February 21, 2013

From NEHJ: From locked out to locked in

By Jesse Connolly

Tyler Seguin (left) is looking to join the upper echelon of NHL offensive threats. (Getty Images)

Two thousand and forty. Any idea what the significance of that number is? No, it’s not the year the Islanders can bust out the champagne to celebrate the end of Rick DiPietro’s (Winthrop, Mass.) contract. It’s the number of minutes the lockout lopped right off the NHL schedule, as the league’s infuriating work stoppage destroyed the entire 2012 portion of its latest campaign.

With 34 fewer 60-minute efforts to turn in before the postseason begins, it’s all but impossible to name a team that won’t benefit in one way or another from more than three months of extra rest. How will it affect the Bruins in their 48-game sprint to the finish line? Here, we’ll examine the biggest keys to the team’s success and how they’ve been helped or hurt by the lockout.

Rask’s rise

Two U’s, two K’s, two injury-shortened seasons in a row that have us all just a teeny bit worried that Tuukka Rask might not be capable of handling a No. 1 netminder’s workload. OK, that might be a harsh way to start things off, but reality for the Bruins is now this: Before Tim Thomas left for his season-long, friends, family and faith retreat in the Rocky Mountains, Rask’s superb play when called upon was essentially a luxury for the club. Now, however, it’s a necessity. No. 40 is now the unquestioned starter for this club and is going to have to bring his A-game throughout a higher volume of games than he’s been used to so far as an NHLer.

During the 2010-11 season, the lanky Finn played through a knee injury before undergoing offseason surgery. Last year, Rask suffered what was basically a season-ending groin injury in early March. Neither of those ailments are ones a general manager wants to learn his goalie of the future has to recover from, especially one that employs the now-practically-mandatory butterfly style.

So how did the lockout help Rask? Shy of a minor groin tweak that sent everyone back in North America into a bit of a panic, the 25-year-old puck-stopper was dominant for HC Plzen. He went 6-2-0 for the Czech club, finishing with a 1.85 goals-against average and .936 save percentage before returning to North America in late November, having proven he was fully recovered and back on his game. In addition to that, a shorter season isn’t a bad thing for a guy whose career high for games played is 45 and has seen action in only 52 NHL games over the past two seasons.

How might the lockout hurt Rask? While a 48-game slate looks good on the surface, one can’t forget that the schedule has been a bit condensed. There won’t be as much recovery time between games, and there will be plenty of back-to-backs and four-game stretches that see the Black and Gold play on three of those nights. If overused, Rask will be in danger of getting worn out and subsequently breaking down.

A healthy Horty

It’s cliché and said way too often, but in this instance it’s spot-on: The numbers don’t lie. When Nathan Horton suffered his second concussion in a little more than seven months in a game down in Philadelphia last January, the Bruins ended that night with just six regulation losses in their last 36 games. During that red-hot run, Boston’s offense was out of this world. Horton was instrumental to that success and came into the Jan. 22 matchup with the Flyers with eight goals in his last 10 games.

But once No. 18 went down, so, too, did the Bruins’ goals per game. In the meantime, the losses started to pile up. Over the final 32 games of the year, Boston lost 15 times in regulation and another two games in the shootout, finishing the year out on a 15-15-2 run. Sans Horton, Mr. Clutch in his first trip to the postseason one spring prior, the offense remained stagnant as Boston mustered just 15 goals in its seven-game series against Washington, one that saw four of the contests go to overtime.

So how did the lockout help Horton? While deemed physically healthy and cleared for duty before the work stoppage even began, there’s simply no way that a considerable amount of extra time to mentally recuperate didn’t help the high-scoring winger. After suffering his first concussion in June 2011 during the Cup finals, Horton admitted he didn’t feel like himself out on the ice in the early stages of 2011-12 and didn’t really begin to find his groove until the second month of the season. This time around, the former Panther said his head injuries aren’t even on his mind, a statement in stark contrast to the way he felt over a year ago.

How might the lockout hurt Horton? When you haven’t played a game in almost exactly a year, it’s going to take a little while to get your timing down, fine-tune your shot and get back in the groove. With a shortened season, the Bruins need everyone to hit the ground running. Horton’s invaluable to the team’s offensive success, but if he struggles to shake off the rust and takes too long to get reacclimated, Boston could be playing catch-up down the homestretch.

Drive to win

Though 29 NHL teams also can say things didn’t go according to plan and their ultimate goal wasn’t reached, Bruins fans had every right to believe their team was capable of more than a first-round flameout, as the defending champs couldn’t make it out of the opening round of the postseason. Whether that was due to mental exhaustion or physical fatigue — 200 games in two years does add up — the stunning early exit was the latest reminder of how hard it is to repeat in this league.

The Bruins have been to the top of the mountain. They know exactly what it takes to get back there and have a roster chock-full of members of their championship. Most important, they’re coming into the season set on proving those who think 2011 was some sort of fluke very, very wrong. And we all know that when the B’s have a chip on their shoulder, they don’t mess around.

Boston was in that exact spot in 2010, fresh off of an infamous collapse against the Flyers. The team responded by, of course, winning the Cup for the first time in 39 years.

So how did the lockout help their drive to win? After the Bruins ran out of steam and bowed out at the hands of the Capitals, it wasn’t a cause for celebration by any means, but the silver lining was the team would get a full offseason to rest up, unlike the previous one that proved to be a brief, frantic summer that was over in a flash. As it turns out, the Bruins have had nearly twice as long to get ready for the season as they initially expected. Furthermore, the bad taste the loss to Washington left in their mouths wound up lingering for almost nine months. Because of that, the Bruins should come out of their proverbial cave angry, hungry and totally charged up to bring the Cup back to Boston.

How did the lockout hurt their drive to win? Unless Jeremy Jacobs insisted on having it written in the CBA that championship teams will now receive chintzy metal Cracker Jack rings instead of the blinged-out Cup rings they’ve become accustomed to, I can’t come up with anything that might’ve lessened Boston’s will to win.

Other X-factors

Ray’s kid

Say what you will about Benoit Pouliot, but he certainly made the most of not-so-major minutes during his lone season in Boston, scoring 16 goals and adding 16 assists. Jordan Caron was the slam-dunk choice to fill his void on the third line until the Quebec-born forward struggled mightily in the AHL and suffered an upper-body injury just before camp began.

Had things gone as planned, Chris Bourque (Boxford, Mass.) probably would’ve been in Providence to start his first season in the organization. He wound up there regardless, but his strong play in the first half put him atop the list of candidates to earn a spot with the big club. Ray Bourque’s son led the team with 28 points through 32 games at the time of his promotion, as the clever playmaker showed P-Bruins fans why he led the league in scoring a year ago as a member of the Hershey Bears.

Bourque, who began the year in Pouliot’s old spot alongside Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley, will need to finally find a way to translate his success in the AHL to the NHL. If he can, Boston will continue to have one of the deepest, most potent forwards corps in the league. And let’s not kid ourselves: Bourque having his NHL breakthrough season in black and gold would be pretty special.

Call for backup

Throughout nearly his entire tenure as head coach, Claude Julien’s Bruins have ranked at or right near the top of the league when it comes to allowing the fewest goals. While Thomas has been the mainstay with Rask as the primary backup, it’s obvious that there are other factors that go into their goaltending success beyond the talent of their tandem, from Julien’s system to a strong band of blueliners led by Zdeno Chara.

Without the success of Rask and his predecessor, Manny Fernandez, in the backup/1B role, the Bruins wouldn’t be coming off their third division title in four years. If they want to make it four out of five, they’re going to need Anton Khudobin to be effective when called upon. The Kazakhstani netminder has been just that in limited NHL action, as he owns a career record of 5-1-0 and a superb .961 save percentage. No one expects Khudobin to maintain that, but if he can assert himself as a trustworthy No. 2, and Rask can hold up his end of the bargain, the B’s will be in great shape.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the
editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com