The NHL’s best regular season team is gone from the playoffs. The Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy, given to the team with the most regular season points, and the Bruins then ousted the Detroit Red Wings in five games to open the playoffs. But it all came undone in the second round, as Boston lost Game 7 last night at home to the Montreal Canadiens by a 3-1 count. How did it happen?
My easy answer is these situations is just to say that it’s life in the NHL. And there’s a lot of truth to that. In no other sport are regular season results less reliable as a guide to postseason success than the National Hockey League.
In the NBA, if you have the best team you’re reasonably assured of at least getting to the conference finals and probably more. In the NHL, a 1-seed losing in the first round has been an occurrence that happens often enough that no one is even shocked. College basketball may have successfully marketed “March Madness”, but it really has nothing on “Spring Madness.”
That said, the better teams still win more often than not—it’s not a total crapshoot, and as a partisan Bruins fan, it would be the height of excuse-making to write this series off as nothing more than a coin flip gone awry. It was a combination of bad play and bad luck that undid the B’s in this series.
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Montreal’s first and last goals from Game 7 illustrate the point. Here’s a link to the NHL Video Center with highlights of last night’s scoring (I can’t find links directly to each goal), and in the meantime I’ll describe them as best as I can…
*On the first goal, it started when Boston goalie Tuuka Raask took a soft shot and just chipped it away to the side where a Montreal player was charging hard. I’ve watched a lot of Bruins’ hockey over the last few years, including most of this regular season. You never see Raask make a save that tentative. He either aggressively attacks the puck and sweeps it out, or he just covers it up.
When he just chipped it to an opposing player, my first thought was “Nothing good is going to come of this.” The puck was still deep, and then Boston defensemen Matt Bartkowski made another mental error, in failing to cover Dale Weise on the back side, who got a pass for an easy goal.
Boston simply gave this goal away, and it’s not sour grapes to say Montreal did nothing to earn it. The Canadiens’ credit comes from the fact they didn’t make a similar mistake. The contrast in mental mistakes was a recurring pattern throughout the series, and what it did was take what should have been a mismatch and make it an even series.
Even given all that, Boston might have survived, but they created a situation where the breaks of the game would decide it. On the third goal, the Bruins did everything correct, tracking Danny Briere all the way down the ice as he carried the puck. He fired the shot and it slipped into the net off the skate off Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara. This is nothing more than a bad break, plain and simple.
It’s the kind of break that went against the Bruins all series long. Their shots repeatedly hit the pipes, with even the commentators of NBC Sports Network making note of the close-but-no-cigar theme that seemed to dominate Boston. It’s bad luck, and that part of this series is indeed the way of life in the NHL playoffs.
The good news is that the nature of the NHL playoffs doesn’t mean that losing as a 1-seed is some horrible missed opportunity. Boston could have an adequate regular season next year, come in as a 4-seed and end up winning the Stanley Cup. That’s how it worked for the Detroit Red Wings, who lost as big favorites in 1995 and 1996. The next two years saw Detroit finish third in their conference and they won the Stanley Cup both times. Good organizations just keep putting themselves in position and under the leadership of GM Cam Neely, the Boston Bruins of today are certainly that.
But the Bruins also have to learn the lessons of this series. There is simply no room for mental errors in a series. There’s enough luck issues floating around in a hockey playoff series that a good team must control what it can. Boston didn’t do it and paid the price.