Claude Julien has won more games as the head coach of the Boston Bruins than anyone not named Art Ross. Most people only know Art Ross as the guy who the scoring trophy is named after, but that’s enough to assume that Ross was a pretty important figure in North American hockey. That also means that what Julien has accomplished in just six years as the Bruins’ coach must be pretty impressive.
Yet, if the Bruins lose tonight, and they very well may, Julien might never catch Ross, because he might never coach another game behind the Bruins’ bench. Speculating hypothetical events based on yet to be determined outcomes is a cheap game to play from a writer’s perspective. But I don’t have locker room access, I’m not covering the game, and in terms of story lines, Claude’s future is front and center in my mind as I prepare myself for arguably the most exciting spectacle in sports: Game 7 of an NHL Playoff series. Yet, when it’s your team playing in the decisive game, it’s more averting the eyes and battling irregular heartbeats and intermittent breathing rather than enjoying the moment. Before we get to this evening’s two and a half hour (or longer) palpitation, there needs to be some discussion about what this game means for Claude Julien and his Boston Bruins.
In six short years, Julien has won three division championships, and choked away another this year (which may have been a blessing, as the division-champ Canadiens drew the Senators and got demolished). He’s never been worse than third in the division, and has made the playoffs each year, which is no small feat. If anything, Julien’s steady, even keeled approach has fostered an environment of stability where players know what to expect and are able to perform at a high enough level to consistently play in the postseason. Julien deserves a ton of credit for his system enabling the Bruins to perennially compete for the division and become synonymous with tough defense and strong goaltending. Offensively, his system is often flawed in various ways, and that is exactly why a loss tonight could send Claude packing.
In four of his five playoff appearances with Boston, Julien has watched his team crash and burn in dramatic fashion, only once having it be mildly acceptable. Three of those failures were spectacular in nature and heartbreaking for the fans. Let’s run them down briefly:
2008: Seeded 8th, lost first round to top-seeded Montreal. Went down 3-1, forced and lost Game 7
2009: Seeded 1st, lost second round to 6th-seeded Carolina. Went down 3-1, forced and lost Game 7
2010: Seeded 6th, lost to second round to 7th seeded Philadelphia. Went up 3-0, lost next four games
2011: Seeded 3rd, won Stanley Cup, beating Presidents’ Trophy winners Vancouver in seven games
2012: Seeded 2nd, lost first round to 7th seeded Washington. Went down 3-2, forced and lost Game 7
To recap: The Bruins’ season has ended in a Game 7 for the past five years. The only one they won was on the road, and of the other four, three were at home. In 2009 and 2012, the two years they were seeded highest, they lost Game 7 at home in overtime, which is as painful as it gets for any hockey fan. I was at the Game 7 loss to Carolina in 2009 and it was just brutal. Of course, not as brutal as blowing a 3-0 series lead, and then a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to lose to the Flyers, the team Bruins fans despise more than any other except that one on the mount in Quebec. The only reasonable loss was in 2008, when the Bruins were just kids trying to prove themselves. That team had younger versions of Bergeron (22), Krejci (21), and Lucic (19). In fact, these Julien-Era Bruins became who they are in Game 6 of that series, a back and forth affair in front of the home crowd that sent the series back to Montreal for Game 7 and restored Boston’s interest in the Bruins.
The bottom line, however, is that Julien’s teams have had a penchant for choking away series and choking away games. After the 2008-2010 heartbreaks, the 2011 Bruins finally got over the hump, climbed the mountain, and won the Cup. It was glorious and I’ll never forget that run and that team. At that point, it was assumed that they’d continue growing, become the team that wins Game 7s instead of loses them, and claims a perennial spot in the conference finals. Now, if they lose tonight, it won’t be out of line to say that the 2011 Bruins team was the aberration, and these Julien-Era Bruins just have the choking gene in their DNA. If they lose a fourth Game 7 at home in a five-year span, I’d be okay with Claude getting canned.
It may sound blasphemous; after all, he’s the guy who won us a cup. We should be grateful. There should be a grace period where he can do no wrong. I’m all for positive sentiment and good feelings. But Julien’s teams lack a couple of key traits that teams need in the playoffs: timely scoring and a killer instinct. Those go hand and hand, and I could write an entirely separate piece on the differences between having a survival instinct and a killer instinct. Great teams have both. The Bruins have had the survival instinct for years. They fought back to force Game 7s in ’08, ’09, and ’12, not to mention in the ’11 Cup Finals. But a killer instinct? They’ve rarely had anything resembling that.
They’ve swept twice in this era, had one 4-2 series win, and everything else, win or lose, has been in seven games. Usually, they lack the ability to score a big goal that buries an opponent. This is partly because they don’t employ superstar players like Crosby, Datsyuk, or Toews, all of whom are guys who come through when the coach says “We need a goal, go get one.” I’ve long accepted the Bruins lacking a true superstar, because it provides balance throughout the team and in an injury-riddled sport, I prefer not to be overly dependent on one guy. Even without a go-to guy, a team, especially one whose core has been together for a solid five years now, should have an innate sense of knowing how to get that timely goal. So many times, the Bruins have proven that they lack that sense. Part of that blame may fall with General Manager Peter Chiarelli, but the consensus around the league and among the fans (myself included) is that he’s done a great job putting this team in place and keeping it intact for several years. A loss tonight will put some heat on Chiarelli, but let’s focus on Claude for now, who’s got the more direct day-to-day impact on the team’s preparation, motivation, and attitude.
If there is a killer instinct, where’s it been? Where was it against Carolina and Washington? They survived, but at home in Game 7, wilted and lost in overtime. They had four chances to beat Philly, and not once could they summon the energy and will power to bury the Flyers. Even in 2011, they were up 3-2 against Montreal and Tampa, letting both teams win Game 6 before escaping with tight one-goal wins in against both in Game 7. Amazingly, the only game of the Julien Era where the Bruins collectively said “We’re the better team and there’s no effing way we’re losing tonight” was in Game 7 of the Cup Finals. I will give them that. But for a team and a coach who are considered at the top of their sport, once in five-going-on-six years is not enough of a killer instinct for my taste, and I’d bet that most Bruins fans would agree.
When it comes to survival, Julien’s teams are excellent. They’ve proven they can extend a series and even win a Stanley Cup. In their minds, however, it seems as if surviving to Game 7 is enough, because they’re tendency to shrink in the do-or-die games is real and dumbfounding. Milan Lucic was the only guy who came to play in the Game 7 losses to Carolina and Philly. Dennis Seidenberg was the guy who came to play in the Game 7 loss to Washington. Does Claude have what it takes to coax strong performances out of more than just one guy tonight?
Most people forget, or at least they did before today, that had Montreal scored first in overtime in Game 7 of their 2011 first round series, Claude would have been fired the next day. The Bruins caught a couple breaks, they were good and they were lucky, and they won it all. If Boston loses tonight, it will be a disaster and someone will need to own up to it. A ton of blame is preemptively being heaped on the Bergeron line, and rightfully so, but Claude’s neck may be sticking out just a few inches farther.
The Bruins have absolutely, completely, and utterly dominated Toronto since the Kessel trade. If the Bruins blow a 3-1 series lead, they could be giving the Leafs a leg up in the years to come. The Leafs are young and Bruins fans will start second guessing the Kessel trade (forgetting that it HAD to happen because he wouldn’t sign here). Bruins fans will wonder if Tuukka is the answer in net and how the hell he got beat by James Reimer (Tuukka is the answer, and Reimer has faced a putrid Boston offense). The Bruins will no longer be the alpha dog in the division, which will be wide open. Actually, the divisions are getting realigned next year, but you get the point.
If the Bruins win tonight, you’ll think that I wasted my time writing this. That’s not true. Even if Boston wins, it’ll be a disappointment of a series and Claude still shouldn’t feel safe. Blowing a 3-1 lead to a young team whose franchise hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in nine years? What happened to experience? What happened to talent? The Bruins have the edge in both those departments and, win or lose tonight, failed miserably when it came to closing the Leafs out. Should the Bruins advance, the fan base won’t be tooting their own horns on Causeway Street. Sure, Boston could feasibly win the next series before almost assuredly losing to Pittsburgh in the conference finals, but a win won’t be about getting the job done and progressing as much as it will be about avoiding total embarrassment and delaying the inevitable.
So, let’s go Bruins. Win tonight and advance to the second round to play either New York or Washington, both of whom are as worn down as the Bruins at this point. Lose, and they yet again will have choked away a season. The grace period for Claude and this team should be longer than just two years, but the failures in the two years preceding the Cup victory were massive enough that if they go down in devastating fashion tonight, then virtually all of the mojo from the 2011 squad will be non-existent. And, quite possibly, so will their coach.