There are so many reasons that this postseason, the Bruins have to be feeling like it’s conference finals or bust.
The franchise has to erase all memories of last spring’s collapse, prove that it’s improving every season, and also make sure it doesn’t waste a hard-fought regular-season that earned the Bruins a division title and the third seed.
General manager Peter Chiarelli certainly believes he’s built a team capable of making the longest postseason run by a Bruins club in 19 years. Many fans think so, too.
Here are three reasons to be confident the Bruins can both down Montreal and then go at least to the Stanley Cup semifinal:
We all know the gaudy stats Tim Thomas put up this season. He posted a 2.00 goals-against average, a NHL-record .938 save percentage and nine shutouts. But just as important is another on Thomas’ ledger – 57 games played. Thomas is well-rested thanks to the plotting of the Bruins’ coaching staff and the improved play of Tuukka Rask as the season unfolded.
Even a fresh Thomas might not be able to duplicate the eye-popping numbers from the regular season, but he doesn’t really have to. If the Bruins play the way they’re capable defensively, Thomas will just have to be sharp enough to match his career playoff numbers — .926 save percentage and 2.16 GAA – for the Bruins to have a great chance at winning four of seven games against the Habs and then march on.
If Thomas goes haywire or gets injured (heaven forbid), Rask has proven in the past that he is a big-time goaltender with ice water in his veins. So the Bruins would be in better shape than Montreal, which would have to turn to journeyman Alex Auld if something happened to Carey Price.
•Chara & the defense
What Zdeno Chara and the Bruins’ defense corps lack in speed, it makes up for with synergy within the system and physicality. Unlike Montreal, which relies on rookie P.K. Subban to throw big open-ice hits and keep puck-carriers wary when coming through the neutral zone, the Bruins should have at least three guys with that capability. Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid have shown that ability all season, while Johnny Boychuk will hopefully reassert himself in the postseason after a lackluster regular season.
The Bruins’ defense is great at keeping attacking players wide and shooting lanes clear. That’ll make life tough for Montreal’s snipers, who aren’t known so much for having a nose for the net. Boston should be able to use its size and strength on the back end against the diminutive forwards on the rush and on the cycle.
•Improving penalty kill
The arrival and subsequent settling in of Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley seems to have the Bruins killing penalties the way a team that takes so much pride in defense should be. Boston actually moved up to 16th in the league on the strength of killing 26 of its last 29 shorthanded situations.
With three set pairs, the Bruins have found the type of chemistry that allows them to not only keep puck out of their net but also get aggressive enough to go on the attack. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and even Daniel Paille might be able to get off and running and give the Bruins some bonus goals if they play their cards right.
The Habs, however, allowed just six shorthanded goals all season and boast the league’s seventh-best power play. So Boston will have to think defense first and keep the Habs from building up momentum with the type of power play that could demoralize a team.
At the very least, you have to expect that the Bruins will fare better in this series than they did against Montreal in the regular season, as the Habs scored nine times in 28 power-play chances.