By Dan Rubin
I claim to be a hockey guy. Anybody who knows me knows that I usually throw the stat out there that I’ve been calling hockey games for almost six seasons as a play-by-play or color commentator. I never played the game, but I’ve studied and digested it within an inch of its very fiber. I like to think, maybe even arrogantly sometimes, that I know the game of hockey.
But I hate the NHL playoffs. I hate them because they prove time and time again that all the stat crunching, highlight watching, and game-viewing I do means nothing. I can’t predict anything about the playoffs, can’t figure anything out, and for the life of me, will never be able to understand why things happen. It’s what makes the NHL the greatest and most frustrating sport on the planet. It takes us so-called “experts” and proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we know nothing.
I had just finished saying, “Nathan Horton couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the clutch,” when he banged home the double-overtime winner on Saturday night. If that’s not a perfect indicator of the playoffs, then I don’t know what is.
So what have I learned through the first five games about these Boston Bruins?
Observation 1 – Would the Real Tomas Kaberle please stand up?
I know I’m not breaking any new ground when I say that Tomas Kaberle has been a major disappointment for the Bruins. The Bruins acquired him thinking he’d produce on the same level as when he scored 10 points for Toronto in the 2002 playoffs. They also thought they were getting a guy who scored 67 points in the 2005-2006 season, 58 points in 2006-2007, and 53 in 2007-2008. He’s a guy they’ve coveted for a couple of years but couldn’t quite get. I’m pretty sure the Bruins viewed Kaberle in the same way the Boston Red Sox viewed Adrian Gonzalez. They saw his abilities and their current situation and immediately drooled at the prospect.
But Kaberle has just nine points in his 24 regular season games as a Bruin and he’s done legitimately nothing in the playoffs. He looks lost, uninterested and a lot like J.D. Drew out on the ice.
In Game 5, his inability to start a clear with a behind-the-net pass to Adam McQuaid resulted in Jeff Halpern’s goal. I don’t know what the problem is, but this is not a guy who should be on the third defensive pairing. They got Kaberle to play alongside Zdeno Chara, to break up opposing defenses. He hasn’t done that. I’m not saying the Bruins don’t want to go back in time and not make this trade, but I think they doubt why they got him. I know I am, and I have no idea how he got his two points.
Kaberle needs to have a solid output in Game 6 or the if-necessary Game 7 to help the Bruins advance. Otherwise, he’s in danger of becoming just another player in line with the Eric Gagne’s of the world.
Observation 2 – Brad Marchand and Tim Thomas are clearing mantle space for hardware
I don’t care how this makes me sound…
A couple of months ago, I was playing NHL 10 on the trusty PlayStation 3. In that game, Brad Marchand is a minor league winger for the Providence Bruins. By a rash of injuries, I had the option of calling him up to the big club or trying to sign Todd Bertuzzi. I hate Bertuzzi to the point I won’t even sign him in a video game, so I called up Marchand and installed him as my second-line left wing. Four games later, I had two hat tricks and like five more assists.
It’s not NASCAR, so you really can’t learn a lot from video games. But I’m saying that I’m not shocked that Marchand is doing what he’s doing. They should just hand him the Calder Trophy and get it over with. I wouldn’t even have a ceremony in Las Vegas on NHL Network or anything. Just give him the trophy. Let him score his goal, then during the celebration just have Gary Bettman walk on the ice, say, “Here, this is yours” and walk off. The guy’s a machine, and he scores at the right time. At age 22, he has a 20-goal and 20-assist season this year. He’s a game breaker, and if he continues to develop, he’s going to become the superstar the Bruins don’t have right now. Seriously – every team has a player that just puts the puck in the net. The Bruins have a couple of guys, but none are really mentioned in the same breath as the Steve Stamkos and Drew Doughty’s of the world. Marchand, in a couple of years, could be that guy.
As for Thomas, he’s a different story. Marchand is on the rise; Thomas is on the tail-end of his career. But when they hand Marchand the Calder, they should bring the Vezina Trophy out there and rename it the Tim Thomas’s 2010-2011 season Trophy. This is a team that without Thomas wouldn’t be a #3 seed threatening to get out of the first round. He’s the best goalie in the world right now, and yes, I’m including Ryan Miller in that group. I don’t think there’s a single goalie I’d take over Thomas, and this is a guy that should be on a decline.
Before coming to the Bruins at age 30, Thomas played exactly zero seasons of NHL hockey. He fought his way up the ranks, starting out in the double-A equivalent ECHL before honing his craft in Finland. Since coming to the Bruins, his save percentages have gone: .907, .917, .905, .921, .933, .915 (last year when he was hurt), and .938. He’s had better save percentage numbers than Miller over that same stretch, save for last year’s injury-riddled season.
What’s more is that Thomas always, and I mean ALWAYS, makes the big save. Last night, in overtime, gassed with fatigue, he made an acrobatic stop on a 2-on-1 odd-man rush. You ever have those moments when you realize you’re winning a game? That was it for me. That was like when Ty Law ran back the interception for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis. Sometimes, you just know. That moment – I knew the Bruins would win, I just wasn’t sure how. Before the playoffs, the consensus was the Bruins could go as far as Thomas could lead them. Right now, Thomas is making a case that it could be pretty far.
Observation #3 – Norv Turner, Meet Claude Julien. Claude, Meet Norv.
My biggest concern going into the playoffs was that the Bruins had one major weakness against every other team in the playoffs – coaching. It’s no secret that I’m not a Claude Julien fan. It’s actually no secret that I thought he should’ve been fired after last season’s playoff collapse. And it’s no secret that I thought he bungled having Tyler Seguin on the roster to the point where a lot of fans and experts doubt the kid’s abilities at the current moment (really – many people I talk to say Seguin isn’t ready. That’s because Julien had no idea how to use him and how to bring him along to get him playoff ready).
That’s still my biggest concern. During Game 4 in Montreal, the Bruins called their timeout when the Habs took a 3-1 lead. During that timeout, Claude said nothing. I compared the look on his face to the one where Norv Turner calls a timeout and looks around in the huddle for the San Diego Chargers. It’s the look that says, “Hey something bad is happening. I’m not really sure what’s going on. Think I can get an order for fries to go? Where am I? Who are all you people?” It’s the look that says, “I have absolutely no idea what to do right now.”
Julien isn’t known for being a master motivator and he’s not known for being an offensive coach. He’s known for coaching staunch defense and brutal hockey. His teams are big, lumbering oafs that get easily knocked off by teams with speedy, athletic forwards. He can be easily outcoached in that regard. So I was very concerned when Boston drew a motivated Montreal team that is, well, speedy and athletic.
But this is where I’ll admit I really know nothing. The playoffs aren’t as much about coaching as they are handling the players. At this stage of the game, there is no such thing as a system or a play by design. It’s about heart and grit. It’s what’s making the Washington Capitals so good right now. You don’t have to coach the team so much as keep them desired. But where Washington is motivated by an insane head coach who is every bit as flashy as his star player (Bruce Boudreau and Alex Ovechkin are truly a match made in hockey heaven…or maybe hell. I haven’t decided yet), the Bruins are self-motivating at this point.
After the timeout, Claude said nothing, and I think at this point, he doesn’t have to. The Bruins are a team with players like Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand. They have guys who are gritty and hard-nosed. They have guys in the locker room like Shane Hnidy might not play but get this team up in practice. Coupled with the fact that this is a Montreal series, and the Bruins are actually playing with a ton of emotion. Maybe it is coming from Claude, since we don’t really know what happens behind the curtain, but in this series, I don’t think he’s doing anything other than just putting the combinations on the ice. And in this series, that’s all he needs to do.
If the Bruins advance, it might be different, and they may fall flat on their face. But I think the players are motivating themselves and are cooking on all cylinders at this point.
Observation #4 – The Mute button on my Remote Control is getting a Rolex for Easter.
Jack Edwards needs to go away. I don’t care what anybody says or how much trouble I get in with boss-man Matt Noonan for saying this. Jack is by far the worst hockey announcer I’ve ever listened to.
He’s unprofessional, unknowledgeable, and I think he’s just looking down at Wikipedia for a list of hockey terms. He uses the term “dangle” for everything, even though it only refers to a simple toe drag. Every rebound is “juicy,” which makes him the only person I’ve ever heard say that and being a “homer” is just boorish and stupid. He’s not Johnny Most or Tommy Heinsohn and, more importantly, he’s just not good. I’ve heard reports he’s a great guy, and I love that. I love that a good guy got a break, but much like that “Boom goes the dynamite” guy, that doesn’t mean he deserves this job.
The Roman Hamrlik “GET UP” thing is just gross. His constant belittling of the opponent and the referees is over the top, and anybody who actually knows something about hockey can’t enjoy this guy and be self-respecting. I’ve talked with several hockey people – fans, coaches, other players. They can’t stand him. He’s not a hockey guy. And the only fans that do like him are the same ones who buy the “French Canadiens French Kiss” T-shirt, then go get wasted at The Harp before going to the game. Coincidentally, they’re also the ones who think it’s funny to chant “Yankees Suck” at a Bruins playoff game, and that’s just pathetic.
I don’t care how many people I just alienated, and I don’t care how many people are going to flood Noontime Sports with hate mail for that. Jack Edwards – I broadcast hockey. My family broadcasts hockey. We do it particularly well, and I have samples for you to listen to (shameless self promo, I know) to back it up. Honestly, go away. Or just listen to Doc Emrick, who is the greatest hockey announcer around right now. The guy makes me honored just to listen to him. But please stop with this mindless drivel.
Observation #5 – It Ain’t Over Yet
Game 6 is Tuesday in Montreal. I’m thinking there’s going to be a Game 7 because this series owes the game of hockey, its fans, its pundits, and its tradition a seventh game. I’d love the Bruins to end it, but I think it’s coming back to Boston. And if nothing else, just remember that this is only the first round, and we still have a month of this to go before Lord Stanley finds a home. Get your Maalox ready and strap in. It’s going to be a wild ride.