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'Second nature' becoming Bruins' byword

by John McGourty

Claude Julien introduced a team-defense system that has transformed the Bruins to a team that is 10th in fewest goals allowed this season.
You can tell when NHL coaches are getting through to their players by listening for players to repeat the coach's pet phrases.

When he was coaching the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, Mike Babcock introduced the word "greasy" to the hockey lexicon, his word for toughness and determination. Players you'd known for years suddenly were trying to be more "greasy," they'd tell you. "Grit" and "accountability" were more than buzz words, they were concepts coaches wanted players to incorporate into their thinking and their play.

"Second nature" is the word you'll hear repeated in the Boston Bruins' dressing room this season. You know the Bruins? The team that every analyst had bringing up the rear in the Northeast Division, but which is in second place, behind only the Ottawa Senators?

New coach Claude Julien introduced a team-defense system that wasn't easy to learn, but it has transformed the Bruins from the second-worst defensive team in the NHL last season to a team that is 10th in fewest goals allowed this season. The change wasn't accomplished without growing pains. Julien is the first to tell you the Bruins struggled in the exhibition season and the offense suffered early in the regular season while players focused on their new defensive responsibilities.

The keys to Julien's systems are having forwards come back into the defensive zone to help the defensemen, while dramatically lowering the number of shots against from high-percentage shooting areas.

Perhaps the person most appreciative of Julien's early season success is GM Peter Chiarelli, who was vilified in his first year by Bruins fans for the team's performance last season. When he changed coaches at the start of his second season, many critics saw it as further evidence he didn't have a clue. It's rare to find someone quick to acknowledge a mistake and take steps to correct. It's rarer still to find people willing to give you credit for that.

"Part of Claude's package, the part that's best well known, is his ability to implement a solid defensive-zone system," Chiarelli said. "Second fiddle to that is the playing hard every night. We do have a more aggressive forecheck than last year. Our forwards are in closer to the net. We're steering more aggressively. As a result, we're forging an identity here: A team that's hard to play against that doesn't give up many chances and a team that's going to finish its checks every night."

Chiarelli watched as his team struggled to learn under its new coach but he kept the faith. Chiarelli, who played on Harvard's 1986 NCAA championship team, has been around hockey a long time and knew his players were learning a completely new system.

"Whenever a new coach puts in a new system anywhere, it takes some time to gestate," Chiarelli said. "You could see the guys asking a lot of questions as training camp progressed. We're almost at a point now where it's second nature. It's an evolving thing. Claude and I had the discussion that once it becomes second nature, the other things, the offensive rushes, will come and it's starting to happen. We had that discussion a couple of weeks ago and our chances have started to increase and the offensive side of our game has increased. That's how it's evolved."

The work ethic, accountability and consistency all have been raised this season. The players worked hard to grasp the system. Every player knows how hard he worked and saw how hard his teammates were willing to work. As a result, the Bruins' dressing room is a cohesive and enjoyable place. There's nothing like winning to create bonds among athletes.

"Coach is making guys more accountable and responsible," said captain Zdeno Chara. "The system is pretty simple and we just have to follow it and do things right. We play very tight, five guys up and five guys back, and share the responsibility. I think we all feel more comfortable with each other and the coaching staff, as well. When you have so many new players coming to a team, it takes time."

"It's made it easier on everybody because everybody knows where they are supposed to be," said goalie Tim Thomas, who leads the NHL with a .936 save percentage. "If everybody knows where they are at, it makes it easier for me because I know where they are supposed to be. A lot of times, I know where the openings are going to be and I can be prepared for knowing where the shots are coming from.

"This is a team defense. It's not just the defensemen. The onus is always on the defense when you're playing badly. Blame the defense, blame the defense. But when you play a team defense, then it takes a lot of pressure off the defensemen. Theoretically, it's supposed to be the center coming back, but really it's the first forward coming back to help out the defense and play a little defense, too."

Defenseman Mark Stuart was a college All-American who struggled in his first two NHL seasons. His rapid development this season is a huge contributing factor to the team's success. Stuart loves playing in this system and it shows.

"It was a pretty good transition for me because it was similar to what we were doing in (AHL) Providence, especially as far as defensive-zone coverage for defensemen. I enjoyed getting into it and it's the style of play that I like," Stuart said. "We worked on it a lot in practice, a lot of 3-on-3 stuff down low. We made sure that the forwards and the defensemen are communicating and know their position. There's not a lot of running around. It's working with each other, feeding off each other and making sure you've got your guy in your area. It's not man-to-man. We've been working on it in practice, lots of repetitions, and seeing it in games and continuing to work on it."

Julien is as pleased as NHL coaches allow themselves in such situations, but he believes in his system and he's pleased to see that his players do, too.

"Our defensemen have benefited from the structure, from the simple tasks and the zone coverage," Chiarelli said. "Our coaches preach, ‘Keep it to the outside. Keep it simple.’ When that message is sent, the (defensemen) respond. They know what their duty is and they know how to do it. It's pretty efficient."

Julien is as pleased as NHL coaches allow themselves in such situations, but he believes in his system and he's pleased to see that his players do, too. He has them taking baby steps, and there will be further enhancements when his system becomes, well, second nature.

"It's getting there. It's a work in progress," Julien said. "We had to take some big strides in the beginning of the year to get the team going in the right direction. We had some growing pains, especially in the exhibition games when we trying to make that change. Once we got our defensive game without the puck going a little better, we got to push and work on the other part of our game. A lot of concentration early was put in that area and it took away a little from our offense. But we're starting to score a little more now. Hopefully, we'll get a better balance going soon."

There never will be a team that wins all 82 games in a season. Even the best teams suffer some bad losses. What distinguishes good teams from bad is their ability to bounce back. The Bruins have been doing that in recent weeks.

"There have been games when we didn't play as well as we could but we've bounced back well," Julien said. "It's a lot about pride, accountability and commitment. I think our guys understand that. Guys have taken the bull by the horn and accepted the accountability that comes with it and come back with solid efforts the next game. We’re trying to get consistent and play hard every night and get our guys going in that direction. We're pretty pleased yet we know we can get better."

Julien is coaching his third NHL team. He previously guided the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils and had a 119-86-10-23 NHL record and a .569 win percentage in 238 games.

The New Jersey beat writers wanted to know the difference between coaching the Devils and the Bruins.

"It's a different set of circumstances. (The Devils) already had a pretty good system in place here and one that I believed in," Julien said. "I tried to tweak a couple of different areas that I believed in. In Boston, there was a very different system of play and they felt they suffered through it last year in allowing too many goals. We wanted to cut down on that because that's the only way we had of winning hockey games.

"We had to come in with a plan in mind and be willing to live with some growing pains. We did that in some exhibition games where we didn't have much success, but as the games went on, we started to see the players grasping the things we were asking of them. It's come to be second nature and that's why we keep getting better, and we're working on other areas that we hope will help us continue to get better."

There's nothing Bruins fans want more than to see winning become "second nature."

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