Friday, April 29, 2011
Bruins' health is the difference this time
By Joe McDonald
BOSTON -- After a grueling 82-game season, National Hockey League players will no doubt have bumps, bruises, aches and pains.
That grind gets worse during the playoffs due to the intense style of play, but once the puck drops, teams and players find a way to mentally and physically prepare for the demanding task in hopes of achieving the ultimate goal -- the Stanley Cup.
Now that the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers have emerged victorious from their respective first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, the Eastern Conference semifinal opponents are ready for a rematch of epic proportions.
A year ago, it was Philadelphia that mounted a historic comeback, erasing a 3-0 series deficit en route to victory over the Bruins. It was a crushing blow for Boston because last season could have been the year it returned to prominence in the hockey world.
A season later, the Bruins are bigger, stronger and faster. More importantly, they're healthier, and that's why Boston will beat the Flyers this round and advance to the conference finals.
Sure, both teams are slightly different from a season ago, but the majority of the personnel are still intact.
When these teams met last spring, the Bruins were without the services of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who suffered a lacerated tendon in his forearm late in the regular season. Fellow blueliner Andrew Ference was playing with a severe groin and hernia injury. Boston also lost forwards David Krejci (wrist) and Marco Sturm (knee) to injuries they suffered in the series against the Flyers.
Those players were all significant contributors for the Bruins, and being without them was one of the reasons Boston imploded and lost the 2010 series.
This series is different.
Seidenberg is completely healthy and playing well, earning major minutes with defensive partner Zdeno Chara. Ference is also completely healthy and has provided a big-time spark for the Bruins. Krejci, too, is feeling good and preparing to make is mark this time around. Sturm is no longer with the Bruins since he was traded to the Kings earlier this season, placed on waivers and then picked up by the Washington Capitals.
The Bruins are fired up after their impressive 4-3 series victory over the Canadiens and they appear healthy and confident for Game 1 against the Flyers on Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.
"We're going in there with a healthier squad and we hope that's going to help our hockey club," Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
Krejci was instrumental a season ago, but when he went down with a severe wrist injury in Game 3 against the Flyers, that's when the momentum began to swing in Philly's favor. Boston won Game 3, but it did not have the scoring touch or depth and lost the next four games to the Flyers.
|Chris Kelly's presence has given the Bruins a boost in the playoffs this year; he has three goals.|
"Last year, we could have easily been in the finals," Krejci said. "One day you're on top, and then the momentum changed so quickly, and that's what happened last year. This year, we just need to keep going and we're feeling good about ourselves in the second round."
Without the services of Seidenberg and Krejci and with Ference less than 100 percent last year, the Bruins had no depth to fall back on and it hurt significantly. Even though Boston is healthy now, it also has the depth this spring, especially at the center position.
"We've got enough depth this year that the responsibility is shared," Julien said. "When [Krejci] went down last year, it created a big hole. Marc Savard didn't play the first round and he was maybe half the player he was before he came back [from a concussion], so that left us with [Patrice] Bergeron."
The Bruins had Vladimir Sobotka, Steve Begin and Trent Whitfield as the remaining centermen.
"We felt we got thin there and didn't have the type of centermen that we needed to win, so that's where David Krejci's presence, or lack of presence, really hurt us when he went down," Julien said.
This season's team has the depth with Bergeron, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Gregory Campbell at center.
"We feel a lot better about that this year, so hopefully we'll be able to overcome the challenges we had last year," Julien said.
Krejci, who needed emergency surgery last year after Game 3, is ready for this round.
"We had a really good team last year, and we have a really good team this year," Krejci said. "This year, we need to keep the momentum on our side and we'll see what happens. I feel good about our team, and everyone is healthy."
Another reason the Bruins should win this series is goaltending. Then-rookie Tuukka Rask backstopped the Bruins last season and he played well, but he tired as the team went deeper in the playoffs and admitted afterward it was a grind.
This year, the Flyers will face Vezina Trophy finalist Tim Thomas.
Even though he was solid against the Canadiens in the quarterfinals, Thomas struggled against Montreal during the regular season, and that could have had an effect on him last round. Against Philadelphia, however, he was 3-0-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage in four games this season. That would no doubt help his confidence. Plus, Thomas did not play in this series last spring, so he has something to prove.
The Flyers have a little bit of a different roster this time around and they're also bothered by the injury bug.
Forwards Jeff Carter (knee) and Andreas Nodl (facial injury) remain day-to-day. Veteran defenseman Chris Pronger, who missed nearly six weeks with a broken right hand, returned to action in Game 7 against Buffalo and should be primed to go.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette wants nothing to do with what happened last season in the playoffs; he would rather concentrate on this series. He knows both teams are built in similar fashion and it should be all-out battle.
"They are a good hockey team," Laviolette said of the Bruins. "There's not much difference. It went to seven games last year. The teams are relatively the same. The season series were all good games.
"It's close; it's going to be tight. It's going to be a hard-fought series."
"We need to go in there with some confidence," he said, "and obviously some determination."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
We're going in there with a healthier squad and we hope that's going to help our hockey club.
-- Bruins coach Claude Julien