In Mid-March, the Boston Bruins headed for a West Coast road trip on top of the Atlantic Division, prime to be a lock for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Little did Bruins fans know that an 0-for-California swing would jumpstart another late-season collapse that appeared all too familiar.
Boston’s season came to a crashing halt in embarrassing fashion at TD Garden Saturday when the Ottawa Senators scored six unanswered goals en route to a 6-1 triumph. The Bruins’ loss coupled with Philadelphia’s 3-1 win over Pittsburgh was enough to earn the Flyers the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and enabled the Detroit Red Wings to finish 3rd in the Atlantic Division in spite of a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers.
Had the Bruins taken care of business against lowly Ottawa, they would be preparing for a first-round matchup with reigning Eastern Conference champion and former University of Maine goaltender Ben Bishop’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead, for the second straight year, the Bruins bumbled and stumbled their way out of the playoff picture.
As much as it may pain Bruins fans to hear this, since Claude Julien has had a great coaching tenure in Boston, this second late-season collapse in as many years may have spelled the end of Julien’s time in Boston.
Julien, who owns more wins than any coach in Bruins history, has done some great things for this club. The 2011 Stanley Cup championship, a run that saw the Bruins won three Game 7’s, is undoubtedly on top of that list.
However, there have been multiple failures, such as blowing a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in the 2010 playoffs. There were those two goals the Chicago Blackhawks scored within seconds to clinch the 2013 Stanley Cup on Causeway Street ice, when the Bruins were a minute away from forcing a Game 7. What about that Game 7 home loss to Montreal in 2014? I could go on and on.
We here in New England all remember the epic late-season bumble of the 2011 Red Sox that cost Terry Francona and Theo Epstein their jobs. The Bruins’ last two late-season collapses mirrors the finish of those staggering Sox, without the beer and the fried chicken. It’s also easy to question goaltender Tuukka Rask’s decision not to play in light of being sick. In a game of this magnitude, unless you’re hooked up to an IV in a hospital, Rask should’ve been out there as one of the leaders of his team. Remember when some guy named Michael Jordan overcame a very bad stomach virus in the 1997 NBA Finals? Playing at high altitude in Utah? As talented as Rask is, he has failed to come up big in big-time games (see Game 6, 2013 Stanley Cup Finals). Not even showing up to play on Saturday in a must-win situation will not help that reputation.
If there was one thing that was evident over the final weeks of the season, Boston’s blue line was a major Achillies’ heal. It may be time for the Bruins to think about trading captain Zdeno Chara in the offseason. Big Z has been a great captain, but he turned 39 a few weeks ago and his age has showed. He’s also entering the final year of his contract, and Patrice Bergeron is primed to have the “C” on his sweater. Bergeron is clearly the face of the Bruins, and would be an excellent captain.
The Bruins will have some big decisions to make this summer. While it wasn’t Julien’s fault guys like Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, Johnny Boychuck and Shawn Thornton have been dealt away over the last couple years, he hasn’t gotten the most out of his players. Claude, we thank you for all you’ve done with the Bruins, but it’s time for the organization to get some new blood in behind the bench.
SOLID ROAD TRIP FOR SOX
Spring in New England will officially start Monday afternoon, when the Boston Red Sox open their Fenway Park schedule against the Baltimore Orioles.
In spite of two postponements in Cleveland – more on that in a minute – the Sox return to Boston having won three of their first five games, including a rally from a five-run deficit in Toronto on Friday. Taking two out of three against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre was certainly a nice early feather in the Sox’ caps.
The starting rotation clearly remains a question behind David Price, who struck out 10 Cleveland Indians in six innings on Opening Day, but the Boston bullpen, a major Achillies’ heal the last two seasons, has been outstanding thus far. The Sox have shown they are going to be very tough to beat if they are leading after six innings, with the trio of Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Craig Kimbrel awaiting opposing hitters.
Travis Shaw, David Ortiz and Brock Holt are all off to strong starts at the plate. Hanley Ramirez looks comfortable at first base. If pitchers such as Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly can settle down, the Red Sox will be just fine.
On a side note, the two postponements in Cleveland showed that cold-weather MLB teams should open the season on the road. Tampa Bay and Toronto, two dome teams, playing an opening series in April makes absolutely no sense.
NORTH DAKOTA A STEP ABOVE EVERYBODY
When I saw North Dakota in the IceBreaker tournament in October, I was very impressed. I thought they would be the last team standing in the Frozen Four.
The same team that Maine beat in a shootout last October wound up leaving Tampa Bay with hardware, blitzing through Northeastern, Michigan, Denver and Quinnipiac en route to its first national title since 2000.
North Dakota is sound in all three phases of the game. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Quinnipiac, withstood a Bobcats’ surge at the end of the first period, then cruised to a 5-1 win.
Maine and North Dakota are two programs that have always had great respect for one another. We all remember the “Walsh” jerseys North Dakota wore after the death of legendary Black Bear coach Shawn Walsh in 2001. Both fan bases are knowledgeable and travel very, very well to support their programs.
Hopefully, it won’t be long before the Black Bears and Fighting Hawks are again playing meaningful March games against each other.