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Defense anchored Bruins' run to playoffs

by Dan Rosen

The Boston Bruins relied on their defense this past season to reach the playoffs. Watch Canadiens-Bruins highlight video
The Boston Bruins’ season appeared like it was over almost as it began in 2007-08.

Patrice Bergeron got crunched from behind into the corner boards by Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones on Oct. 27. His head smashed into the boards. He was left unconscious and taken off the ice on a stretcher. He was later diagnosed with a Grade 3 concussion.

Bergeron would not play again this season.

The Bruins, though, rallied around their injured teammate, who had 70 points last season and seven through the first 10 games of this season. Even without his services, they were able to make the Playoffs for the first time since 2004.

“We gained a lot of respect around the League to the point where teams are going to play us even tougher,” coach Claude Julien told the team’s Web site.

Boston, which finished 13th in the Eastern Conference in 2006-07 with 76 points, improved by six wins and 18 points to finish eighth in the conference and third in the Northeast Division behind Montreal and Ottawa.

They did most of it without Bergeron and goalie Manny Fernandez, who was expected to compete with Tim Thomas for the starting job before a severe knee injury limited him to only two appearances this season.

“Although (these injuries) were devastating, they allowed for us to let our young guys grow and develop quicker than we ever would have thought,” Julien said.

First, though, the Bruins needed goalie Tim Thomas to step up in order for them to have a chance at a playoff berth this season.

Thomas won 30 games in 66 appearances as the No. 1 last year, but posted a 3.13 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. He didn’t really have an NHL ready backup for most of the season so he was spent by the end.

This year, with Alex Auld serving as a capable No. 2, Thomas appeared in nine fewer games, but still won 29. He dropped his GAA to 2.44 and raised his save percentage to .921. He had a 2.65 GAA and .914 save percentage in seven playoff games.

“You can never get comfortable or relax in this game,” said Thomas, who played in his first All-Star Game this past January. “If you don’t work harder than everybody else during the summer, there will be a young kid that will beat you out.”

With Thomas in tow, Julien could set his Bruins on a mission to be one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. Considering they made the playoffs without a 30-goal scorer, it was mission accomplished.

Another veteran, center Marc Savard, needed to buy in to this defensive mentality for the Bruins to have success. Savard had always been known as an exceptional playmaker who lacked concentration on the other side of the red line. At Julien’s urging, Savard bought in so much that he went to his first All-Star Game this season and finished with a team-high 63 assists and 78 points in 74 games. Making his postseason debut in his ninth NHL season, Savard had six points against Montreal despite a back injury that kept him out for the final seven regular-season games.

“I bought in at the beginning of the season,” said Savard, who was a career minus-77 in nine previous NHL seasons. “Being a leader on the team, it has helped everyone else realize this is what we have to do to win hockey games.”

“It’s been a really great year for our hockey club and our organization to see how many strides a lot of those young players that we didn’t expect to even be here at this time have made.” - Claude Julien
With Savard and Thomas now on board, Julien had an easier job in convincing the younger Bruins to play his system as well.

Phil Kessel, who is only 20, but is the key cog in the Bruins' youth movement, improved in his second season. He had 37 points, but added three goals in four playoff games after sitting out the three of the first four games.
Rookies Milan Lucic, 20, David Krejci, 22, and Petteri Nokelainen, 22, were all difference-makers in their own right. Lucic played with the YoungStars during the All-Star Skills Competition. Krejci was second behind Savard with five postseason points.

“It’s been a really great year for our hockey club and our organization to see how many strides a lot of those young players that we didn’t expect to even be here at this time have made,” Julien said during the series against Montreal.

Dennis Wideman turned into the perfect defensive partner for Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara. His offense – he had 36 points on 13 goals and 26 assists – enabled Chara to focus on his unique skills as one of the toughest defensemen in the game.

German-born winger Marco Sturm put up a career high 56 points thanks to a team-high 27 goals. Chuck Kobasew – career-high 22 goals, plus-6 in 73 games – was having a career year before breaking his leg late in the season.

The B’s signed Kobasew and defenseman Aaron Ward to new contracts in May.

“I think it is an exciting time to be a part of this team,” Kobasew told the team’s Web site. “With the direction we’re going and the young guys that are playing great for this team, it’s something I look forward to contributing to.”

Bergeron does, too.

“I don’t think anyone can wait until (Bergeron) is back, hopefully at 100 percent,” Sturm told “For sure he’s going to work his behind off over the summer and his return is just going to help us get better.”

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