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Bruins-Flyers becoming a mind game

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 4, 2011 08:15 AM

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laviolette.jpg“When you lose your first two games in your home building, I would say there’s a real expectation for the Bruins to win the series now. So it relieves us of the pressure, I believe, a little bit to just go in and play a game in Boston. And while it relieves us of the pressure, it certainly mounts onto them to be successful now that they have a 2-0 lead.”
- Flyers coach Peter Laviolette following Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs

Peter Laviolette was born here, played college hockey here, and for a time, worked here. He knows the hockey culture in Boston. He knows the history of the Bruins. And he knows now that his Philadelphia Flyers team is in trouble, the way the Bruins were in Round 1, and so he is doing now to the Bruins what any shrewd, successful coach would do.

He is attempting to prey on their insecurities.

The NHL playoffs resume at TD Garden tonight with Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bruins and Flyers, and history is still fresh in the minds of all of us. The Bruins held a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers last spring and lost. The Bruins faced a 2-0 series deficit against the Montreal Canadiens last month and won. The Bruins have not won two rounds in any postseason since 1991-92, when a sweep at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins resulted in the firing of coach Rick Bowness.

Nearly 20 years later, Bowness must still be chuckling to himself. In the two decades since Bowness was let go, Brian Sutter, Steve Kasper, Pat Burns, Mike Keenan, Robbie Ftorek, Mike O’Connell, Mike Sullivan, Dave Lewis and Claude Julien have been unable to bring the Bruins where Bowness did.

At least not yet.

For what it’s worth, Bruins officials are saying all the right things following yet another overtime victory, this one a Game 2 affair in Philadelphia on Monday night in which Tim Thomas made an incredible 52 saves. Team president Cam Neely, general manager Peter Chiarelli and Julien are all saying that the Bruins learned from last year’s experience, that they know not to rest, that the series is far from over. In this series as much as any that has ever been played, the days between games are becoming lessons in psychology, both sides playing mind games in search of the slightest edge.

Don’t you just love coaches? Seriously. Now that his team is desperate, Laviolette is planting big-picture thoughts into the Bruins’ heads. (You know, they really should win the series now.) Meanwhile, Julien is emphasizing the cliché of playing 'em one game at a time, the traumatic effect of last year’s collapse still weighing on the Bruins like an oversized sack filled with hockey pucks.

You know what the funny thing is? They’re both nervous. Laviolette knows that he probably has the better roster, but that his goaltending stinks. Julien knows that the Bruins have had trouble closing series during his tenure, no matter the outcome of Game 7 against Montreal. (The Bruins are still just 3-8 in potential series clinchers under Julien.) Both men are smart enough to know that a hockey season can be determined by simple deflection of a puck – ask Montreal goalie Carey Price about this – and that, in the immortal words of John Blutarsky, nothing is over until we all say it is.

Here’s the truth: the Bruins are in command of this series now. It is truly theirs to win. Nonetheless, the Flyers are fully capable of winning four times in the next five games, if for no other reason than they have done it in the recent past. (For that matter, so have the Bruins.) Philadelphia’s style of play – big, tough, nasty – can wear opponents down, something that was probably overlooked last year following the injury to David Krejci and the historic outcome of the series.

Make no mistake: the longer this series goes, for lots of reasons, the more the Flyers will benefit.

What does that mean for the Bruins? It means that their best plan of attack is to end this series quickly, playing each game as they played their most desperate moments of the Montreal series. It means they should be thinking sweep. In four games against the Flyers during the regular season, the Bruins had seven points. With Krejci in the lineup, since the start of last season, Boston has not suffered a regulation loss against Philadelphia in the regular season or playoffs, going 10-0-1. Julien might have sat at the podium following his team’s victory in Game 2 and noted those facts, particularly if he wanted to play the mind games Laviolette has introduced.

You know, the history here is pretty clear. When we have Krejci, we beat these guys. I think the burden is on them to prove otherwise.

Pressure? You bet there is pressure on the Bruins tonight, just as there is on the Flyers. Philadelphia’s season may very well be on the line and Laviolette knows it the way Julien did when the Bruins went to Montreal for Game 3. In hockey, desperate teams tend to give you their best. For the Bruins now, the challenge is to match that intensity, to match that focus, to take this series by the throat the way they did last year, no matter what comparisons are made to the cataclysmic events of last spring.

The Bruins need to use that series now the way that Laviolette is trying to use it.

As an edge.

As a weapon in psychological warfare.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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