Yet here they are, heading into the first round of the playoffs, and they have been boxed into the role of the veteran team, simply because their opponent has dealt with a similar phenomenon all season: young, inexperienced players forced into prominent roles because of injuries to veterans.
Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien understands why his team is viewed as the veteran team: It has been to the playoffs every year he has been at the helm, and it has advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in two of the last three years, winning it all in 2011.
And while Julien is happy to give credit to Detroit's young guns who have ensured the Red Wings' admission to the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year, he believes his team deserves some credit as well.
“[The Red Wings] have some young players, but so do we,” Julien said. “You know, you have the [Pavel] Datsyuks and [Todd] Bertuzzi will be in there -- they have some veteran players. And I know the [Gustav] Nyquists and [Tomas] Tatars, those kinds of guys have carried their team when they needed it the most. But I think our young D’s have done a pretty good job the same way, when a guy like [Dennis] Seidenberg went down.”
“I think there are a lot of similarities there and I don’t think they’re as young, or that much younger, than we are. I haven’t done the math yet when it comes to the age of both teams because that’s not the important thing to me.”
This year, the Bruins have several players in prominent roles who will be heading to the postseason for the first time, whether it be Reilly Smith or Kevan Miller. They also have players who have just wrapped up their first full NHL seasons after playing in their first postseasons one year ago, like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski.
In Detroit, injuries to veterans Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Jonathan Ericsson have similarly forced younger players into key roles, and those players — like their counterparts in Boston — have responded admirably. The list is long: Up front, there is Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco, and of the four of them, only Nyquist has been to the playoffs.
On the back end, Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith have a combined 16 games of playoff experience, and Smith is likely to continue to play on the top pairing with Niklas Kronwall, as Ericsson continues to recover from a broken finger.
Despite all of that youth and inexperience, the Red Wings went 13-8-3 in the post-Olympic stretch in order to propel themselves into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
They certainly expect to have their hands full against the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round — they are widely considered to be the underdog — but the Bruins, too, expect a dogfight, given that they dropped three of four regular-season games against Detroit.
“I’ve seen them a lot over the years,” said forward Jarome Iginla. “They have some game-breakers — you know, getting Datsyuk back not too long ago. They have some good young guys, they skate well, but yeah, they're a young team. Over the years, a lot of the names have changed, so you don't know them quite as well, but they have a tradition there, too, and, you know, that confidence comes with that.”
“They've been in a battle to make the playoffs, and for every team that makes it, you've earned your spot there, and we look forward to this challenge.”
Twice this week, Julien has cited a critical statistic: Forty percent of first-round NHL playoff matchups end in upsets. Maybe it’s because the lower-seeded teams generally come in fighting whereas some higher-seeded teams clinch their berths well in advance of the postseason, but whatever the case, the Bruins refuse to get caught offguard.
This season, Detroit won six of its final nine games down the stretch, one of which came against Boston on April 2: a 3-2 Red Wings victory in Detroit.
“I don't think we're overconfident,” said forward Shawn Thornton. “We’ve been through that before. All of our focus is on tomorrow — nothing else, nothing past, nothing forward. So that's really all we're worried about.”
“When you get into the playoffs, you’ve got sometimes one of the top teams playing against a team that has nothing to lose, and it just goes to show you what pressure does versus, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain — let’s just go out there and play,” Julien said. “And that mindset can have a real good effect on your team, whether it’s favorable or non-favorable. So I think we’ve had our fair share of tough first rounds — I think one of the things that I said to our team is that when we’ve clinched, we’ve kind of put our guard down a little bit in the last few games, so we’ve kind of, instead of going into the playoffs on a high note, we’ve had to limp our way through the first round a little bit and it’s taken us some time to find our game.”
“I think this year, we just kept our team going and going, and whether that Presidents’ Trophy was something that kept us going, I think it was important for us to keep playing fairly well. … I think this year, we’ve played pretty consistent and we hope that that’s going to be helpful for us there in that first round.”
Detroit’s Speedy Attack
Much has been made of Detroit’s speed and whether that could be the Red Wings’ X-factor against the Bruins, who have sometimes struggled against smaller, faster teams.
“They have a lot of guys with skill,” said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. “I think the biggest thing is to try to slow them down and be physical.”
Added Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli, “They’re a classic puck possession team. For a team that skates, a team that moves the puck well, they’re strong on the puck. I think that’s a bit of a trickle-down from guys like Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who are among the best puck-strippers in the league. They’ve got injuries, they’ve got young guys that are performing well. It’s a different ballgame in the playoffs, but certainly they’ve got speed and they’ve got some youth.”
Facing a speedy attack, though, is nothing new for this Bruins team — not only because they’ve seen Detroit four times already this season, but because they’ve faced a lot of fast teams and have still found ways to play their own game.
“We played fast teams before,” Julien said. “And again, we can look at their record whichever way we want and see us 1-3. … Teams have strengths, and it’s how you counter those things. I think our team can certainly skate — I don’t think we’re a slow team. Whether people underrate our skating, I don’t know. But we’ve shown that we can skate with these guys, but certainly, close the gap quick on those guys, too."
"And that’s what you have to do — you have to make sure you don’t give those guys too much room because they will make plays and they will take the ice that you give them.”
Goaltending to Be the Key
The Bruins have clearly been very satisfied with the performance of Tuukka Rask this season, his first full NHL season as a starting goaltender. He has firmly established himself as a favorite in the Vezina Trophy discussion, going 36-15-6 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.
“I don’t think Tuukka has ever lacked confidence,” Julien said. “Even when he was here behind Tim [Thomas], he was always very confident in what he could do. He has always worked hard and had the right attitude, and that is just growing in to the experience of the years. His stats certainly did improve a lot, but at the same time, he has been one of those goaltenders that continues to want to be better all the time.”
“He was on the big stage, obviously, at the Olympics and was probably a big part of his team winning the Bronze. But again, he is capable of handling, I guess, that kind of a stage as well. And that goes back to what I just answered before — we’re going to need his leadership and his stability back there if we expect to do well [in the playoffs].”
That being said, Detroit’s key to success in this series will be finding a way to get past Rask — and making sure that their own netminder outplays him.
This year, Jimmy Howard went 21-19-11 with a 2.66 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Against Boston, however, he went 1-1, allowing six goals with a .917 save percentage.
“He’s a good goaltender,” Julien said. “He was on the Olympic team. Again, I’m not going to go into details on him, but you know, he’s one of the good goaltenders in the league, and we feel we’ve got the same thing on our side.”
“So I think it’ll be a good duel and I think you’re going to see two teams really working hard to get to the front of that net and either screen or jump on those loose pucks because I don’t know how many clean shots are going to get through those goaltenders."