Sun Tzu never stood behind an NHL bench or was tasked with building a Stanley Cup-winning roster, although he no doubt would have been the Scotty Bowman of his day. Following the Bruins’ premature elimination by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs, Tzu’s sage advice should be heeded by the hockey minds on Causeway Street — know your enemy and know yourself.
The pucks postmortem of the Bruins’ 3-1 loss in Game 7 on Wednesday night is ongoing, but it’s clear the Canadiens aren’t going away. Thanks to NHL realignment and a reemphasis on divisional play in the postseason, the Habs are going to be a perennial hurdle for the Bruins on the highway to Lord Stanley’s hardware.
They are pesky, speedy, skilled, and, apparently, preoccupied with being respected. They’re also a tough matchup for the Bruins. The Canadiens were the team that ended the Bruins’ 12-game winning streak in March, and their season in May. The Bruins were 1-2-1 against Montreal in the 2013-14 regular season.
The Bruins’ way works. They have the trophies (Stanley Cup in 2011 and Presidents’ Trophy this season) to prove it. But it’s not as effective against Montreal. Simply constructing teams with the coach Claude Julien comfort food recipe of three-zone defensive accountability, four solid lines, and more thump than a bass drum might not be enough to bring another Cup to Boston, not if the Bruins have to fight their way out of an Atlantic Division with the go-go Canadiens each spring. The Bruins have to build their team with an eye toward defeating the bleu, blanc, et rouge.
Constructing a team with your chief competition in mind is not a novel concept in sports. You’ve seen it this offseason from the Patriots. Knowing they have to go through Peyton Manning and the record-setting passing game of the Broncos, the Patriots upgraded their secondary by bringing in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. In 1982, the 76ers got Moses Malone to combat the Celtics and Lakers.
The 49ers and Seahawks are constantly making personnel moves geared toward swinging the pendulum of power in the NFC West. The Red Sox and Yankees have traded personnel salvos for years, warily eyeing each other across the Northeast corridor.
Teams can’t be constructed in a vacuum or with immutable philosophy. That doesn’t mean the Bruins should abandon their blue-collar identity and their black-and-blue style.
However, it would be wise to tweak it a bit to better counteract the strengths of the Canadiens. A good start would be making an allowance for someone who “plays at the end of their stick,” as Julien would say, but excels in putting the puck in the back of the net.
Montreal already has taken this tack, building its club with one eye on the Spoked-B. Over the last couple of years, the Canadiens have tinkered with their team to add elements that would help them do a better job of standing up to the Bruins.
The Canadiens will never be mistaken for tough guys, but they also showed in this series that they won’t be intimidated when the Bruins flex their muscles. They whine, but they don’t wilt.
Once a finesse team, bereft of pushback, the Canadiens added brawler Brandon Prust and provocateur Brendan Gallagher last season. In February, they flipped defenseman Raphael Diaz for fourth-liner Dale Weise, who went nose to nose with Milan Lucic in Game 6, mocking Looch’s biceps flex, and scored the first goal in Game 7. At the March trade deadline, Montreal acquired Bruins tormentor Thomas Vanek, who had four goals in the series.
The Canadiens clearly have a club with a knack for taking the Bruins off their game, on and off the ice. All you have to do is look at Lucic, who did his best attacking this series in the post-Game 7 handshake line.
“We always talk with the media about how good they are, how physical they are. They’re a great team, but we’re a great team, too,” said Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty. “When we worry about our game and we play between the whistles, we’re a frustrating group to play against because we are fast and we get under people’s skin. We know when to make plays, we know when to get pucks deep, and it’s tiring on their defensemen because we are skating them for seven games.”
Now, it’s Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli’s turn to adjust to Montreal.
Swapping some of the Bruins’ trademark XL game for a medium with more flash and finish and getting better puck movement from the back end should be priorities. Julien cited puck movement as one of the Bruins’ downfalls after the Canadiens’ coup de grace in Game 7.
“We weren’t moving the puck well from the back end,” said Julien. “You could see that the puck wasn’t moving smoothly from our end as far as breakouts were concerned, and it wasn’t quite there. We kept turning pucks over, so it’s hard to get momentum that way.”
The question needs to be asked whether the menacing Lucic and the instigating Brad Marchand, who combined for one empty-net goal in the series, are more interested in scoring goals or goading opponents?
The Bruins need more of the former from them as top-six forwards.
You can’t fault the Bruins for steadfastly believing in their team-building tenets. Two trips to the Stanley Cup Final since 2011 are validation.
But when you build a team that can only play one way and employ a one-size-fits-all approach to your roster you decrease your margin for error.
The best teams can win with multiple styles of play. That was the case for the early- and mid-aughts Patriots teams.
The Bruins need to increase their margin for error and diversify their player portfolio a bit, mainly with Montreal in mind, but also Detroit.
NHL realignment requires an altered Art of Winning for the Bruins.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.