Will the Boston Bruins Fall to a Presidents' Trophy Hex in the Playoffs?

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Will the Boston Bruins Fall to a Presidents' Trophy Hex in the Playoffs?
Steve Babineau/Getty Images
Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara will need to be consistently sharp and energized if the Bruins are to translate their regular-season success to the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins have succeeded the Chicago Blackhawks as the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy holders. If that sentence appears paradoxically improbable and underwhelming, it should.

Being the fellow finalist that lost to Chicago in last year’s final, Boston was an unlikely regular-season “champion” for 2013-14. Despite the achievement, residual wear and tear remains a threat to instill costly fatigue at any time in the playoffs.

This is not to write off the Bruins as contenders for the 2014 Stanley Cup, which would let them match the 2013 Blackhawks’ double take. They have their share of elements, particularly a density of winning pedigree, that shortcoming first-place clubs have lacked.

The full scope of the circumstances do, however, indicate that the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy winners project to finish their playoff run somewhere between the mixed extremes of their six immediate predecessors. That is, in the second or third round.

The previous six NHL seasons have yielded a 50-50 split of polar opposite postseason fates for regular-season royals. Those six teams have combined to cultivate one-round playoff runs as often as they have four-round odysseys.

Of the three who reached the Stanley Cup Final, two prevailed: Detroit in 2007-08 and Chicago in 2012-13. None other than the Bruins halted the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks’ quest to translate their trophies with a Game 7 victory. 

On the flip side, three of the previous five top-seeded teams have flamed out in the first round. The 2009 Sharks sputtered in six games to Anaheim, the 2010 Capitals spilled a 3-1 lead to Montreal and the 2012 Canucks whimpered their way to defeat via Los Angeles.

There is a key distinction between those opposing threads that may lend some encouragement to Bruins buffs. All three of those conference quarterfinal busts had no championship stripes to speak of as a franchise.

Conversely, two of those who went on multiround, let alone four-round runs had a core of ring-bearers. The 2008 Red Wings had seven holdovers from a 2002 title run: Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty.

The 2013 Blackhawks returned head coach Joel Quenneville plus seven skaters who partook in the 2010 title. Those were Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and captain Jonathan Toews.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are among many Bruins who have made two Stanley Cup Final appearances with Boston.

Three years after their championship, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara still headline a leadership core among Claude Julien’s pupils. Other active (or at least potentially active) Bruins from that run include Johnny Boychuk, Gregory Campbell, Chris Kelly, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton. 

That chalks up to a maximum of 11 skaters who know Boston’s system and appreciate the rigors of the playoffs. Then there is goaltender Tuukka Rask, who backed up Tim Thomas in 2011 and backstopped Boston to the 2013 final.

Those assets set the 2013-14 Bruins apart from those who have left false championship fingerprints on the Presidents’ Trophy. Consider the following with the aforementioned San Jose, Washington and Vancouver teams.

Hall of Fame columnist Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times in a post-mortem on those 2008-09 Sharks: “The Sharks’ league-leading 53 wins and 117 points were built on a flimsy foundation that collapsed because it lacked heart and grit, the bricks and mortar of playoff success.”

The 2010 Capitals’ collapse came within four months of awarding Alexander Ovechkin the captaincy, a decision that is still worth second-guessing. Various first- and second-round meltdowns and now a 2014 playoff no-show have since magnified that franchise’s perennial ineptitude in the clutch.

By making the Canucks’ misfortune their moment of glory, the 2010-11 Bruins exposed Vancouver’s similar lack of psychological stability. That fragility, whose face was masked man Roberto Luongo, resurfaced in their next postseason series en route to a five-game falter.

This season’s Bruins did not gorge on cupcakes the way past Canucks and Capitals did in plebeian Northwest and Southeast Divisions. Rather, they defied logic by eclipsing six solid Western Conference teams, each boasting at least 46 wins and triple-digit points.

Boston went 18-4-6 overall against the mighty opposite circuit, reaping at least two points of a possible four from the Avalanche, Blackhawks, Blues, Ducks, Kings and Sharks. Only St. Louis beat the Bruins in each meeting, needing bonus action to finish both games.

Boston’s letter-wearers do not have questionable leadership credentials. Bergeron wore the “A” over his heart and Chara the “C” over his for that triumphant 2011 campaign and the 2013 Stanley Cup Final return trip.

Both players continue to spearhead a nucleus of dedication in each zone in support of a stingy Rask. In turn, an assortment of pundits has mixed Bergeron into the Selke Trophy conversation, Chara the Norris and Rask the Vezina.

Rask, like Chara, will still be susceptible to simple physical fatigue as this postseason rolls along. But he will not lose his focus in the face of an unfavorable twist. 

Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

These Bruins have an appreciable stock of immunity against the flaws that have confined other regular-season champions to seven playoff games or fewer. Still, the salad bowl of past Presidents’ Trophy winners extends cautionary tales to core groups with a proven Cup caliber. 

The first Detroit team coached by Mike Babcock had its share of 2002 holdovers. That 2005-06 installment of the Red Wings nabbed the NHL’s top overall seed, only to drop its first-round playoff bout to Edmonton.

An early upset is not unfeasible for this year’s league leader. Experience (or lack thereof) among the lower half of the blue-line brigade and health in all positions both raise questions.

Paille, who was recovering from a concussion a month ago, brooked another toe-curling hit to the head Saturday afternoon against Buffalo. Elsewhere up front, Kelly and Jarome Iginla have each sat out recent games. Assuming they are ready when the tournament starts, their effectiveness will remain in question.

Regarding McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg, Mike Loftus of the Patriot Ledger quoted Julien as saying the following this past week, “…the doctors haven’t said anything about those guys being close.”

McQuaid has not played since mid-January. Seidenberg has not engaged in extramural skating since late December, when his season was declared over.

One of the young reinforcements, Kevan Miller, has also been out of commission of late. He did suit up against Winnipeg this past Thursday, but he along with Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug are still first- or second-year NHL regulars.

They and trade-deadline import Andrej Meszaros will be mystery men, at best, if and when they mold into Boston’s playoff roster. Many of them have prior Stanley Cup playoff experience, but not much, if any, with the Bruins.

Ultimately, these potential bumps and voids will test the leadership nucleus and everyone else’s compatibility with that nucleus. That will be crucial to engineering the same machine that brought a surplus of success to the reigning runners-up this regular season.

With Boston’s blend of roadblocks and certifiable assets, one can expect the Bruins to buck a trend by reaching neither of the recent Presidents’ Trophy extremes. They should not have any excuses for bowing out of the first round but likely will not have a sufficient stock to reach the fourth round.

One can debate whether dropping a second-round series to the likes of Montreal or faltering in the conference final constitutes a Presidents’ Trophy curse. Perceptions aside, that is the most realistic outcome.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and playoff results for this report were found via Hockey-Reference.com.

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