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Checking in on the hockey hubbub

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 2, 2009 11:50 AM

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New year, new rules. Hockey lives in the Hub. The Patriots are out of the playoffs and the Red Sox appear to be remaining mostly intact. The Celtics are defending champions and possess the best record in the NBA, even with a recent case of the hiccups.

Let’s be honest: The journey with those clubs is no longer as important as the destination.

And so now, despite of an embarrassment of riches over the last several years, we here in Boston even have the best team in hockey. Can you believe this stuff? With last night’s 4-2 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bruins -- yes, the Bruins! -- have the best record in the NHL. This week, the Bruins beat the Pens not once but twice -- once on their pond, once on our river -- further validating what is now inarguable, even to a casual observer:

The Bruins are for real. The Bruins are loaded. The Bruins are deep, talented and extremely well-coached, and they are a legitimate threat to win -- deep breath here -- Le Coupe.

The Cup.

Right?

I mean, aren’t they?

Admit it: If you are like most Bostonians, the Bruins have had their place for a long time. They are No. 4. (This is the only similarity to Robert Gordon Orr.) Yet the simple, indisputable truth today is that Bruins are indeed No. 1, in more ways than one, meaning it is time for some of us to learn, once and for all, the true difference between a hockey puck and a Ring Ding. (Wait, is it the cream filling?)

That said -- and after watching the Bruins conducting a passing drill that led to their first goal last night while simultaneously making the Penguins look like a collection of traffic cones -- I enrolled in Hockey 101 and went to the People Who Know to tap into their wisdom. Here is what they offered . . .

Wannabe Puckhead: Are these guys for real? What has been most impressive? Can they actually win, you know, The Cup?

Fluto Shinzawa, certified Hockey Krishna, Boston Globe (hereafter identified as Krisha I): Team is absolutely for real. Two-man goaltending has been the best in the league. During the last 10-game stretch, Zdeno Chara has played the best shutdown hockey of his career. Up front, the Bruins roll four lines that can play with anybody and score on anybody. The most impressive thing about this run? The depth at every position. Pick your poison with the goaltending. Flip a coin. Pick a name out of a hat. Doesn't matter whether you play Tim Thomas or Manny Fernandez. It's a good bet you're going to give up two goals or less with either guy. On D, they were without two of their top four defensemen (Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference) for a stretch. Didn't matter. Matt Hunwick steps in. Third-pairing defenseman Shane Hnidy takes on more responsibility. Up front, when Marco Sturm and Patrice Bergeron aren't producing, pups like Blake Wheeler and David Krejci emerge. And with Sturm and Bergeron out, the No. 2 line of Wheeler, Krejci, and Michael Ryder have taken command of the offense. This is a team built to win the Cup. No question.

Kevin Paul Dupont, certified Hockey Krishna, Boston Globe (hereafter identified as Krishna II): Right now, it looks to me like the Bruins fit in nicely with the Sharks and Red Wings as the three viable candidates.

Two main reasons:

1. Goaltending. Without it, you have nothing. Teams win, and they say that goaltending is half the equation. Then, when they don't have it, it looks like 99 percent of the equation. [Tim] Thomas and [Manny] Fernandez comprise the best tandem they've had here since [Andy] Moog and [Rejean] Lemelin, back when they went to the Cup final in '88 and '90.

2. Scoring depth. At times the previous two years, they couldn't find a single line to pop in the puck. Now, on a nightly basis, at least two lines produce chances . . . some nights all four lines.

They've had some decent 'tending (Byron Dafoe) in the years since the last trip to the final. But not this kind of scoring. It's the goaltending-scoring combination, along with overall adherence to Julien's ''team toughness'' (i.e. constantly on the puck, both ways) that has made the difference.

Wannabe Puckhead: Unbelievable. And I thought Manny Fernandez was done once he retired from the Miami Dolphins. So what’s the biggest area of concern?

Krishna I: Injuries, possible trades, and defense. Injuries are inevitable. They've been able to survive every one so far, but they can't afford Chara to go down. MVP of this team. The original plan was to build up Fernandez and trade him for some help, most likely on defense, but there's no way management should touch the goaltending. Look at Detroit last year. Dominik Hasek starts the playoffs, falters, and in steps Chris Osgood. The Wings are wearing rings now. D could use one more puck-mover, but that might be a luxury, especially when considering the risk of upsetting chemistry by trading away a current piece.

Krishna II: Well, health is the biggie. They finished with 104 points in 2003-04, and looked set up for a decent run, but Joe Thornton tore some rib cartilage down the stretch. End result: they lost Round 1 to the Canadiens (93 points in the regular season), able to score only 14 goals in 7 games. Thornton's line for the series: 0-0--0 (now known as the Full Thornton).

From a personnel standpoint, the main concern going into the season was puck-moving skill among the blueliners. Would [Dennis] Wideman grow into the role? Would they have to add another puck-lugger?

Wideman has been better than I expected. Hardly perfect. But more than adequate on most nights, with flashes of brilliance (again, flashes). The biggest surprise back there has been rookie Matt Hunwick, who came in due to injuries to Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward. Hunwick looks as if he can be a dynamic, shifty skater -- always a plus. And he uses that speed to help get pucks out of the defensive zone, and also to jump into plays once the puck has been advanced over the offensive blue line. Love that. Vastly overlooked thus far, but I think you will see him get some Rookie-of-the-Year love in the second half.

Wannabe Puckhead: Let me back up for a minute. Did one of you guys say something about the Bruins having multiple scoring lines or is my helmet on too tight?

Krishna I: Scoring absolutely legit. One concern might be Phil Kessel having trouble with tight checking down the stretch, as he's their most dangerous natural scorer. But they're getting it from everywhere.

Krishna II: No big-time snipah, but truly, there are few of those guys in the game anymore, because no one scores with big shots off the wing -- other than, say, Alexander Ovechkin, and a few of us in the press corps!

They are getting the goals from 2-3-4 lines, and that's the prescription for success today. It would not have been the same 30-40 years ago, but third- and fourth-line scoring is the preferred method of success today. For many reasons, including salary cap.

Wannabe Puckhead: OK, fine, but how do I know the entire team doesn’t pull the Full Thornton come springtime? Aren't the playoffs a different animal? Is this team built to win in the spring?

Krishna I: Games tighten up big-time in the playoffs. But consider the Dec. 23 2-0 win over New Jersey. A classic example of playoff hockey, and the Bruins executed that game perfectly. Was probably the best game of the year. When they get up by several goals, they don't play as well. But give them a tight-checking game and they sparkle: tough on D, chip into the offensive zone, chase down the puck, wear down the opponents with their straight-line game.

Krishna II: No postseason in any sport presents the g-r-i-n-d of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And that remains the question here: Do they have the mental and physical toughness for a 7-8 week torture test? No way of knowing that until they get into it . . . IF they get into it.

Key questions there would be the stamina of young kids such as Phil Kessel, David Krejci and again, Hunwick. For that matter, Marc Savard has played in a career seven postseason games (all with the Bruins last spring). He is not a big body. Other clubs will load up on him, which will put the pressure on Krejci and possibly Patrice Bergeron (if he returns this year). Let's not forget how the Oilers attacked Craig Janney with Esa Tikkanen.

Of course, we have no questions here about Zdeno Chara in the can-he-handle-the-workload? department. He'll play his 30 minutes a night and then report to an all-night health club for a ''real'' workout.

Wannabe Puckhead: Love that Charo guy -- cuchi, cuchi! -- but wanted to ask about someone else: the coach. Two years ago, the Bruins were one of the worst teams in the league under Dave Lewis. Now they’re one of the best under Monsieur Claude. How much of this is the players, how much the coach?

Krishna I: Claude Julien will get Coach of the Year consideration this year, which is a shame considering he did an even better job last season. This guy is superb. Motivates his players. Has his players executing his box-plus-one system flawlessly. Allows his lines time to develop chemistry. Has drawn up a lethal No. 1 power-play unit that gives opposing PKs multiple looks that they have trouble defending. Has freed his defensemen to jump up in the play and join the rush this season. You name it, this guy has done it right.

Krishna II: I give great credit to Julien. Simple system. Commands and demands respect, not just of his position, but doesn't cater to stars and makes the kids feel vital. That's a fine line.

Julien also knows when to give it a rest, in terms of days off and optional day-of-game skates. Too many coaches get so caught up in the details, they can't see when the job wears on guys . . . and again, there isn't a sport that is this physical that has so many games. And they wonder why so many guys get hurt. No wonder here . . . every facet of the job is dangerous, and almost every aspect of it can lead to injury.

Think about it: does anyone in football get hurt from the football? Meanwhile, hockey has countless guys incur broken bones each year (see: Andrew Ference) just from pucks. Never mind the crushing checks that are near fatal, and million-and-one wrenched knees.

All that aside, it takes talent to win it all, my seamheaded friend. Case in point: 1967. Great story, the Red Sox, a true love story. But in the end it was all about the overpowering talent of Bob Gibson and a much deeper, proven Cardinals lineup. And I have the Kodak Instamatic pictures of World Series Games 1 and 7 that year to prove it.

Wannabe Puckhead: Who you calling a seamhead? Heading out now to sharpen my skates and illegally curve my stick. If I feel up to it, I might even get between the pipes and try standing on my head.

Happy New Year, boys.

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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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