A little too old, coulda used a few pounds. Some timely penalty killing would have been good, too. Oh, and better goaltending, and more meaningful, productive minutes from a bunch of their kids.
So much of that would have helped the Red Wings, especially against the far more complete Bruins, who Saturday kicked their old Original Six pals to the curb with a thorough, grinding 4-2 win at the Garden that sent the Wings home for the summer and the Bruins on to another date with destiny known as the Montreal Canadiens.
Actually, the specific dates are yet to be announced. All we know at this hour is that the Round 2, best-of-seven series will begin here with two games in the Hub of Hockey. The NHL is not expected to release the schedule until the other six first-round series wrap up. The Habs and Bruins were first to the finish line in Round 1, leaving both clubs with a sizable chunk of this week to rest, ruminate, and otherwise prep the menu for what is always a sumptuous meal between the two storied franchises.
“Good rivalry,” summed up Bruins fourth-liner Shawn Thornton, a vital member of the pack of 12 forwards that contributed to the systematic dismantling of the Red Wings. “My initial feeling is, embrace it . . . both teams get into it, so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Yes, it’s the Habs again for the Bruins, for a sixth time in the new millennium, a fourth with ex-Habs coach Claude Julien behind the Boston bench. Michel Therrien’s shifty, speedy Habs were their pluckiest best in their 4-0 wipeout of Tampa Bay in Round 1.
But the talent-deep, broad-shouldered Bruins, who needed five games to dismiss the Red Wings, are as confident as ever in their game, almost on par with the spring of 1971 powerhouse version of themselves that met the Habs in Round 1 for a sure cakewalk to a Stanley Cup repeat. Instead, the Habs smacked a pie in their Big, Bad, Shocked faces. For some aged baby boomers, those with Nehru jackets still pressed and hung in the closet, the piercing sting of that defeat lingers in the eyes.
Following his squad’s elimination of the Wings Saturday, Julien provided the all-too-familiar refrain that losing teams typically hear on the way out the door. Early in his tenure here, Julien was forced to hear much the same. The Wings would grow from it, said Julien, noting that their young players logged valuable postseason minutes.
The message, though appropriate and on point, conveyed an assured tone rarely heard on Causeway Street during Julien’s days here.
“We play a heavy game,” he said. “So it’s probably good on their end to see how the playoffs are played.”
How the playoffs are played. Julien’s Bruins have come a very long way. They have won eight of their last 10 playoff series, dating to the spring of 2011 that saw them land the franchise’s first Cup since 1972. They lost in Round 1 to Washington in 2012, then followed with another grueling four-round run last spring that fell just short of a Cup.
Ten rounds, eight triumphs, which leaves Julien standing on firm ground when he uses his team as a measuring stick, or teaching instrument, for others. The Bruins may not be the gold standard in today’s NHL, but there may be no such thing in the salary cap era, something Wings coach Mike Babcock noted in the middle of lauding the Bruins after Saturday’s loss.
At some point, said Babcock, “they’ll have to start paying people here.” It was not meant as a slight. In fact, it wasn’t all that accurate, because the Bruins under general manager Peter Chiarelli have had little issue paying the prime working help. Unlike the nickel-and-diming Harry Sinden days, when even team icon Ray Bourque was taken to salary arbitration assault, the Chiarelli-era Bruins have been quick to secure key talent with little fight at the negotiating table. Witness the deals to Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Tuukka Rask, and not to mention the now-retired Marc Savard. The only key player “lost” to money in Chiarelli’s term was Phil Kessel, who found a much more willing payer (Toronto: five years/$27 million) in the free agent market and forced a trade out of town.
Babcock’s overall point, though slightly off target with the Bruins, was correct: The cap era makes it very tricky to build and then retain top talent. The Wings are getting old up front and have suffered greatly on the back end in the wake of the Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retirements. They would have coped better if not for injuries to key players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Pavel Datsyuk, and the absent Jonathan Ericsson, but overall they’re in dire need of a youth and talent infusion.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are in their prime, built to win now, with this year’s best postseason goalie in Rask, the best constituted four-line pack of forwards in the Chiarelli era, and with Chara still the back line’s linchpin as the NHL’s No. 1 shutdown defender. The back six would be better if Dennis Seidenberg made it back from injury, but the Detroit series proved to be ground for Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug to feed their growth spurts.
“They are at the right time,” said Babcock, admiring the current Bruin model.
Babcock paid homage to Boston’s “overall depth of good players,” Rask’s netminding (both puckstopping and puckhandling), the stout execution of the defensemen, giving a particular credit to how Chiarelli has been keen to have equal amount of righthanded and lefthanded blue liners.
“Peter and Claude have done a good job,” Babcock said. “This is a good, solid team. You want to keep it as long as you can.”
Boston’s decades-long history, especially as viewed through postseason matchups with the Habs, underscores the ebb and flow of a franchise’s fates. Once was the time when the thought of the Bruins defeating Les Canadiens in the playoffs was whimsy bordering on the absurd. The Habs wore their legendary red, white, and blue, and the Black and Gold Bruins came dressed as tomato cans.
■ From 1929 through 1943, the franchises met four times, each winning two series. The Bruins won in ’29 and ’43, each time in the semifinal round. In ’29, Boston goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson notched a pair of shutouts over the Habs, then backed the Bruins to 2-0 and 2-1 wins over the Rangers for Boston’s first Cup championship. In ’43, Frank Brimsek backed the 4-1 series win over the Habs in the semis, the Bruins then were swept by the Wings, outscored, 16-5, in the final.
■ Then came the Dark Era, beginning just after World War II and spanning five decades. From 1946 through 1987, the Habs and Bruins met 18 times in the postseason, and 18 times the Boston hockey season ended with a loss to Les Glorieux. A half-dozen of those losses came in the Cup Final.
■ Of all the beatings, the gut-wrenchers were those of 1971 and 1979. In ’71, fresh from their Cup win in ’70, the Bobby Orr-led Bruins were considered shoo-ins to win again after recording their most wins (57) and goals (399) in team history in the regular season. With rookie goalie Ken Dryden in their net, the Habs forced a Game 7 at the Garden, where they delivered a stunning 4-2 smack across the Bruins’ stunned faces.
■ Then the greatest indignity of all came in the ’79 Cup semis, Game 7 at the Forum, Don Cherry’s Bruins of Terry O’Reilly, Jean Ratelle, and Rick Middleton surely at the cusp of finally ridding the Canadiens Curse. Not to be, despite the Bruins in command of a 3-1 lead with nine minutes to go and then 4-3 with just under four minutes to go. But then Don Marcotte was caught on the ice as a sixth Boston skater — one too many — followed by a Guy Lafleur power-play equalizer. Ultimately it was Yvon Lambert who potted the series-ender (assist Mario Tremblay) at 9:33 of overtime.
■ Finally, the excruciating pain ended in 1988, in Round 2, when the Bruins of Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Reggie Lemelin, and Andy Moog erased the Habs, and did so in five games. The clincher came right there in the Forum of their horrors, a 4-1 victory that capped four straight wins following a series-opening 5-2 loss that initially appeared to be the cornerstone of yet another beatdown.
■ The Bruins since have gone on to win six of 10 more postseason meetings between the clubs. Among the most memorable was Game 7 in 1994 at the old Garden, when a recently acquired Al Iafrate nearly singlehandedly lifted the Bruins to a 5-3 win, the old barn rocking as it never would again. And in 2011, as a first step to their first Cup win in 39 years, the Bruins once more narrowly squeezed by the Habs in Game 7.
Later this week, they meet again in the playoffs for the first time since. Time once again, as Thornton suggests, to embrace it.