NBC Game of the Week: Bruins vs. Rangers Preview

NYBOS.jpgBoston Bruins vs. New York Rangers
12:30 p.m. EST – Sunday, March 21, 2010
Live on NBC

With less than four weeks remaining in the season, the
playoff races are starting to heat up. In the West, Detroit is doing it’s
best to hold off Calgary and St. Louis and it’s most likely going to be a
furious finish to see which team can play the hardest down the stretch.
In the East, well… the race will come down to which team can just
barely survive and limp into the playoffs.

The New
York Rangers and the Boston Bruins square off this weekend in a battle
between two teams fighting for one playoff position. The Bruins
currently sit in 8th in the East, one point ahead of Atlanta and three points ahead of New
York. It hasn’t exactly been an easy journey to get to this point, as
both teams fight through late-season letdowns.

A
head-to-head battle can instantly turn the tide in either direction; the
question is which team will actually step up when the spotlight shines
on such an important game.

Someone will have to
step up.

Both teams have had an opportunity the past week to
either build their lead or gain ground in the race, and it’s been
nothing but disappointment at every turn. How is it that when a team has
a great opportunity to really make a move, they come out completely
flat and appear to be completely disinterested in the game they are
playing? Both New York and Boston appear to be lame ducks, each just
finding a way to fail in increasingly boring ways.

This is the time of the season that teams ramp up the intensity and
build momentum for the playoffs, yet the Rangers and Bruins seem to not
grasp the concept of just what a playoff race entails. Perhaps taking on
one another on national television will finally spark some actual
competitiveness in these two teams.

Desperately
seeking a leader.

The Bruins played perhaps the
most disappointing and futile game I’ve ever seen a hockey team play
against the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a matchup that many felt would be
intense and full of payback and redemption. Instead, the Bruins barely
mustered any interest or fight in the game (aside from pounding Matt
Cooke in the opening minutes). If this team can’t get motivated for a
‘redemption game’ to avenge their fallen teammate, I’m not convinced
they can get motivated for any game.

It’s the same
story with New York, although this time the lack of leadership seems to
be actually be influenced by the head coach. John Tortorella is intent
on squashing any sort of opinion and personality coming out his locker
room, and it’s showing on the ice. This is a team devoid of leadership
and the only player that has any sort of skill in sparking his teammates
is Sean Avery, someone who the coach would rather just go away. Who
will step up?

The Atlanta Thrashers are poised to
race by these two teams, as they tread water and slowly drown themselves
in mediocrity. I’m not convinced either team even deserves to make the
playoffs. Sunday’s game is the most important game of the year for both
teams; a win by the Rangers and the Bruins may never recover and hold
them off, and two points by Boston builds a lead the Rangers most likely
never overcome.

NBC
Star Cam –
Head
on over to NBC Sports

during the game to follow your favorite stars through out the game.

Sunday
on Pro Hockey Talk:

Can the Boston Bruins survive in the playoffs, or even it make it there,
with the NHL’s worst offense?
What is the identity of the New York Rangers, as they fight for a
playoff spot?
A breakdown of the playoff races for both conferences.
Injury updates for both teams.
News and opinion from around NBC Sports.
A live in-game chat with
Brandon Worley and James O’Brien.

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    Expect steps in right direction, not leaps, from Flames’ new head coach

    DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head coach Glen Gulutzan of the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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    This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

    If you’re looking beyond the shaky history of Jack Adams winners and going for a more objective approach, it’s not especially easy to break down the impact of a head coach.

    Still, we’ve seen examples where a guy really can make a difference. Mike Sullivan is merely the latest to transform a wobbly team into a champion thanks to some deft maneuvers.

    What, then, can the Calgary Flames expect from Glen Gulutzan?

    Let’s break down some of the factors involved.

    Better goalies, more experienced players

    As Flames Nation’s Pat Steinberg notes, Gulutzan’s most immediate advantage of fired Flames head coach Bob Hartley is that Calgary made massive improvements in net.

    Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson both carry promising numbers into this situation. Elliott’s work with the St. Louis Blues, in particular, strikes you as All-Star-level.

    Of course, some will attribute a significant portion of Elliott’s success to being in Ken Hitchcock’s system, so it’s up to Gulutzan to provide a more nurturing atmosphere than the one Flames goalies have experienced in recent years.

    Modest improvements

    Steinberg delved a little deeper than Gulutzan’s two Dallas Stars teams (2011-12 and 2012-13) missing the playoffs and found that they were a middle-of-the-pack squad from a possession standpoint. Nothing spectacular there, but Gulutzan did improve the Stars from its previous station.

    Upon being hired, Gulutzan pointed to experience as much as anything else when explaining how he improved.

    (Which makes sense since … the Vancouver Canucks didn’t exactly set the world on fire while he was an assistant.)

    Solid match for personnel

    “Possession has become a popular word,” Gulutzan said after the Flames chose him. “For me, what possession is, it’s not always having the puck, because you don’t have it all the time. What we want to be is a real connected group here. When I say connected, we want to be connected in fives in all three zones. We want to defend fast, we are going to defend fast. We’re going to utilize the assets that we have here. In defending fast, you want to get the puck back fast, you want to get it out of your end.”

    That quote could probably be attributed to a number of new hires. It’s plausible that you could swap out Gulutzan’s name with that of Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.

    Even so, the important thing is that Gulutzan is emphasizing key elements of a modern approach. He’s saying the right things about puck possession and wanting to win the transition game.

    When you look at the talent assembled in Calgary, particularly on defense, emphasizing speed almost seems obvious.

    From Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano to underrated blueliner T.J. Brodie all the way to the talented guys who could use a boost (Dougie Hamilton especially, perhaps Dennis Wideman as well?), the Flames’ defense seems best suited for an attacking style.

    The potential drawback is that Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson could be exposed to some extra “high-danger chances” when an attacking style backfires … but the good might outweigh the bad if Gulutzan’s system can stop the possession bleeding.

    Tipping point?

    The dream scenario for Calgary is that a series of manageable improvements make for a cumulative jump.

    Ideally, Gulutzan’s system combines with in-house improvements to young players with a vastly improved set of goalies to transform the Flames into playoff contenders.

    In the limited sample size we’ve seen of Calgary’s new head coach, he doesn’t necessarily strike you as a miracle worker. Instead, he’s lauded for the structure he provides and his ability to communicate.

    That might be enough for the Flames, especially if they give Gulutzan some time to work through growing pains.

    The Flames shouldn’t expect Troy Brouwer to repeat his playoff performance from last year

    PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 21: Troy Brouwer #36 of the St. Louis Blues looks on against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on December 21, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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    This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

    Troy Brouwer was a big part of the St. Louis Blues’ run to the Western Conference Final this past spring when he put together a 15-game stretch that saw him record 13 points (eight goals, five assists) to close out the playoffs.

    That hot streak was perfect timing for the veteran winger because it not only happened during a time when everybody in the NHL was paying attention (the playoffs), but it also came just weeks before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. And if there is anything that can boost a player’s value going into free agency, it is a big showing in the postseason. Teams love that stuff, even if it’s not always the most reliable way to project future performance.

    Once Brouwer hit the open market it did not take him long to land a spot with the Calgary Flames when they signed him to a four-year, $18 million contract that will run through the end of the 2019-20 season.

    Postseason performances like the one Brouwer had for the Blues in 2016 can be a bit of a double-edged sword for both teams and players.

    On one hand, it makes it really easy for the player to get noticed and it boosts their reputation because those are the big games you want to see your top players perform in. And when a player gets the reputation for being a big game player that can forever change their reputation and significantly increase their value.

    The problem with that is teams can sometimes get into trouble when they make decisions based on that small sampling of play (look no further than big contracts given to players like Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Ville Leino in recent years), and it can help create an unrealistic level of expectation for the player that they are usually unable to match in future years.

    And that brings us to what the Flames should expect from one of their big offseason additions.

    What he is going to do is come in and give them a veteran presence on the wing that can play a physical game and be around the net to score some dirty goals. In that sense, he will be a fine addition to the team, at least in the short-term.

    What he is probably not going to do is score at the same pace the he did in last year’s playoffs when he was a 0.65 point per game player (that is close to 55 points over an 82-game season) and scoring like a first-line winger. Even at his best he has been a 40-point scorer for almost his entire career, and that includes his years in Washington where he was playing on an extremely skilled team with great talent around him. At 31 he is also probably at a point in his career where that production is only going to start declining (it already did last year during the regular season).

    If you’re the Flames, a reasonable expectation for Brouwer this season is to bring his gritty style of play, a lot of experience, and maybe 15-20 goals and 30-35 points. And for $4 million per season, that is probably fair production.

    The issue the Flames might have, and the one that will make-or-break this contract long-term, is what happens two or three years into the contract and whether or not he is able to maintain that kind of production into his mid-30s.

    Poll: Will the Flames be a playoff team in 2016-17?

    CALGARY, AB - JANUARY 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 (L) of the Calgary Flames confers with his teammate Sean Monahan #23 during a break in play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on January 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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    This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

    When the Calgary Flames reached the second round of the 2015 playoffs there were a lot of concerns about whether or not they could repeat that level of play the following season. Even after adding Dougie Hamilton to their blue line in a trade with the Boston Bruins they were still a popular pick to see a big regression in 2015-16.

    They not only regressed and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, they finished as one of the worst teams in the NHL standings and fired Bob Hartley, the NHL’s coach of the year from the previous season.

    Along with hiring a new coach this summer — former Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan — they also added Troy Brouwer in free agency from the St. Louis Blues and overhauled their goaltending by trading for Brian Elliott and signing Chad Johnson in free agency. If the Flames are going to rebound in 2016-17 the latter additions are going to have to be the biggest reason why.

    Even though the Flames have Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Hamilton leading their defense, a top-three that can be as good as any other top trio in the NHL. As a team, they only allowed teams to get an average of 29 shots on goal per game, a number that was good enough for the top-10 in the NHL. But because they received the absolute worst goaltending in the NHL and were the only team that couldn’t collectively top a .900 save percentage, it sent the team to the bottom of the goals against leaderboard.

    If their goaltenders could manage even a .910 save percentage, which would still be below the league average, on the same number of shots it could shave as many as 40 goals off of that total over the course of an 82-game season. That alone could help close that gap in the playoff race.

    Along with what should be an improved goaltending situation and their excellent trio on defense, the Flames also still have that exciting group of young forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, and could potentially be adding No. 6 overall pick Matthew Tkachuk to it as well.

    Expecting them to catch Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose at the top of the Pacific Division definitely seems like a long shot, but the bottom half of the Western Conference has taken a big step backwards over the past couple of years. A team made the playoffs last season with 87 points, and while that number should increase this season, once you get beyond the top five or six teams in the West the field is pretty wide open, and if the Flames can get that improved goaltending from Elliott and Johnson they should be able to be right in the thick of that race.

    So, can they do it?

    Under pressure: Brian Elliott and the Flames’ goalies

    NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2015 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blues 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

    The Calgary Flames had their share of flaws during the 2015-16 season. None were more damaging than a goaltending situation that produced the worst team save percentage in the entire league.

    That, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to the team giving up the most goals in the NHL and going from a team that was in the second round of the playoffs the year before, to a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the league.

    To help address that glaring weakness the Flames completely overhauled their goaltending over the summer by acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and signing Chad Johnson in free agency.

    The Elliott move is obviously, the big one, but the pressure is going to be on both of them to solidify a position that was one of the worst in the NHL a year ago.

    For Elliott, it is going to be a huge opportunity because he is finally going to be the No. 1 guy without having somebody else constantly looking over his shoulder. During his time in St. Louis he consistently put up great numbers, including a .925 save percentage that was among best league between 2011 and 2016. But even with that strong play the Blues never seemed willing to fully trust him to be their top guy and and were always going out of their way to take playing time away from him, whether it was with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, or acquiring Ryan Miller in a deadline trade.

    That is not going to be an issue for him going into Calgary.

    That also means a little added pressure. Because he’s almost always been a part of a goaltending platoon during his career (he played more than 38 games one time in five years in St. Louis), and because he spent the past few years playing behind a Ken Hitchcock coached defensive team, he is going to have to prove that he is not only capable of sustaining that level of play as a full-time starter, but also that his success in St. Louis wasn’t the product of a system.

    If he can do both and come even close to performing the way he did in St. Louis it is going to go a long way toward helping the Flames erase the memory what was pretty much a lost 2015-16 season and get back closer to the postseason in 2016-17.