No more Mr. Nice Guy: Bruins need to substitute pugnacious for polite
Five games into the Bruins-Leafs playoff series, there barely has been a discouraging word uttered between the two sides. Nazem Kadri strayed from the oh-so-polite template late in Game 2, got himself tossed from the series, and otherwise we’ve been left to watch a couple of clubs that look like they’re auditioning for the first Stanley Cup Good Guys Award.
Man, this congeniality stuff is a buzzkill. What in the name of the Gallery Gods is going on here?
“It’s time,” said a serious, somber-sounding Bruce Cassidy, following his club’s early-afternoon workout Saturday in Brighton. “We have to step up our urgency level.”
Truth is, his team has been on a dangerously low simmer for all but Game 2. Cassidy knows it and he also knows his team is in trouble. He has stood behind his bench for 300 minutes the last week-plus, and other than the night Kadri again jetted off to crazy town, both the Bruins and Leafs have played like a couple of high-end private school clubs stocked with kids hoping to land Division 1 scholarships.
Not a single fight in five games. We have witnessed (shield your eyes) a whopping five roughing minors. Oh, the humanity. But let’s not forget the requisite amount of high sticks, holds, and interference calls. All that stuff qualifies as the burr in the saddle of what so far has been a $1,000 claimer of a series.
Folks, if this keeps up, look for the Hallmark Channel or maybe Oprah’s OWN to try to woo the NHL broadcast rights away from all those NBC platforms.
Don’t count on the Leafs changing their banker’s comportment in Game 6 Sunday afternoon on their home ice. They’re sitting pretty with a 3-2 series lead, 60 minutes from advancing to Round 2. Without Kadri on his bench as the grenade just begging for someone to yank his pin, coach Mike Babcock should be able to steer this yawn fest into a safe-harbor matchup against the Blue Jackets.
Like Babcock, Cassidy is a cool customer, and his Bruins mirror his demeanor. Right now, that’s a problem, for both the coach and the 20 who’ll suit up for the 3:10 p.m. faceoff on Sunday. He has a team right now desperate to find its emotion and equally desperate to make something of it. Can they find it? Not if Games 1-5 serve as proving ground.
“I’d much rather see us be on our toes, play assertive, play with urgency . . . that’s what we’ve done all year, pretty much,” said Cassidy, whose club finished with 49 wins in the regular season and right now is the highest seed (by points) remaining in the playoffs. “That’s what we’ve done all year, pretty much, been a team that plays on their toes. You win some. You lose some. We won a lot more than we lost.
“I’d like to see us get back to our identity in that regard.”
Adversity, especially in the playoffs, reveals a team’s DNA. Without the stress of possible elimination, the Leafs are going to stick to speed and skill to carry them past the Bruins Sunday, and rely on that again on Tuesday if the Bruins can stretch it to a Game 7.
The Bruins, meanwhile, don’t have the luxury of thinking that their speed, skill, or even their greater amount of veteran experience can carry the day. That basket of goodies hasn’t done much for them to this point.
“Maybe there’s just too much thinkin’,” mused Cassidy, “and not enough [expletive] playing.”
Right on the money.
Thus far, the series has been more a calculated chess match than the kind of bubbling, boiling cauldron that makes the NHL postseason the best take on the sports landscape. Cassidy and Babcock are two smart and disciplined coaches, which explains in part why the temperature on the two benches has stayed a comfy 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Postsesason warning: Jon Cooper is the same kind of coach in Tampa. He entered the playoffs with his 62-win club as the prohibitive favorite to win the Cup. All that ended when Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella reached deep, found his team’s ego, and squeezed it as if wringing a soapy ocean sponge at a church car wash fundraiser. The Bolts went home in four and now the rest of the league wonders what kind of hell awaits in that Columbus car wash.
Cassidy’s message to his team Saturday was simple: Lift the temp. We’ll find out quickly on Sunday if the message landed.
“I think sometimes you overthink the X’s and O’s — you are trying to think a little too much about what they’re bringing to you,” said veteran pivot Patrice Bergeron. “I think sometimes you’ve got to, I guess, rely more on instincts. That’s what hockey is about. You know, your first play is usually your best play, so don’t overthink stuff.”
“It’s tough . . . we are playing every other night, each game means a lot, and when your team doesn’t show up and doesn’t show that fire, have that edge . . . ,” mused defenseman Torey Krug, “. . . because I think we have that edge when we bring it, it really shows in our game and it pushes them back on their heels.
“We’ve got to bring it. No question about it. We’ve got to bring it.”
Bring it now, or go home and wonder where it all went. Or worse, wonder if it ever was really there.