PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 5: Head Coach Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins helps Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins adjust the chin strap on his helmet during a second period time out against the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 5, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
One year ago, many fans wanted Claude Julien kicked to the curb. Fast forward one season, Julien guided the Boston Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in almost 40 years and has the Bruins on top of the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Despite the absence of top line forward Milan Lucic, the Boston Bruins rolled to a 3-2 win over their arch rivals, Montreal Canadiens before the usual sellout crowd of 17,565 at the TD Garden. The win put the Bruins atop the Eastern Conference with 45 points and completed a turnaround that saw them sitting at the bottom of the conference standings at the end of October following a pair of losses to these same Canadiens.
Coming off their Stanley Cup Championship season of last year, everyone's biggest fear was that the team would suffer from the championship hangover that often plagues teams that aren't loaded with veterans with prior championship experience. In fact, this team lost its only such player to retirement in Mark Recci following the dramatic seventh game in Vancouver.
Those fears were realized when the team trudged out of the gate after receiving their championship rings. It went beyond just the regular championship hangover though. The team looked out of sync, almost as if they were learning how to play together despite the roster being almost exactly the same. While it was still early in the year, the potential for this season to get away from them was becoming more real with each listless loss.
While the talent on the ice certainly has a great deal to do with the teams turnaround in the last two months, a significant portion of the credit belongs to the man behind the bench, coach Claude Julien. It's a bit ironic actually. Julien's most vocal critics will tell you that their biggest problem with him is the fact that his system is often rigid and unflinching and allows for very little creativity on the ice. However, it's that rigidness that has helped this team turn the corner.
Many coaches, faced with the possibility of losing their team early in the year, would have gone overboard with changes in an attempt to jumpstart the team. However, if you compare the tapes of the teams performance last night against any of their games from the first month of the season, you'll see that the team isn't doing anything differently from a tactical standpoint. Even the lines are the same for the most part. The difference is that the team is doing everything with more focus and purpose.
"We don’t change our game, we don’t change our game plan, we just try and play the same every night, no matter who we’ve got in the lineup," coach Claude Julien said. "That’s just the simplicity of our hockey club."
Julien has been adamant throughout the teams renaissance that nothing needed to change except the effort level and the execution, which has clearly gone way up. Players like David Krejci, Rich Peverley, and Lucic started the season relatively slow, but have really picked it up and given the team back it's greatest weapon: depth. At it's best, this is a team that gets contributions from all four lines and is simply able to wear down its opponents who aren't willing to play their third and fourth lines in crucial situations. That depth is spelled out in the numbers.
After being such a spectacular failure on the power play during the playoffs and the early part of the season, the Bruins now rank in the top half of the league in that category, while also continuing to be one of the best five on five teams in the league as well. The team finished last nights game as the second best team in the league in terms of goals scored, averaging 3.4 goals per game.
One of the big reasons that the season didn't completely get away from the B's early in the year was that the defense continued to be among the elite units in the league. Goalie Tim Thomas has been absolutely dominant for the second consecutive season (an absolutely ridiculous 94.3% save percentage), and even Tuukka Rask has been top notch this year. Coupled with the always reliable defensive tandem of Zdano Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the team ranks as the best in the league in goals allowed and third when playing when down a man.
The teams tremendous run of success over the last two months has been nothing short of phenomenal (of their three losses since October, only once have they lost by more than a goal), but the season is a long way from over. The expectations are now that the Bruins will find a way to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, and now anything short of that will be considered a disappointment. In order to reach those lofty expectations, the team will have to continue to play at this level for the rest of the season and all the way through the playoffs. A tall order for any club. The good news is that, despite all the criticism he's taken over the past few seasons, this Bruins team has the perfect coach to help guide them to their peak.