If the Boston Bruins repeat their 2011 Stanley Cup run again this spring, then St. Patrick's Day may be remembered as their turning point.
This has nothing to do with Boston's unofficial title as the Irish capital of North America, and the attendant thousands of green-clad revelers all over the city on Saturday, and everything to do with the Bruins finally rediscovering their game. For the last two months, the Bruins frittered away first their NHL Eastern Conference lead and then the Northeast Division lead because their once-solid defensive game fell apart.
Then, when injuries to the likes of winger Nathan Horton started eating away at their scoring, the Bruins machine developed a nasty ping. From Feb. 1 until Saturday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins had an 8-13-1 record. The low point came last week with a four-game losing streak, the Bruins' longest one in more than two years.
Head coach Claude Julien felt the Bruins would not get better until they fixed the way they played in front of their own net. In winning last year's Stanley Cup, the Bruins created a wall in front of Tim Thomas and relied on timely rather than plentiful scoring to get them enough goals to win.
“We had to get better in that area that every team calls ‘the house,' and that's the front-of-the-net area,” Julien said. “We were getting caught on the outside quite a bit and opening up that slot area.”
Then, Julien added, when one of the Bruins defencemen would spot an opposing player open in the slot he would move toward him, creating an opening at the net. This allowed teams to get the puck to a forward who would slip into the open area from behind the net.”
The result was a drop in Thomas's play, as the goaltender found himself contending with a lot more than his controversial right-wing political views. Too many hockey right wingers found it easy pickings around the net when the Bruins' defence was running around looking too much like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who face the Bruins here Monday night.
Julien ordered his defencemen to worry about the front of the net first. He also told the wingers that if the centre was on their side of the ice they still had to play toward the middle rather than along the boards.
“One of the biggest adjustments was probably our strong-side winger getting caught along the boards a lot of the time when the other team had full control,” Julien said. “So we brought him back in.”
In Saturday's 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers, the changes worked well. The Flyers, a good net-crashing team, did not cause Thomas any undue distress. Both of their goals came on deflections and Thomas made a big save on Daniel Brière in the shootout to give the Bruins the win, which also restored their lead in the Northeast Division over the Ottawa Senators.
“I think we know that time's running out here,” Julien said. “With 10 games left, it's important that we bring that kind of an effort, that kind of a game, night in, night out right now because, as we all know, first of all, we want to be part of the playoff scene.
“Second of all, we want to be in the best position possible, and thirdly, you want to make sure you play your best hockey once the playoffs start. You have to build towards that, and we've got a lot of building to do.”
CHARA, SEIDENBERG TOGETHER AGAIN
One reason the Boston Bruins defence tightened up considerably was that head coach Claude Julien reunited the pair of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
They were put together three games into the first round of last year's playoffs after the Montreal Canadiens won the first two games. That sparked a turnaround, as Chara and Seidenberg became the best shutdown pair of the postseason as the Bruins became champions.
But for most of this season, Chara played with Johnny Boychuk and Seidenberg was with Joe Corvo. It worked well for the most part, with Chara once again a leading candidate for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the best defenceman.
However, as the Bruins' two-month funk continued, Julien decided to reunite the pair. Chara and Seidenberg were assigned to the Flyers' top line of centre Claude Giroux and wingers Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, who failed to register a point.
There is no doubt Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, who never plays well in Boston against his former team, will get his fill of Chara and Seidenberg during the Leafs' visit Monday night. However, neither Chara nor Seidenberg sees their reunion as a big deal.