The Bruins Ride Back Into The Playoffs

Two days after Super Bowl Sunday, the city of Boston was celebrating as the New England Patriots rode the duck boats through downtown amidst the snow and slush. Nearby, at the headquarters of the Boston Bruins, big changes were afoot.

The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien, who had been at the helm since 2008 and overseen a highly successful period in franchise history, highlighted by the 2011 Stanley Cup and another trip to the Finals in 2013. The team took a lot of heat for the timing of the announcement—coming literally during the Super Bowl parade, it looked politically timed, as though the Bruins were trying to sneak something under the radar.

I’m not sure why the club felt the need to cover up the firing. After missing the playoffs on the final day of the season each of the last two years, Julien had lost public support. I root for this team and was generally supportive of the now-deposed head coach, but it’s not something I would have casually said to anyone else riding the T after the Super Bowl parade. Because as word of the firing filtered through the crowd, it only added to the ecstasy this town’s sports fans were already feeling.

Maybe Julien’s increasingly vocal and numerous critics had a point—Bruce Cassidy was elevated to interim coach and the Bruins took off. They won 18 of their next 24 games and secured a playoff spot before dropping their final two games. Now, the question is whether the Bruins can make something happen this spring.

I’m optimistic. Even while Julien was still in charge, Boston was still playing winning hockey and they were consistently dominating their opponents in the key areas of shots taken and shots allowed. Brad Marchand played himself into the MVP conversation and David Pastrnak emerged as one of the game’s bright young star. Torey Krug still fires as wicked a shot on goal as any defenseman you’ll see in this postseason.

The problem was poor goaltending. Tuuka Raask just didn’t play very well for much of the season and even his final numbers of a 91.4% save rate really isn’t an elite level—the best goalies need to be about a full percentage point higher, a significant difference in the world of NHL goaltending.

But when your biggest problem is a player who’s a proven winner—Raask won the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league in 2014—that’s a good thing. To pull an example from the NFL, when the Green Bay Packers were 4-6 this past year, their biggest problem was the poor play of Aaron Rodgers. When Rodgers re-established his greatness, the Packers took off. And the Bruins can do the same.

The draw is manageable. Thanks to the division-based structure of the NHL playoffs, the three powerhouses of the Metropolitan Division—Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus have to slug it out the first two rounds, while Boston’s Atlantic Division is significantly softer.

Ottawa is the first-round opponent, and if the Bruins survive that one, than a familiar foe potentially awaits—an ancient rival in the Montreal Canadiens…a team that just happened to hire Claude Julien the moment he became available.