With his team about to enter the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs with the best record in the Eastern Conference and second-best record overall in the NHL, Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli knows the bar has been raised as far as expectations for his team to advance and achieve greatness in its second visit to the postseason in as many years.
However, he also knows the unpredictability of the NHL playoffs and the history that shows Boston hasn’t won a first-round series since 1999. Today during a conference call with the media to discuss his team’s upcoming first-round series with Montreal, Chiarelli was honest about his expectations coming into this season and about the hopes he has for his current squad moving forward.
“Going into this season based on how we finished (last year) and based on our projections on our players, we had said that we felt we were going to be in the four or five spot in the conference. And with that slot comes higher expectations,” said Chiarelli, whose team bowed out in seven games in a first-round series to the Canadiens last spring. “So I don’t think at all this year it was hope; I think it was expectation.
“But the degree of expectation has heightened considerably. So I can’t give you the number of rounds, of course. History has shown that we haven’t had success in the first round in a long time. So what I can say is let’s get past Game 1 first and then maybe I can give you a more clear answer.”
While Chiarelli can’t look into a crystal ball and forecast how many rounds his team will win, he doesn’t need any fortune-telling device to tell him that the 32nd chapter of the Bruins-Canadiens postseason story will be as contentious as those of the past. But he’s confident that even though things got a little wet and wild in the second period of his club’s final regular-season game with the Habs last Thursday, cooler heads will prevail for the Black and Gold.
“I think you saw in the third period of our game last week that we kind of held our emotions in check but still played a physical game. And that’s what we have to do,” said the GM. “So there will be an element of managing that stuff, and I’ll leave that up to (head coach) Claude (Julien). And, of course, the Montreal power play — even though it’s not as successful as it was last year — is a good power play, so I think it’s a function of staying out of the box and managing our emotions.”
Those emotions could get frayed not only by the agitation that comes with facing the Habs on the ice, but also the off-ice distractions. Everywhere they turn, the Bruins are going to hear about past postseason failures the franchise has suffered at the hands of the Habs, up to and including the 2004 series that featured the top-seeded Bruins falling to the eighth-seeded Habs. Chiarelli’s confident that the preponderance of Bruins-Habs games on the schedule during the regular season, plus the seven games in last year’s playoffs, has his team’s players in the right frame of mind to handle it all.
“You can’t ignore it. It’s there, you have to deal with it,” explained Chiarelli. “I think the fact that we’ve played them so much last year and this year, I think the guys know what to expect; I think they’re conditioned to it. … Our players are not perfect, and they’re going to express emotions on the ice, and that’s part of what our identity is. They know more what to expect from the opposition perspective, and also the playoff perspective in general. So I’m going to think that they’re going to react well and play well based on that.”
Another strong preparation tool for the Bruins, who still feature a large bunch of key players under the age of 25, were the games in February and March that the Bruins’ opponents treated as “statement games” — as in, a chance to take down the top team in the East (and at times the NHL). While the Bruins didn’t always answer the bell in those contests, Chiarelli thinks the atmosphere and pressure of those games were probably a learning aid that could pay off now that the postseason is here.
“I like to think that that has helped them, that that has contributed to the experience,” said Chiarelli. “At the end of the day, the only experience you can get is when you actually play in these games. So it’s not a concern. I’ve liked the way we’ve performed this year. We’ve had some statement games from our perspective and I thought we did well for the most part. So I expect them to step up their play and to build on the experience they have from last year.”
We’ll find out just how they’ll respond Thursday night when the puck drops for Game 1.