Tuesday, May 5, 2009

NOW the Playoffs Begin!

After cruising through the first five games of the 2009 post-season, the Bruins finally ran into the inevitable bump in the road. Carolina handed Boston their first playoff loss of the season, in convincing fashion. So now we get to see how the Bruins will react to adversity for the first time. My money is on them rebounding with a much better performance in game 3.

But the question is, will an improved performance be enough to topple the Canes in front of their home crowd? The answer isn't as cut and dried as you'd think. While Boston is clearly the better team, with a depth of talent that the Hurricanes can't come close to matching, things are never that black and white in the playoffs. Better teams don't always win. And Carolina *may* have the one key component needed for any team to pull of an upset. A hot goalie. Now Cam Ward didn't exactly steal the game on his own the other night. But then again, at no point did he ever look like he was about to let one in. He looked cool, calm and collected between the pipes all night. I'm not convinced that he's on the verge of stealing this series, but I'm wise enough to know that he certainly is capable of doing just that. Fortunately for the B's, Tim Thomas is just as capable of stealing a series if it comes down to a goal-tending duel.

So, with Thomas and Ward possibly canceling each other out, where does the advantage lie? As I stated, Boston is the better team. They can roll four lines, while Carolina is essentially a one line team, especially now that they've added Cole to the Staal line. Sure, Cullen got one the other night and is a decent player. Larose probably should have been credited with a goal himself, but he isn't much of a threat. And honestly...does anyone really worry that Samsonov is going to take over a game? He's still up to his old stick handle-through-the-team-then-lose-control-without-getting-a-shot-off routine.
As much as the Versus guys (who I think are doing a pretty good job) stress how important secondary scoring is for the Canes, I still believe that Eric Staal and his line-mates will have to have a series for the ages for them to win. It's a simple case of the best players HAVING to be the best players for their team.

Now, contrast that with Boston's lineup. When people say Boston's best players have to be their best players....who exactly do they mean? They could be talking about Savard and his line (Kessel and the LW du jour, usually Lucic). Of course, they very well could mean the Bruins "second line", with Krecji centering Ryder and Wheeler. Then again, it's a very good possibility that they mean the so-called "third line" of Patrice Bergeron between Chuck Kobasew and the ageless Mark Recchi. And the sad part is, none of those lines was Boston's best on Sunday. That honor fell to the veteran lunch-pail crew of Shawn Thornton, Stephane Yelle and PJ Axelsson. Somewhere, deep inside, that has to have the Hurricanes a bit concerned. Sure, they won game 2 and looked decent doing it. But I think if they're being honest, they'd tell you that the B's played nowhere near as well as they can. That has to be scary, because honestly, Boston's fourth line was effective all night against whoever they played against. Can you imagine how effective Boston's "skilled" lines could be if they get their acts together?

Much has been made of the fact that Carolina has the last line change for the next two games. Obviously, that helps coach Maurice keep Staal away from Chara a bit. But I don't think that will make as big of a difference as many have claimed. All year, home or away, Big Z has been tasked with shutting down the opposition's best forwards. And all season, he's done just that. But the thing is, it's a team game. The rest of the Bruins aren't dumb. If they see a match up they don't want, they dump the puck quickly and make the quick change. If a smart, safe dump play isn't available, they don't risk it. And at that point, to a man, they pick up the challenge of playing Z's shut-down role. That strategy and mindset have worked all year against the likes of Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin. I just can't see Eric Staal having some sort of field day just because he gets last change. Never under estimate the pride factor. Every Bruin player, particularly the defensemen know how important stopping Staal is. Don't be surprised if you see Mark Stuart or anyone else step up and handle the challenge. You simply don't finish first in the East and give up so few goals just by having ONE top flight defender.

On the other side, Boston presents match-up problems all over the ice. IF the B's find their game again, Carolina simply doesn't have enough quality players to keep them all off the board. And I fully expect the B's to regain their form in game 3. They've done it all year, no reason to expect them to go into a funk now. The guy I'd keep my eye on for the B's is Recchi. He's been eerily quiet so far this post-season. I can't imagine that will continue much longer. With the Bruins looking to simplify their game tomorrow, Recchi could be the biggest beneficiary. His style is simple. Get it deep, cycle and camp in front of the net looking for tip-ins. The B's will be looking to throw as much rubber as possible at Ward, all while getting in his face as much as they can. That recipe works perfectly for a guy with Recchi's skill set. He will have at least one goal Wednesday, if he doesn't I'll be stunned.

But beyond the "just throw pucks at the net" game plan, the B's will be looking to actually make plays TOWARD the net. As they've all admitted, the first two games, they've gotten away from their style for some reason. When the B's are clicking, they're a puck possession team. Dump, chase, get it back then cycle. When they use their size speed and skill on the cycle, they force opposing defenders out of position. All year they've been great at identifying that defensive breakdown and attacking it immediately. games one and two, they seemed to want to get rid of the puck too soon, before they forced that breakdown. It's a fine line I suppose. Fans, myself included, get antsy when they see them passing it around "too much". But we should get equally antsy when nobody seems to want to handle the puck. Again, they're at their absolute best when they're controlling the puck and moving it around. It can't just be the puck moving, they have to move their feet as well, and that has been lacking so far.

Nowhere is the lack of movement more noticeable than on the power play. the Bruins had a dominant power play for most of the year, because they constantly moved the puck, and themselves. They do a great job of moving in and out, side to side....anything to change angles and cause over reactions by the PK team. If they don't get back to that, it could be the single biggest cause of them failing to move on (and I don't see that happening).

For all of that, my single biggest gripe with how they played Sunday night is this; they just weren't NEARLY physical enough. I'm not sure why that is, but it's clear they have to start asserting themselves physically. It could be partly because of the long layoff. They hadn't hit anyone in over a week, and maybe it was tough to get ramped back up again. Mostly, in my opinion, it's because they're playing the Carolina Hurricanes, not the Montreal Canadiens. With the Habs, there is no problem getting up for the game. You know what you're going to get and it gets the blood boiling. But Carolina? They aren't a fighting team. They aren't a very physical team. In fact, they're a pretty small team. One that, on paper, Boston should be dominating physically. But right now there is just not enough "hate" in the Bruins game. If the Canes are smart, they won't do ANYTHING to wake up the beast. Honestly, instead of trying to wear down the B's with body contact (which is pretty much every teams strategy against any opponent, and has been forever), they'd be better off playing as gentlemanly a game as possible. Why risk waking up a Boston team that can out muscle them all over the ice? The good news, if you're a B's fan is, I think losing on home ice may just have been what snaps the B's out of their two game funk.

Some may say that Boston losing for the first time could cause them to "panic" and fall apart. I couldn't disagree more. Remember, many of these players are the same guys that came storming back against the Habs last year, winning in as hostile an environment as you'll find. That experience could prove invaluable as the B's move forward. Beyond that, Boston has great veteran leadership. Aaron Ward has three Cups (including one in 2006 with Carolina), Recchi has a couple. Yelle has won Cups, as has Thornton. Axelsson has played in more playoff games than some of his teammates have played in the regular season. Chara has had some deep runs in his own right. All of those calming influences in the Bruins room can only help settle down any of the younger guys that may be feeling some pressure. Sure, Carolina has all those Cup winners still around from '06, and that helps. But again, I'll take a vastly more talented roster with a fair amount of experience over the over matched team with a lot of experience. When all is said and done, it's still a talent driven game/league.

So wrapping all of that blabbering up, what are my predictions for game 3 you say? Glad you asked.....(even though I usually like to do these on game day)

PREDICTIONS: Bruins win this one 4-2 (possible empty-netter).....hell, they might just even get 5 past Ward (and if they do, it's game set match on the series). So screw it, as much as I think it will be 4-2 with an empty netter, I'll be bold and say it ends up 5-2. Recchi pots a pair. And, just as I said Reccchi would benefit from a straight ahead style, so will Kobasew. He gets one himself. And, as long as we're scoring "ugly", Lucic snags one of his own. The fifth goal is a prettier one.....scored by.....hmmm....ok, how about Kessel? yep, Kess rips one over the glove.
Don't expect much in the way of rough stuff between these two, although I suppose it's possible Larose or someone stirs the pot a LITTLE to try to spark his team. No fights, but the face washes could be more frequent. But Boston far out-hits the Canes and carries play for most of the night. Go B's-Kynch

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