Your Bruins can make it a very good show down the stretch

Still more proof of how time flies when you’re having fun, we’re about to make the far turn in the merciless death march known as the National Hockey League’s regular season.  In the course of this week, the Bruins, like the rest of their confreres, will have played three quarters of the regular season. Now comes the gun lap when we separate the true contenders from the mere pretenders, or the men from the boys, if you prefer. And I do.

They wash around for five months, adrift in parity, whereupon March suddenly looms and it’s as if a cannon explodes and the normally frenzied pace re-doubles in defiance of quantum physics as the zany fellows who play this savage game suddenly find a higher, fiercer gear. As the Bard has noted, this way madness lies.

Things can unravel quickly as you’ll promptly recall being most vividly the case just a year ago when a once highly promising Bruins season brutally imploded over the last month. People forget that last season these Bruins were the consensus pick to make it all the way to the end game, tabbed by Sports Illustrated, no less, to meet the LA Kings in the finals for the Holy Hockey Grail.  It’s further ironic that the Kings also imploded, which is not entirely a backhanded tribute to SI’s powers of prophecy. Hockey is the one game among the Big Four truly impossible to predict.

A year ago the Bruins got utterly clobbered by egregiously false expectations, leaving them stripped of their dignity and inviting an off-season purge. This season, might they benefit from having been lightly dismissed with little or nothing expected? It says here, “maybe.”

At roughly the three-quarter pole, they have the second best record in their division, fourth best in their conference while being, rather amazingly, tied for seventh best in the entire 30-team league. Yes, the teams are tightly packed (parity!) and all that could change in what’s left of the regular season. Then again, it might not change, and it could even get better.

By all of that measure, and given the despair enveloping the cause only last summer, this season can already be deemed a promising work in progress. Moreover, it’s not too early to reject as silly the dire predictions of doom rampant in the local media when that aforementioned purge sent decidedly over-rated Dougie Hamilton, and clearly burned-out (at least in Boston) Milan Lucic packing in last summer’s controversial re-boot.

In the event you haven’t noticed, Hamilton is having another of his tantalizing but frustratingly unfulfilling seasons in Calgary where the Flames remain in the hunt for a lottery draft pick with the league’s fourth worst record. Lucic, on the other hand, should never be disparaged. His contributions here were significant and he was a true Bruin. But it was over and out, here. For reasons doubtless not even he begins to understand, he needed the proverbial change of scenery. Matt Belesky, imported to take his place, is not another Lucic. But he’s an equally honest player performing better here this season than Lucic did last season.

Some will say it’s too early for such readings. But I’m willing to suggest that the highly brazen and risky re-build boldly orchestrated by Don Sweeney might yet prove brilliant, certainly long-term, and maybe even short-term. Obviously, the wisdom will ultimately be determined by how the raft of draft picks he has snared (and there’s another No. 1 coming this June) pan out. But the governing thesis of the strategy – that you must re-build with youth, given the realities of payroll limitations – make this gamble unquestionably the only way to go. Sweeney’s moves took guts. This much I’ll insist on: It’s not too early to wonder if maybe we under-rated this Harvard boy.

Sweeney’s next big move at the upcoming trade deadline will be crucial. By all accounts, he faces a wretched dilemma: Will he have to trade Loui Ericksson if he determines he can’t sign him. Or, more precisely, if the stylish Swede is unwilling to offer them a significant discount for the honor of remaining a Bruin.  A salary-dumping of Eriksson could instantly unravel the happy little Bruins’ renaissance we’ve been discussing here, unless they get a prized, young, near-all-star level defenseman in return. Fat chance!

One suspects the importance of this matter is not fully appreciated by the masses. The foremost strength of this newly constituted team, and that which gives it some hope of doing post-season damage, is its core-four of elite forwards; Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Ericksson. Of the four, Ericksson is the least understood in terms of the role he plays and its importance to the team. His subtle skills command the heavy respect of learned observers like Andy Brickley, who raves about him endlessly. Too many others don’t get it.

Fully healthy this season, Ericksson has verified himself a terrific player, a complete player. The other night, Neil Smith, a smart and seasoned hockey man, called him “a coach’s player,” and that says volumes, especially when the coach in question is a wise old pro like Claude Julien, a man devoted to the game’s bedrock fundamentals. Erickson does it all and handles every role handed him with quiet, near effortless class. Though a winger, not a center, he reminds me a bit of the great Jean Ratelle in the refinements of his game. You have to wonder about a team that can’t find a way to re-sign such a player? Today’s salary-cap world makes bitter necessities of such impossible situations. Good luck to Mr. Sweeney on this one; he’ll bloody need it.

Otherwise – if they manage to stay reasonably healthy, always the first priority – the outlook for a wonderful garrison finish to this quite pivotal season is fascinating. At the moment, under an umbrella of a mere six points, seven teams, led by the Bruins, vie for five playoff posts, with three more teams  including the Canadiens, still within hailing distance.  With a quarter of the season left, there are only four teams bereft of playoff hopes. The struggle will rage to the last weekend.

Intriguing scenarios are playing out all over the Republic of the NHL  It’s life or death for the Penguins, a once formidable team overloaded with prima donnas at the wit’s end of illusion. Much the same could be said of the Rangers, the potential dynasty that won nothing under the churlish leadership of Alain Vigneault, still whining about his 2011 Cup loss to the Bruins. Under Scott Babcock there are signs of life in Toronto; precious few in Edmonton under Peter Chiarelli. The team the Bruins ought most worry about is Tampa, although Detroit is always in the mix. In the West, Chicago’s Blackhawks will pull away.

Then there are your sentimental favorites, les Habitants du Montreal, who, poor dears, are enduring a frightful ordeal. Early on this season, the Canadiens led the Bruins by almost 20 points. Now, it’s the Bruins ahead by 10, a remarkable swing within a full season, let alone half of one.  Without their Hart- and Vezina-winning heart and soul of a goalie, Carey Price, who is apparently lost for the duration, the Habs aren’t quite as good as the Buffalo Sabres. It may be their lousiest stretch ever. Michel Therrien can’t long survive this as coach. Even the illustrious P.K. Subban is on the carpet. Have a bite of schadenfreude and rejoice in their misery.   

Such an odd hockey season! The Montreal Canadiens in free fall with the Florida Panthers bestride the heap. Even while bemoaning the very existence of an NHL team in Sunrise, let alone more teams in the state of Florida than the province of Quebec, you gotta like the Panthers. Rallying around the inspiration of 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, these otherwise spry and upstart cats are for real.

In just the latest Jagr caper, he has become the NHL’s third-highest goal scorer ever, bowing only to Messrs. Gretzky and Howe. You’ll recall Jagr being dandy In his brief Bruins’ fling three years ago only to have Peter Chiarelli let him walk to make room for the twice as expensive Jarome Iginla, who promptly plunged the team into a salary-cap crisis that cost them Johnny Boychuk.  

Thanks, Pete. Have fun in Edmonton!

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