BOSTON (CBS) – How far the Bruins go in the playoffs this year is really anyone’s guess. The team has the firepower, experience and goaltending to go on a long run, and if they made the Cup Final and even won the whole thing, it wouldn’t be completely shocking.
At the same time, if they found themselves matched up against a hot goalie and a team that will match their intensity, a first-round exit wouldn’t be entirely surprising either.
But one thing is plainly obvious: If Milan Lucic doesn’t play like Milan Lucic, they’re not going very far.
Sure, the Bruins did go on that Stanley Cup run in 2011 while getting just 12 points out of Lucic in 25 playoff games, but this isn’t nearly the same team. For evidence of how badly this Bruins team can struggle without Lucic producing, simply look at the past month or two.
But Thursday night at the Garden, Lucic offered a glimmer of hope that perhaps he can figure it out and put it all together in time for next week.
He didn’t end up with any points, and he didn’t even register as a plus-1, but he was skating with purpose, making crisp passes, applying pressure on the forecheck and throwing his body around, as evidenced by his game-high four hits. (The only other skater to get credited with four hits was his linemate, David Krejci, who no doubt fed off some of Lucic’s energy.)
And of course, there was the bout with Keith Aulie, Lucic’s first fight in nearly two full months. Earlier this week on Felger and Mazz, Cam Neely said Lucic is going to have to start initiating physicality, considering most players these days tend to leave him alone, hoping his fire never gets ignited. Yet for whatever reason, Aulie decided he’d help Lucic out of his slump by challenging him to a fight late in the second period. Lucic thoroughly dominated the fight, and though it lasted all of 30 seconds, it may have been the type of moment that can change a whole season for Luic.
“Milan is known for that. He’s known when he’s at his best, he puts a lot of fear in other players on other teams just with his forecheck and finishing his checks at the end of that,” head coach Claude Julien said. “There’s no doubt our guys will feed off that kind of stuff. It doesn’t mean he has to go out there and fight every night, he just has to play hard the way he’s been doing lately and things are starting to come around for him.”
Julien admitted that as a coach, he ran out of “tools in the toolbox” to try to fix Lucic’s game, and that it all ended up resting on Lucic’s own shoulders to accept responsibility and turn it around himself.
So what worked for Lucic?
“I kind of piss myself off before the game starts,” he said with a loud laugh in the locker room after the win.
Hey, whatever works.
Now let’s jump into a few leftover thoughts before the Bruins enter the final weekend of the regular season.
—Lucic came out to talk at his locker about 20 minutes after the game ended, and he was absolutely drenched in sweat. It was dripping all over him and he was out of breath. Apparently, a full NHL game with a fistfight thrown in the middle of it isn’t enough exercise for some people. Meanwhile, the rest of us are having our own issues trying to run two miles.
—The 7th Player Award was announced before the game, and things got a teensy bit awkward when Dougie Hamilton was named as the winner, considering he was a healthy scratch. A lot of people were upset that Hamilton won, and with somewhat good reason, considering Dan Paille has been nothing short of excellent in stepping up as a super role player this year. (Matt Kalman made the case right here.) But still, Hamilton is a teenager (I mean, people still call him “Dougie”) and he had a very good rookie season. Zdeno Chara is the only D-man on the team with more points than Hamilton’s 16. Good for Hamilton, I say, even though Paille was exactly the type of player the award is supposed to honor.
—It may not have been such a positive night in Boston if Tuukka Rask hadn’t been on point all night, most notably the ridiculous glove save he made on Steven Stamkos, one of the league’s most dangerous snipers.
Rask admitted that with a save like that, you do all you can, but you still have to get a little bit lucky with where the puck ends up.
“Those kind of saves, I would say a lot of it is luck, too,” Rask said at his locker while sporting a Massachusetts State Police hat. “You just kind of throw yourself out there. For me, I get a better feeling when I’m just square and the puck hits me and I don’t give up rebounds. It’s pretty easy to get carried away when you make highlight saves, so you just try to stay calm after you make a save like that.”
That’s good for him, because if I made that save, I’d probably remove my mask, look up to the balcony, raise my arms and shower in all the praise and adulation. I’d then make a dramatic exit by slowly gliding off the ice and going right down the hallway to the locker room, never to be seen again.
Or I might just peacock around the ice like Bruce Springsteen once did in front of a billion people. Or both. This is partially why I never made it as an athlete in team sports.
—Rask’s 30 saves bumped up his save percentage to .931 and his goals-against average dropped down to 1.94. That puts him third in the league in both categories, though Craig Anderson’s spot at the top of both lists is a little unfair, considering he’s played only 23 games.
Rask is also tied for the league lead in shutouts with five.
Is he a No. 1 goalie yet?
—After the first period, when the Bruins had fired a whopping four shots on net while getting whistled for two minor penalties in what was an uninspiring 20 minutes, I thought the race for fourth place was on in full force. But the Bruins got progressively better as the game went on, which really hasn’t often been the case this year, and I think that’s the biggest positive takeaway from Thursday’s game.
—It was 2011 all over again on the blue line, as Julien paired Zdeno Chara with Dennis Seidenberg. It may or may not be a pairing Julien will go to come the playoffs, as he said he did it specifically to try to limit Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
In the playoffs, I’d imagine either Hamilton or Matt Bartkowski fills the spot that Wade Redden’s played recently, but the good news for Boston on that front is that Redden has looked decent in his four games, so the Bruins have some built-in depth should a D-man go down for any amount of time in the postseason. That, and nobody looks as bad as Tomas Kaberle, of course.
—One more note on Paille: His second-period goal was his 10th in 44 contests this year. He had nine in 69 games last year and six in 43 games the year before, and if it were a full season, he may have been in position to reach 20 for the first time in his career.
Regardless, when he scores this season, the Bruins are 8-1-1. And while the lines have shifted around a bit, the “fourth line” is still Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. That trio brings good fortune, as the team is 11-1-1 when any of those guys score, and they’re 3-0-0 when two of them score in the same game.
—The Bruins now have 61 points with two games to play. It’s hard to make sense of it, given the lockout-shortened schedule, but on that 1.33 points per game played pace, the Bruins would be on pace for 109 points in a full 82-game season.
For a comparison, they finished with 102 points last year, 103 points in the Cup year of 2010-11, 91 points in 2009-10, 116 points in 2008-09 and 94 points in 2007-08.
By that measure, it puts the long stretch of mediocrity of the past month in some perspective, as they’d still be in position to have their second-best season point-wise under Julien if it were a full season.
—A lot can happen this weekend in terms of seeding and the division. Montreal plays Toronto, and the Bruins play Washington and Ottawa. It’s not worth laying out every single scenario, because most of it will be useless once the games begin and end. But the Bruins do control their destiny in that if they can secure there out of four points this weekend, they will clinch the division, the No. 2 seed in the East, and home ice through the first two rounds. How much that takes a priority over resting key players in the back-to-back set – not to mention how the result of Montreal’s Saturday game affects Julien’s approach to Boston’s Sunday night matchup – remains to be seen, but if the Bruins want the division, they certainly are in position to take it.