Return of the big, bad Bruins?
BOSTON – There were 12 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the 695th edition of the Canadiens-Bruins blood feud when Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek and Boston left wing Milan Lucic paired off near center ice.
The young bulls had spent the better part of the mid-November evening trading barbs, body checks and cross stares all over the ice. With the Canadiens heading to a blowout loss, the time was right for the best young Montreal defenseman since Chris Chelios circa mid-1980s to re-establish the team’s dominance over the Bruins.
Ten seconds and 14 right hands later, with the Habs’ top defenseman crumbled to the ice and out of the lineup for the next month with an injured shoulder, Lucic screamed over the raucous din of the approving crowd by gesturing wildly and pounding on the glass.
Like Virgil Sollozo’s fish-wrapped-in-newspaper valentine to the Corleone family in “The Godfather,” Lucic’s TKO of Komisarek was an unmistakably clear memo to the rest of the NHL: This season’s version of the Bruins is the direct philosophical descendants of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers; a 21st -century version of the Big Bad Bruins. And come late spring, perhaps this is the Bruins team that brings the Stanley Cup back to Boston since Johnny Bucyk skated it around the Madison Square Garden ice in 1972.
Coming off of a 94-point season last year, Boston was predicted to repeat as the eighth seed by the hockey cognoscenti. Instead, the fast-starting Bruins have won 11 of their past 13 games (including a throttling of Cup champ Detroit) and lead the Eastern Conference with 42 points, only four behind NHL pacesetter San Jose just past the season’s quarter pole.
“We have had a strong start to the season, and we’re happy with that,” center Marc Savard said. “We’re excited and so is the whole city. You don’t expect to make such a drastic move in the standings. We’re fortunate to do as well as we have.”
For an organization whose only major free-agent addition was Michael Ryder, what caused the metamorphosis from middle-of-the-road to Cup contender?
Look no further than last spring’s first-round playoff series against Montreal. The Habs had their way in eight regular-season matches, going 8-0 and outscoring their Original Six brethren by an aggregate 39-16. Les Habitants finished the season with 104 points to finish with the best record in the East, 10 points ahead of the Bruins.
Prior to the 31st playoff matchup between the two franchises, the smart money was on the Habs’ regular-season dominance to carry over. Instead, despite losing in seven games, the Bruins largely outplayed the Canadiens. The confidence gained in pushing Montreal to the brink has carried over to this season; the Bruins now trust that they deserve to be among the NHL’s elite.
“After coming back from 3-1 down (and forcing a seventh game) we knew how much better we could be,” Savard said. “We built off of it.”
Added Lucic, “It unified us; it helped us believe.”
In the second year under Claude Julien’s counter attacking system, the Bruins generate offense from their stifling defense. Boston takes away the neutral zone, forcing the opposition into turnovers leading to odd-man rushes. Boston is second to Minnesota for the fewest goals allowed, having yielded 59 goals in 27 games and led the league with 1.96 goals-against average before Monday. Offensively, Boston’s 92 goals scored are third most in the league, trailing only San Jose (102) and Detroit (95).
Scoring goals and limiting goals against. Concepts for success.
“We play a good two-way system,” Phil Kessel said. “Good defense creates good offense.”
In a league that attempts to market individual stars, the Bruins do not have an Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. What they do have is 13 players with at least three goals, led by Kessel’s 17; what they have is 11 players with more than 11 points, with Savard’s team leading 32.
“Depth is hard to defend against,” Savard explained. “We have four lines that can score. Each guy wants to produce.”
And while Savard’s view is not up for debate, the first line of Lucic-Savard-Kessel has led the way. The trio has combined for 32 goals, 42 assists, 73 points and is plus-15. It’s a triumvirate whose unique skills have merged to the point that their line may be one of the NHL’s best.
Lucic draws comparisons to legendary Bruins power forward and current team vice president Cam Neely. In 128 games in his first two seasons, then as a Vancouver Canuck, Neely had 37 goals, 33 assists, 70 points and 194 minutes in penalties. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lucic has 15 goals, 29 assists, 44 points and has compiled 142 PIMS in 103 games while developing into one of the league’s premier heavyweights.
“It’s nice. It’s an honor to be compared to a Hall of Famer like that. I just play my game and establish myself on the ice,” Lucic said.
The 31-year-old Savard has quietly become one of the league’s top centers, someone who can play at even strength, power play and penalty kill. Savard’s all-around game prompted popular and outspoken hockey analyst Don Cherry to stump for his inclusion on the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team.
“Obviously, it makes you feel good,” said Savard, who pointed at Lucic and Kessel as reasons for his success, saying that “They are good kids that are playing well. It makes the game easier when you’re playing well.”
The fifth pick in the 2006 draft, Kessel is beginning to establish why he was compared to Crosby. In the Bruins’ last 12 games, the right wing from Madison, Wisc., has 10 goals and six assists while often looking like the most talented player on the ice. When told that he is on pace for a 50-goal season, much like his centerman, Kessel praised his linemates.
“I don’t think about it. [Lucic and Savard] are great players to play with; it’s a tribute to them,” Kessel said.
Modesty’s noble but arrogance sells. Certainly, there has to be talk in the room about joining the Celtics, Patriots and the Red Sox in New England’s recent pantheon of pro champions.
“We take it day-by-day, game-by-game and not look too far ahead,” Kessel said.
That philosophy could lead to Boston’s Cup overflowing for the first time in 37 years.