After the Bruins ended his team’s season Saturday with a professional 4-2 win at TD Garden, Mike Babcock sounded resigned to a fate he probably knew was in his cards.
Like he usually does, the Detroit coach spoke frankly about what he saw from the juggernaut that overwhelmed his squad in five games. Experience. Healthy star players. An airtight goalie. Three left shots and three righties on defense.
But most of all, depth.
“They’ve got good players,” Babcock said.
Jarome Iginla knows this very well. The ex-Penguin learned this the hard way when the Bruins rolled them in four games in the Eastern Conference final. Now, Iginla’s battling among the boys that sent him golfing one round early last year.
Iginla’s critical teammates aren’t just star players like Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron. He looks around the room and sees fourth-liners such as Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton doing their specific duties to pull on the chain.
“What’s so special is that there’s not any one thing,” Iginla said. “I think it’s a group that’s a very close group. Guys have been through it before. They’re a very hungry and very competitive group. Starting with Z, Bergy, Tuukks, Soup, you name it. Thorty. The list goes on and on.”
And on and on and on. The Bruins play relentless, overwhelming hockey. They close down spaces and hound pucks ferociously. They unleash wave after wave in all three zones. Because they roll four lines and three pairings, the opponents never have a moment to take a breath.
No room. No air. No surrender.
They could not do this without a roster full of assets.
Consider the No. 3 line. This was the matchup the Bruins dominated. On just about every shift, Justin Florek, Carl Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson controlled the puck, made the Wings chase, and created scoring chances. They worked the walls well. Once they got the puck, they broke straight for the net. Down low, they cycled and battled and imposed their wills on the Wings.
For four straight games, the third line punished Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl, Detroit’s No. 3 defensive pairing. By Game 5, it got so bad Babcock had to fix his roster. Xavier Ouellet, a 20-year-old with four games of NHL experience, was in. Kindl was out. It didn’t make a difference.
General manager Peter Chiarelli thrives in thinking long term. But not even Chiarelli could foresee this line taking shape a year ago. Soderberg was a newbie import. Eriksson was in Dallas. Florek was in Providence.
A year later, this heavy, smart, skilled line helped swing the series in the Bruins’ favor. The Wings’ specialty has been the Stockholm-to-Detroit pipeline. In this series, Soderberg and Eriksson were better Swedes than Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Gustav Nyquist, and Daniel Alfredsson. Florek, recalled only because of Chris Kelly’s back injury, is not about to let his roster spot go in the second round against Montreal.
The Bruins are just as deep on the back end. Torey Krug was a difference-making point man. Krug had a helper on Chara’s power-play goal at 19:56 of the first. The native of Livonia, Mich., assisted on Milan Lucic’s game-winning goal at 4:27 of the third.
Like Krug, Kevan Miller was an undrafted collegian. Miller didn’t play in Game 1 because of flu-like symptoms. But the four-year University of Vermont defenseman caused headaches, pain, fatigue, and nausea for the Wings in the next four games. Miller played with pace, bite, heaviness, and smarts.
Krug and Miller are third-pairing partners. They’ve helped the Bruins recover from injuries to Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, which other teams probably wouldn’t have been able to absorb. Just one boo-boo, a finger injury to Jonathan Ericsson, ripped the Wings’ defense apart.
“What’s missing is Ericsson’s missing,” Babcock said. “Now you can say, ‘Well, Boston didn’t have Seidenberg and McQuaid.’ But they’re deeper than we are on the back end. We missed Ericsson big-time. He’s an important guy for us.”
On a Cup-contending team like the Bruins, Niklas Kronwall is a legit first-pairing presence. Danny DeKeyser is a top-four defenseman. Kyle Quincey is a depth D-man. But Brendan Smith is a third-pairing specialist. Lashoff, Kindl, and Ouellet are healthy scratches. Also, they’re all left-shot defensemen. This makes it tougher to retrieve pucks, turn, and start the rush through the neutral zone.
The Bruins have none of these problems. They have puck-moving pace from Krug, Dougie Hamilton, and Matt Bartkowski. Chara, Miller, and Johnny Boychuk are their shutdown aces. It is a perfect mix of strength and skill.
The Wings are a good example of a team in transition. They didn’t succeed because their playoff beards were either too gray or nonexistent.
The Bruins are in their sweet spot. They have in-their-prime studs like Rask, Bergeron, Lucic, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand. They have experienced players such as Chara, Iginla, and Thornton. But they also have young players pepping up the room. Krug fulfilled his specialized role. Hamilton played like fellow ex-Niagara star Alex Pietrangelo — rushing the puck, connecting on seam passes, and retreating defensively to help out his partner.
Experience stabilizes. Youth energizes.
And depth wins.