Throughout the conclusion of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, I’ve taken a look back at the teams that have been eliminated along the way. Today, we take a look at the other Eastern Conference squad to lose in the second round: the Boston Bruins.
With Boston’s loss in Game 7 on Wednesday night, three of the five teams widely viewed as Cup contenders are now out of the playoffs, but the Bruins’ defeat is by far the most stunning. Not 12 months ago, this same group was two victories away from winning its second Stanley Cup in three seasons; indeed, they were 70 seconds from forcing a Game 7 against Chicago before two quick goals stunned the crowd at TD Garden and kicked off the celebration for the Blackhawks. In 2013-14, they appeared poised to make another deep playoff run. The Bruins ran rampant over the weak Eastern Conference, finishing 16 points ahead of second-place Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division title and capturing the franchise’s first President’s Trophy since 1990. Boston had the NHL’s fourth-best Fenwick Close at 54.1%; in contrast to previous seasons, their defending was much tighter this year, as they surrendered fewer than 28 shots and 50 Corsi events per 60 minutes at even strength. Goalie Tuukka Rask paced the NHL with a sterling 0.942 save percentage at 5-on-5. Though Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov is perhaps more deserving of the Vezina Trophy this season, Rask’s incredible 2013-14 solidified his reputation as the best young goaltender in hockey. Unsurprisingly, Boston was one of the NHL’s stingiest defenses; only Los Angeles allowed fewer goals than the Bruins’ 171. All in all, it’s hard to look back at what they accomplished this season and feel too bad for them.
Still, as an elite team playing in front of some of the league’s most demanding fans, this is an organization that expected to win this year’s Stanley Cup. As such, this loss, and the manner in which it occurred, has to be enormously disappointing. After dispatching the Red Wings in a quick five games in the opening round, they headed into a second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens. In case you’ve, well, never followed the NHL before, the Bruins and Canadiens are among the fiercest rivals in all of sports. Since their first meeting in 1924, Boston and Montreal have played nearly 900 times; in postseason play, the Canadiens have dominated the rivalry, winning 25 of 34 series. This includes such memorable moments as a blood-drenched Maurice Richard scoring a series-winning goal in 1952, the infamous Richard Riot (which started with an on-ice incident in Boston), Montreal’s dominance throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and memorable playoff series in 1986 and 1989, both of which led to Finals appearances for the Habs. In 2004, Boston blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to Montreal in seven games, and in 2008, an underdog Bruins team took the top-seeded Canadiens to seven games before being shut out in the deciding contest.
More recently, though, the rivalry has favored Boston. They followed that 2008 loss with a four-game sweep the following season. In 2011, they lost both opening games of their first round series with the Habs at home, then managed to even the series in Montreal before ultimately coming out ahead in overtime in Game 7. This season’s Canadiens were one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams, making the playoffs largely due to the brilliant play of goaltender Carey Price. Against the Bruins, they were considered heavy underdogs. My own playoff model gave them only a 34% chance of winning. As expected, Boston dominated the play in the series, outshooting the Canadiens 235-197 and controlling almost 57% of the close-score Corsi events. Yet, time and again, Price was up to the task. In Game 1, he turned aside 48 Boston shots as the Habs recovered from blowing a 2-0 lead to win in overtime. After the Bruins rallied in the third period of Game 2 for a 5-3 win, defensive breakdowns early in Game 3 gave Montreal a 3-0 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Following a shutout from Rask in Game 4 and an outburst of power-play goals in Game 5, however, Boston took a 3-2 lead in the series, and appeared poised to move on. Price and the Canadiens, though, weren’t yet finished; sloppy play by the Bruins in Game 6 gave Montreal an easy 4-0 win and sent the series back to New England, where Price would stand tall yet again, making 29 saves to stun the Boston crowd. With that final 3-1 loss, the Bruins suffered (by my estimation) the most improbable playoff upset since 2009. Boston fans are, of course, no strangers to crushing sports defeats, and it’s anyone’s guess where this ranks alongside memories like the 2007 Super Bowl, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, or the final month of the Red Sox’ 2011 season. But it’s pretty bad.
As far as where the Bruins go from here, this is anyone’s guess. There’s clearly a lot of quality on their roster, yet for all their success, I often get the sense that Boston isn’t so much a well-run organization as it is a phenomenally lucky one. Over the years, the Bruins have shown a tendency to value fan-friendly personalities and physicality at the expense of talent, and have yet to pay a serious price for it. Moreover, they’ve been extremely fortunate in their experiences with a number of key players. Consider the following:
- In 2005, the Bruins traded captain Joe Thornton to San Jose, citing concern over his “leadership style”, and got an unremarkable package of players in return. Thornton has gone on to lead one of the NHL’s most successful franchises in California, winning a Hart Trophy and regularly finishing among the league leaders in scoring. However, the Bruins were fortunate to sign a high-priced free agent named Marc Savard, who stepped in to fill Thornton’s skates as an elite playmaker.
- After the 2009 season, Boston traded 36-goal winger Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs, receiving only draft picks in return. Kessel has gone on to score 156 goals for the Leafs. Fortunately for Boston, one of those draft picks turned into Tyler Seguin, who would lead the team in scoring in 2011-12.
- When a 2010 head injury ended Savard’s career, David Krecji was able to step into his role as the team’s playmaking center.
- After last season, Boston shipped Seguin to the Dallas Stars, citing the young center’s off-ice behavior. Seguin finished fourth in the NHL in scoring this past season, with 37 goals and 84 points, and formed one of the league’s most exciting lines with Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin. His scoring was, however, replaced by a 30-goal campaign from an aging Jarome Iginla.
- After struggling for years to find quality goaltending, the Bruins fell ass-backwards into two of the best netminders of the salary cap era in Rask and Tim Thomas. Despite porous defending, these two carried the team to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and a Finals run last season.
- Rather than seeing his career shortened after a severe concussion that limited him to just 10 games in 2007-08, Patrice Bergeron not only recovered, but has blossomed into one of the best two-way centers in the NHL.
- High-priced free agents are often a disappointment, insofar as you generally pay top dollar for past performance, yet despite being 29 at outset of his deal, Zdeno Chara has gone from being an excellent defenseman in Ottawa to a sure Hall of Famer in his time in Boston. There’s really no way that that signing could have worked out better for the Bruins.
All of this suggests that the team’s long run of good luck could be due to end, and that’s certainly a possibility. It was hard not to wonder if they would’ve managed more than one goal in their final two games against Montreal with Seguin in the lineup, and at 36 years old, it’s not clear that Iginla will return to Boston for another season to provide offense. Chara had another strong season, but at 37 he may not be capable of the workhorse minutes we’re used to seeing him play; beyond their captain, Boston’s blueline depth is very questionable. Bergeron, on the other hand, had an excellent, Selke-nominated season, and at 28 shows no signs of slowing down. Still, the Bruins are crunched fairly hard against the salary cap, which will make it difficult to add depth and scoring punch. There aren’t many disastrous contracts on Boston’s payroll, but rather a few too many players making too much money. Oft-injured defensive center Chris Kelly will make $6M over the next two seasons; Kelly scored just nine times in 57 games, and had a Corsi Rel of -4.1%. Defenseman Kevan Miller struggled terribly throughout the season (Corsi Rel -5.5%) yet was given a two-year contract extension. Even worse, the hapless Dennis Seidenberg will make $4M for the next four seasons. Despite just 121 career goals in the NHL, Milan Lucic will make $6M against the cap for two more seasons, and Loui Eriksson will make $4.25M over the same length of time despite scoring just 10 goals in soft minutes this season. Worst by far, however, is the Bruins’ fourth line of Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille, who got $4M this season for playing some of the worst hockey in the league. Campbell and Paille are under contract for next season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Boston renewed the contract of Thornton, a largely useless enforcer whose season was marred by an ugly attack on Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, which earned him a 15-game suspension. In addition to the depth issues that need to be addressed, new contracts are due to RFAs Torey Krug and Reilly Smith, both of whom had strong seasons. My expectation is that Boston will be a contender once again next season, but at some point, it seems as though their run of success will have to come to an end.
Other Teams Fall Apart posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, Nashville, and Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Columbus, Philadelphia, Colorado, San Jose, and Pittsburgh.