always say, is the strongest Bruin, pound for pound, however he is slow, and unlike Chara with his long reach, it shows. All that being said, and with a solid future at the defensive position, residing in Providence, awaiting their calls, youth will be the key to leading the charge. Chara needs to step up his defensive positioning, penalty control, and physical play. Boychuck, Stuart and Seidenberg need to take smarter angles, and cover their asses, as to not allow for what seems like a game by game breakaway attempt for the opposition. Kampfer and McQuaid however, need to carry their solid play, into the playoffs, and sustain it. Side note: Shots cannot get through to Thomas or Rask. Fourty five shots on goal, is unacceptable. Drop down to the ice, and take a stinger off the arms, legs or chest for a change. Improvement at defense is needed to prove my prediction of taking the Stanley Cup this year, however with goals being scored, and goaltending leaving no questionability, they have a better chance this year, than Thomas’ first Vezina Trophy winning season, two years ago. But who will they have to go through and who will they have to conquer, with all of these skills, to make this happen?
For Tim Thomas, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and the entire host of the skating black and gold to lift, drink from and etch their names into the Cup this year, they will need to break through the consistently talented plethora of Eastern powerhouses, along with some surprise notable mentions, contributing to this tight race.
We’ll start with Pittsburgh, harboring an injured superstar, the number one season break out, Sydney Crosby, and the strong, yet easily exploited, Marc Andre Fleury. I could not say this last year, but this year it is apparent. Pittsburgh can be had, and the Bruins have the tools to respond to this bad blood rival. Kris Letang is having a Norris Trophy caliber season on defense, but Crosby and Malkin aside, can they continue to utilize heart to fuel the remaining rag tag offensive threats, and overcome there remaining one-way defenseman? Orpik, Cooke, Rupp and Engelland to name a few, make up a sloppy, quick to the penalty box and not so quick to throw down, yet excellently coached national hockey league team. Pittsburgh, due to history and the prodigal son returning healthy, will be the number one threat for the B’s in the post season, regardless of how the regular season ends, and who sits atop the Atlantic.
That being said, who will sit atop the Atlantic, if not Pittsburgh? Philadelphia and the Rangers are making a very good case for it. Philly, to whom the Bruins have a 2-1 season series lead against, look not at series leads as any insurmountable feat to overcome. B’s fans know this all too well, and with Giroux, Richards, Briere and Carter showing exactly what the four of them can do for a team, when healthy, their lineup is a force. The B’s saving grace is, and as I have voiced my strong opinion on this in the past, come playoff time, this platooning between Bobrovsky and Boucher will not hold, and with Bobrovsky having yet to prove himself in any playoff situation, Philly could fall flat. Goalie to goalie, Thomas at this point in the season, proves that he can stand up to any team. That being said, the Rangers harbor the second best goaltender in the league (no not Carey Price), but Henrik Lundqvuist. Also, with the steady play of Marian Gaborik, and the sudden immergence of Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegian Olympic stud (who says Olympic Hockey is pointless), they are showing signs of offensive flare. That being said, I do not think Brandon Dubinksy and Sean Avery define any offensive depth, and though Lundqvist can sneak them in, and take them far, the lack of offense will be too overwhelming, and the likes of Savard, Lucic and Horton won’t miss their opportunity to take down a rival like this, having only to score 3 to 4 goals a game, to do it.
Next we look to the Southeast Division, dominated by the Washington Capitals, right? Wrong. The Capitals at midseason, find themselves second to a Stamkos and St.Louis controlled season surprise, the Tampa Bay Lighting, who are currently riding a weak defense, and platooning goaltenders. Dan Ellis has proven to be an asset, and I am a Dwayne Roloson fan, thinking his glove hand falls short only to that of Tuukka Rask’s. I do however think, defense will fail them, and these two goaltenders cannot take them far beyond round one. Pending a B’s match up, the series will be tight, but Stamkos and St. Louis only have two games in them if they have one, and a head to head series can be had. Falling just short of the Capitals at the moment, are the Atlanta Thrashers, headed by former Bruin’s affiliate, Craig Ramsay, and what should be the starting defensive pairing for the Eastern All Star team, he is solely responsible for building, in Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. Their offense consists of strong skaters, for example the coolest name in hockey, Evander Kane, but they lack finishers and flare, consistent goal scorers, and offensively controlling centers. Their offense will fail them, and they will have to wait another year before the effects of losing Ilya Kovalchuk wear off. On the back of a break out season for Ondrej Pavelec, they will sneak into the playoffs, but they will remain off the radar as an offense to offense match up threat for the B’s. This brings us to the Capitals, who if it weren’t for Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin continuing their All Star caliber offensive play, they would be flat on their backs in the wake of needing solid goaltending. Semyon Varlamov who? Michael Neuvirth who? Their cage has holes in it, and one would expect better from such an offensive minded powerhouse. Right now, they are weak, and again, line them up in a series with the B’s, and similarly to the Lighting, they can only hope to take two at best, on the sole skates of their offense. If they don’t pick up a goalie for the playoffs, the Caps will again, disappoint.
Finally we hit the Bruin’s own, Northeast Division. Though it is argued the Sabres have the B’s number, with a simple nod to the fact that they took them down with ease last playoff season, the argument that Buffalo will not be a playoff team in 2011, and that Ryan Miller is all they have, and the occasional Vanek goal, Buffalo will be no hurdle. That being said, and with Toronto and Ottawa currently and consistently out of the season picture in 2011, the Bruins have only one true rival in their Division, if only one true rival in all of hockey; the Montreal Canadians. With everyone in the world of hockey “journalism” eating this so-called “crow pie”, I will have a bite, and say I was wrong about doubting that Carey Price could lead his team to some sort of respectable standing within the Eastern Conference. Once he dried his tears, and manned-up, he has proven to be the third best goalie in the NHL, behind Lundqvist and Thomas, and has proven that he can play the crutch to a team skating solely on the hindrance of having no steady offensive threats. Can he lead them to the playoffs? Yes, of course. Can the team lead themselves past the first round of the playoffs? I do not think so. If they face the B’s in round one, expect offense to take over and Thomas to outplay Price, rather easily and most apparent, where by mid-series Price is completely overwhelmed.
With the East taken care of, the West throws a few teams of its own into the mix, for the Bruins to only worry about and potentially face in the Stanley Cup Series. Detroit continues to defy age and prove chemistry is key, and Vancouver continues to defy offensive logic, and harness the Sedin twins and Luongo as guarantees that they will sit atop the Western Conference. Chicago will be in the mix, Kane and Towes ever present, and L.A. and Phoenix will make a late season push, and sneak into the top eight. The West will be filled with the likes of quick play, and high scoring games. If and when the Bruins grace the Cup Series with their presence, the West can be won, and we will explore just how it will be won, once we learn who their opponent will be…
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