BOSTON — Same coach. Same players. Same berth in the Stanley Cup finals that they earned two years ago.
And, the Boston Bruins hope, same result.
Claude Julien still uses a tight defensive system that’s not particularly exciting but very effective. He had 16 players from the 2011 champions in uniform to execute it in Friday night’s 1-0 win that clinched a four-game sweep over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.
The return to the Cup finals reinforces general manager Peter Chiarelli’s decision to keep the group together.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said Saturday. “There’s a fine line between unfettered loyalty to the players and building a good team. That’s my job to find that line. I’ll continue to try and do it. This team has showed a lot of character through this playoff run.”
The only four players in uniform Friday who were not with the Bruins two years ago were forwards Jaromir Jagr and Kaspars Daugavins, defenseman Torey Krug and backup goalie Anton Khudobin. Daugavins replaced Gregory Campbell, another 2011 holdover who played 15 postseason games before breaking his leg in Game 3 against Pittsburgh.
So Chiarelli figures the Bruins will be better prepared for the finals than they were two years ago. The Chicago Blackhawks led the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western finals going into Saturday night’s game.
Unlike in 2011, this year only one of the Bruins’ first three series went seven games. And that was a springboard to their future success.
They took a 3-1 lead in the opening round against Toronto before losing the next two games. They trailed 4-1 with less than 11 minutes left in the third period of Game 7.
Then Nathan Horton scored for Boston and, after pulling their goalie for an extra skater, the Bruins tied it with 51 seconds left in regulation with two goals in 31 seconds.
Then Patrice Bergeron won it in overtime.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bruins are the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period.
“You can tell in the way we’ve been playing since that game that we were able to create some momentum,” forward Milan Lucic said, “and it carried on into the New York series and it carried on to this series. I think once we won that game, we definitely started to believe in what we could accomplish. And here we are.”
The Bruins beat the Rangers in five games then swept the NHL’s highest scoring team, outscoring the Penguins 12-2.
The comeback against the Maple Leafs “was a driving force going forward,” Chiarelli said. “The fact that we did that certainly catapulted us into our level of play and performance, definitely. You could see the team pick itself up. Going back to when it happened, you could feel the momentum.”
Starting with that game, the Bruins have won nine of their last 10 with a 33-16 goal differential. Their defense has given opponents limited time and space to control the puck and their offense has made precise passes to players in just the right position. And goalie Tuukka Rask stopped 134 of 136 shots by Sidney Crosby and the rest of the suddenly punchless Penguins.
“This series here against Pittsburgh was not a 4-0 series,” said Julien, in his sixth year as coach of the Bruins. “I really felt that the breaks went our way in this series on a lot of occasions.”
Of course, they made many of those breaks.
“From top to bottom, we’ve been rolling,” Chiarelli said. “Our breakout has been relatively seamless. I think our neutral zone forecheck — there’s been tweaks here and there — has been terrific. Our forecheck has been terrific.
“So in all three zones we’ve been really good. Defending we’ve been good; Tuukka’s been terrific. We’re generating a lot of chances. We’re scoring when we have to. We’re shutting down when we have to. So, it’s hard to complain after the last two series. The challenge will be to keep it going in the next series, whoever we play.”
One of the newcomers is Jagr. The Bruins obtained him April 2 to boost their offense after a trade with Calgary fell through for Jarome Iginla, who chose to go instead to the Penguins. He felt they had a better chance to win the Cup.
“In my profession you learn to turn the page and go to the next thing,” Chiarelli said. “It’s satisfying that we won with the group that we had. I’m happy to see the contributions we got from Jaromir and the other players that we acquired.”
Jagr won the Cup in his first two seasons, 1991 and 1992, with the Penguins.
More than two decades later, he can win his third.
Rask didn’t play in the 2011 playoffs. Tim Thomas was the goalie then and was voted postseason MVP after a 16-9 record and 1.98 goals against average.
So far, Rask is 12-4 record with a 1.75 goals against average in the playoffs.
“You can’t change anything,” he said. “It’s been working so far so (we’ve) got to keep it up.”