By Dan Rubin
The city of Boston awoke on Saturday to 85-degrees, sunny skies, and the second day of a mini-heat wave unfelt in months. Pollen cascaded from trees, allergies kicked up, and little kids took to their fields to play baseball, softball, and pickup games of basketball.
Sweat began cascading off foreheads as air conditioners settled into windowsills, months after they went into storage in collective attics and basements.
But yet Boston is still frozen. It’s a giant sheet of ice that hasn’t been cleaned since 1990 and some of that sweat isn’t caused by moving furniture and doing yard work; it’s gathering under pads, gloves, and skates and yes, it’s almost June, but this is still hockey season.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals drops the puck on its first faceoff on Wednesday, and for the first time in 21-years, the Boston Bruins are prominently involved. The New England region is gripped with hockey fever, and spoked-B is appearing on t-shirts and hats of casual fans. Season tickets for 2011-2012 are sold out, and people are ready, after 39 years, to fill Lord Stanley with “chowdah” and Sam Adams.
Some thoughts to close out the Prince of Wales Conference championship and begin gearing you up for the trip to logging country and British Columbia.
Observation #1 – This Game Was Just As Much About “We” as it is About “They”
The best part about this Bruins win is that this team is a bunch of guys who (for the most part) haven’t won anything.
When you go down the Boston roster, only one player has any experience playing for the Stanley Cup. Mark Recchi is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, having tasted champagne with Pittsburgh and Carolina. In 1991, Recchi played an intricate role in the Penguins’ win, including playing a part in the squad’s come-from-behind win in the Conference Finals against (ironically enough) Boston. He was acquired in a midseason deal by the Hurricanes during their run, and now, at age 43, has a chance to close out his career with a third championship. As a small tidbit, Recchi is one of only two active NHL players born in the 1960s, the other being Dwayne Roloson, who plays goalie for some team that played pretty darn well this year in Florida.
But outside of that, this team hasn’t won squat. Patrice Bergeron won a gold medal as part of Team Canada in Vancouver last year, but other than that, there’s nothing. The team’s best players are, arguably, Nathan Horton (languished as a “draft bust” in Florida playing in front of half empty crowds); Zdeno Chara (accomplished zero in Ottawa before coming here); Milan Lucic (young, Bruins prospect); David Krejci (same); Brad Marchand (rookie); and Tim Thomas (an old goalie who spent 10-years playing overseas and only became an NHL starter after he turned 31).
So this is a team that is playing on raw emotion having never won anything before. They’re putting on a jersey that hasn’t lifted a cup for almost 40-years and before this year, the Bruins weren’t in the arguments of truly elite teams.
At the beginning of the year, most would’ve said Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Well, there’s a new sheriff in town.
But that’s what makes this Bruins team so likeable. These are guys that we like. They’re fighting and scratching for something they’ve never tasted. That’s kind of what the Boston fan base embodies. Boston Bruins fans haven’t tasted a Cup in so long, most of them have no idea what it looks like. The majority of Bruins fans going to games don’t remember the last time they were in the Conference Finals, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. This is a little different from the Boston Red Sox, which was about exorcising demons gathered over time by excessive amounts of failure on the biggest stage. This is just something we’ve never known, more on par with the Chicago Cubs’ drought (only a lot shorter).
Observation #2 – Steve Stamkos is more man than you, me, and anybody else
It’s a shame to think that ten years from now, Steve Stamkos’s return to the game will be an afterthought, footnote, or forgotten altogether. Stamkos returned to Game 7 after spending roughly 25 minutes in the locker room (maybe). He had trainers plug his nose, stop it from bleeding, stitch it up, and put a full-face cage on his helmet. Then he returned to a hockey game looking like meat loaf before it goes in the oven.
Let me explain the confluence of events before that. Stamkos had just been hit in the face with a slap shot. General consensus says that if he wasn’t wearing a visor, the puck would’ve hit him directly in between the eyes, and there’s a good chance he would’ve died from the strike. That’s how dangerous that play was. Instead, it split his visor, crushed his face, and sent him to the locker room. I still don’t understand how he got up and skated off as quick as he did, let alone under his own power. I don’t understand how he could even breathe at that point.
But yet Stamkos RETURNED to the game. Not only that, but he was mildly effective. He was found cycling through the low slot in front of Thomas on more than one occasion, and although the play itself escapes me, I know he was in there for more than one occasion. If he had been healthy, he probably would’ve scored. But the fact remains that he returned to the game after being hit in the face with a slap shot. That’s what the Stanley Cup means to hockey players.
Stamkos’s play should go down as the secondary highlight after everything. It stands out more than Horton’s goal to me, and it stands out more than anything anybody did on the ice. I’d give the guy the Conn Smythe Trophy just for that reason (except that makes no sense whatsoever). To me, that ranks higher than Rajon Rondo returning from the dislocated elbow. Rondo had his elbow popped and played in considerable pain, and I’m not taking away from that; but Stamkos NEARLY DIED. I think that’s pretty much a statement to itself.
Next year, I’m debating getting a Stamkos jersey for this reason. It’s not like I’d have to get in line with every other Tampa Bay fan that wants to buy it, since they only figure out what a hockey puck is in the second round of the playoffs, roughly ten minutes after they become fans.
Observation #3 – I Love Dennis Wideman
11 months ago, the Boston Bruins traded Dennis Wideman, their 2010 first round pick, and their 2011 third round pick to the Florida Panthers for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. Let’s be clear for a second. Let’s be clear here for a second. Florida later swapped that pick, which was the 15th overall pick, for the 19th pick and 59th overall. So, in essence, the Bruins sent Wideman and Nick Bjugstad to the Panthers, especially when Florida went all Bill Belichick and kept trading picks.
Now, look, I know Wideman gets a bad rap in these parts because, well, he stunk last year. But Wideman was much better as an offensive defenseman than Tomas Kaberle. Wideman had a goal and 11 assists in 13 games in the 2010 playoffs, and he notched a +32 rating back in 2009. He wasn’t completely awful, but his defensive lapses and the lack of a true sniper on the Bruins roster forced the front office’s hand to a trade.
Enter Horton. Nathan Horton spent the first few years of his career as an utter bust. He was the 3rd overall pick in 2003, and he was expected to rejuvenate hockey in south Florida. But he was only 18 years old at the time, and it’s impossible to project him to become the next Wayne Gretzky at that point. Additionally, he lost an integral part of his development when the NHL locked out in 2004-2005, further inhibited when Florida denied him the right to play in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada.
Any time you have a guy who’s 23-years-old and trying to develop, you want him to play in a situation that allows him to flourish and realize his potential, raising the bar for where that potential can go. In his seasons in Florida, Horton never got the opportunity. The Panthers organization expected him to carry the load, which he wasn’t ready to do, and they threw him into the fire without a system in place to help him succeed. Couple that with the news that surrounded the NHL lockout and a fan base that is virtually nonexistent, and Horton became a bust. It wasn’t that he didn’t have talent; he just didn’t have any type of situation that allowed him to be talented.
So the Bruins moved Wideman, a guy who wore out his welcome in Boston, to Florida for Horton, a guy who wore out his welcome in Sunrise. Horton played some of his best games in the beginning of the season, where emotion rides high. He struggled at times during the middle of the season, when emotion runs low. During a time when emotion catapulted to unheard levels in the Garden, Horton has literally put the Bruins on his back and won them two playoff series.
Bruins fans are quick to boo Wideman these days, but they forget that there was a time when he was a solid offensive defenseman, the type of guy they hoped Kaberle would’ve been. Nevertheless, without the trade, the Bruins wouldn’t be in the Stanley Cup Finals, and they probably would’ve given up at least seven goals through his side.
Observation #4 – Claude Julien, Meet Doc Rivers
Anybody remember the summer of 2007?
The Boston Celtics were [24-58] and the second-worst team in the NBA. After the season, media outlets called for the head of Doc Rivers, pointing to his history as a bad coach and not winning any games. One year later, the Celtics were NBA champions, and Rivers was the toast of the basketball world, showered in Gatorade on the fabled parquet.
Claude Julien is in a similar boat. A year ago, people wanted Julien fired. Had I been writing for Noontime Sports, I would’ve written all summer about how Claude needed to go. During this season, I’ve been calling an “ad nauseum” for Julien to get the ax, and I still feel that he didn’t do a great job managing the team. I don’t like his style, and I don’t like his attitude. I feel he’s very truculent, not cerebral, and at times, I think he’s more concerned with an order of delivery pizza than what’s going on with a game.
But a year later, Julien is four wins away from his name being engraved on the holiest of holy grails. He’s still not a very good coach, and I feel he’s mismanaged the special teams to the point where this team resembles a bunch of monkeys doing bad things with a football (paraphrasing the late Herb Brooks there) when they’re a man-up. Not only that, but now the penalty kill looks bad for stretches. Yet he’s four wins from a title.
Julien also mismanaged Tyler Seguin. He has no idea how to bring along young guys, and I think he needs a team that has pure natural ability. He can refine that talent, but he’s also the same guy who was fired by the 103-point New Jersey Devils right before the playoffs because they weren’t “playoff ready.”
Does that make any sense? Here he is, on the cusp of greatness.
That makes Julien like the three other coaches in this town. Doc Rivers is the best example, because nobody knows for sure how close he was to losing his job after the season where Red Auerbach passed away. Bill Belichick came with the baggage of alienating the Cleveland fan base, fired right before the move to Baltimore. Terry Francona won squat in Philadelphia, and he came with a reputation of being a bad manager. Yet, here the four of them stand, potentially all as the best in their respective games.
I’m not sure how that happened, but during Game 7, the Bruins called timeout, and for the first time, I felt confident when television showed the Bruins bench. I looked at Julien before they panned to Guy Boucher, and I can’t believe that I actually thought the following:
We can outcoach this team.
Claude Julien outcoached Guy Boucher during Game 7, and even though the Bruins aren’t an elite team, they can be a championship team. And that’s what matter s most. Even though Claude has bumbled different things about the season, he got them to this point. And that’s good enough for me.
Observation #5 – I Don’t Have Enough Space For All My Observations
I’ll try to do my best to preview the Stanley Cup Finals, which, for those of you who read my college previews, can be both entertaining and useless. You’ll all learn one thing very quickly in the next few days – I’ve watched over 100 games of hockey this season, and I’ve been film crunching and God knows what else for the past 4-5 seasons. And yet I still know nothing about the game. But hey, I’ll give it a shot, and we’ll look at the Vancouver Canucks and potential matchups between the two.
The Stanley Cup weighs approximately 34.5 pounds and is almost 3 feet tall. It’s probably the hardest trophy to win, and it’s eluded Boston for almost 40 years. For the last year, it’s lived in Chicago. By the middle of the month, we’ll know if it’ll be used for logging in the Pacific Northwest or if it’s one giant chowder bowl. The world’s fastest sport comes down to now.