They are regular routines. For important defensive-zone faceoffs, Claude Julien sends out Patrice Bergeron and Gregory Campbell. Late in regulation, with his team leading, the Boston coach calls on Bergeron, Chris Kelly, and Loui Eriksson. On the road, assistant coach Doug Houda sends out Zdeno Chara for just about every D-zone draw.
The actions capture why the Bruins are ready to roll through the playoffs. Their coach is prepared for every situation. General manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff have given Julien a roster crammed with options. And the Bruins have smart, game-changing talent at important positions.
Consider the above scenarios. Bergeron was one of 57 players to take 1,000 or more faceoffs this season. He had the best winning percentage (58.6 percent) of them all. But for Julien, it’s not enough to have one center available. He likes two draw men, a lefty and a righty, in case the first center gets tossed.
Other than late-game situations, Bergeron, Kelly, and Eriksson do not skate regular shifts together. But they have master’s degrees in hockey sense. They’re quick and strong with their sticks. Their first priority is defense over offense. Eriksson and Kelly are third-liners in Boston. Other teams might not have the depth to stick Eriksson on a No. 3 line.
Away from TD Garden, Julien doesn’t have the last change. If he sends out his third line, the opposing coach might counter with his first. To minimize risk and to discourage a third-versus-first matchup, Julien and Houda tab their captain. Chara is a coach’s dream: a shutdown deterrent whose presence causes other teams to alter their game plans.
Some organizations have good players and bad coaches. Others have smart coaches limited by shortsighted management.
The Bruins boast power in all three phases. They operate in harmony. The result is sweet music.
This is Julien’s seventh season in Boston. In all seven years, the Bruins have qualified for the playoffs. It is no coincidence.
Julien’s heavy lifting happened at the beginning and end of the regular season. The Bruins started with an 8-5-1 record. Their legs and hearts were still weary and disinterested from their loss to Chicago in June in the Stanley Cup Final. Julien’s job was tricky: urge his players to improve but not bring the hammer down too swiftly or stoutly. Had Julien done either, he could have lost the room. Julien didn’t mash the gas early. The Bruins eventually found their rhythm.
Once Julien and his Olympic companions (Chiarelli, Bergeron, Chara, Eriksson, Tuukka Rask, and David Krejci) returned from Sochi, the Bruins were in a good spot. Before the Olympic break, the Bruins went 8-1-2 to claim a 7-point division lead over Tampa Bay. The Bruins had one of the top two seeds on lockdown.
That wasn’t good enough.
After two post-break hiccups against Buffalo and Washington, the Bruins roared to life. They reeled off 12 straight wins. In the last 23 games of the season, the Bruins lost twice in regulation, including the regular-season finale against New Jersey when they dressed a JV squad.
This was a dangerous stretch for the Bruins. They could have mailed it in, knowing they had a top-two seed all but clinched. Instead, Julien kept his team invested. He fostered competition on defense. He sold the idea of winning the Presidents’ Trophy. He encouraged good habits. A 5-point deficit to conference-leading Pittsburgh at the break turned into a rout. The Bruins finished the season ahead of No. 2 Pittsburgh by 8 points.
It’s helped Julien that Chiarelli has armed him well. By trading Tyler Seguin to Dallas, the Bruins brought back two right wings in Eriksson and Reilly Smith. Eriksson projected to be the No. 2 right wing. In training camp, Smith won the third-line job. Eriksson’s slow start and concussions, coupled with Smith’s immediate production, led to the two switching lines.
But Eriksson is peaking. He is a powerful weapon on the No. 3 line. Eriksson’s presence is one reason the third line could be the deciding factor in the first-round series against Detroit. Since switching from left wing to center on Jan. 25, Carl Soderberg has been a different player. Soderberg is skilled, fast, strong on the puck, and hard to deter from the danger areas.
On defense, the Bruins absorbed a kick to the gut when Dennis Seidenberg ripped up his right knee Dec. 27. They lost their second-best defenseman, a lefty who can play the right side, and Chara’s postseason partner.
But the Bruins had aggregate help. Matt Bartkowski assumed most of Seidenberg’s left-side shifts on the No. 2 pairing. Kevan Miller, an undrafted grunt out of the University of Vermont, became a permanent varsity player. At the trade deadline, Chiarelli landed Andrej Meszaros, who’ll be first into the lineup if things go sideways.
Chiarelli’s acquisitions also jacked up the power play, long the team’s nemesis. Torey Krug, also an undrafted collegian, is the first unit’s quarterback. Krug led the team with 19 power-play points. Because of Krug’s vision, shot, and pace-pushing frenzy, the Bruins moved Chara to the front of the net. Chara scored a team-high 10 power-play goals.
On the second unit, Smith, Soderberg, and Eriksson play important roles. Smith works the left point. Soderberg is the goal-line man. Eriksson plays at the right half-wall. Soderberg and Smith repeatedly connected on a backdoor play. Eriksson is good in tight and in front of the net. The Bruins have two dangerous units, not just an overloaded first group.
The schemes work. Hockey operations has given the Bruins all-around depth. But results come down to the players. Namely, the best ones. The Bruins have elite players at the three critical positions: goalie, defense, and center.
Rask will be a Vezina finalist. Chara could win his second Norris. Bergeron is a runaway favorite for the Selke. Within their respective job descriptions, they are at the best in the league.
When all three phases work together, Cups usually follow.