The appetizers are finished. The main course is up next. Montreal swept its opening series with Tampa Bay and now, with a 4-2 victory against the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon, the Boston Bruins are set to face their storied, longtime rivals for the 34th time. Detroit, in the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year – the longest active streak in the NHL – did what it could against Boston, but the Bruins were just too much for the wild card Wings.
We weren’t a tough out at all,” coach Mike Babcock said after the game. “To find out how good they are, you have to push them and go back and forth winning games and get to (Games) 6 and 7, and we never did that. We’re not there (Stanley Cup contender). This team we played today is like we used to be in 2006, 2007, 2008. They’re a legitimate contender with good depth and experience. The last two years we’ve been battling to get into the playoffs.”
A few observations from Boston's series-clinching win over Detroit:
• Detroit had to start its backup goaltender, Jonas Gustavsson, for the second consecutive game in place of Jimmy Howard, who was out with the flu. Gustavsson stopped 40 shots and performed respectably in the Wings' Game 3 loss at home, his postseason debut. On Saturday, he surrendered Boston's first goal at 3:27 of the first period, then settled down and kept the Bruins at bay until Pavel Datsyuk tied the score at 1-1 at 14:41 of the second period. Overall, Gustavsson played well enough in this series (he made 29 saves in Game 5) and during the regular season to merit a hard look as a free agent. He's set to become a UFA and Detroit will need a competent backup next season as prospect Petr Mrazek is probably a year away at AHL Grand Rapids.
• Dougie Hamilton can rush the puck. The young Bruins defenseman generated a goal and three assists in this series, and on Saturday he created Boston’s first tally. Darren Helm, Pavel Datsyuk and Kyle Quincey all had chances to stop Hamilton, who then sent a pass into the middle of the ice that the Red Wings could have intercepted. Instead, Boston's Loui Eriksson picked it up and shifted to his backhand, pulling Gustavsson out of his crease and lifting the puck into the open side. The Red Wings have great skaters, but it is very tough to defend against a offensive-minded backliner without being whistled for interference.
• Zdeno Chara’s wingspan must be 30 feet. Midway through the second period, Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader made a superb move, drawing the Bruins captain to the inside with a clever head fake and then shifting to the outside, buying what appeared to be ample real estate to produce a strong scoring chance. Abdelkader had almost a full step on the 6-foot-9 Chara, but the defenseman reached as far as he could and poked the puck off of Abdelkader's stick. It was the kind of play that makes Chara a Norris Trophy candidate every year and the kind of play that frustrates many forwards into attacking the opposite side of the ice.
• The Red Wings tied the game with 5:19 to go in the second period with a power play goal. (Poor special teams play was a major factor in Detroit's demise. They were only 2-for-20 with the man advantage in this series, and their penalty killing was a mere 6-for-16.) Henrik Zetterberg drove a quick shot from the point, which Rask batted in front of him. Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk had to attend to Johan Franzen, who tried to deflect the initial shot past Rask while buzzing at the doorstep. That left the weak side open and Datsyuk, the best Red Wing in the series, easily potted the rebound to make it a 1-1 game.
• Boychuk may have a future on Dancing with the Stars after selling a penalty against Franzen for holding with 37 seconds left in the period. Franzen gave a small tug at Boychuk’s shoulder during a scrambled in front of Detroit’s goal. Boychuk is a strong guy, but he spun around in full pirouette as if he had been grabbed by a bear.
• Boston took advantage of a power play opportunity as Chara stepped in from his point and blasted a shot past Gustavsson with only four seconds remaining before intermission. A screen wasn't necessary for the towering blue liner, who has won the NHL’s hardest-shot competition at the All-Star Game and can reach 100 miles an hour with his lethal blasts. However, a closer look at the goal revealed the hijinks in the face-off dot between Patrice Bergeron and Datsyuk, two of the very best inside the circle. Bergeron cleverly pushed Datsyuk into the official, allowing Chara the free lane to move into the shot.
• The Bruins’ power play has become a real asset. It operated at just 11 percent efficiency during Boston's Cup-winning run in 2011, but it was six for 14 in the series against Detroit after ranking third-best in the NHL during the regular season at 21.7 percent.
• Bruins forward Brad Marchand is still fighting his shot. He pulled several wide of an empty net in this series and shanked another in the first period on Saturday. Boston’s little ball of hate produced 25 goals and 28 assists during a very strong regular season, but he was held scoreless in the series against Detroit. Whether because of hidden injury or just subpar play, Bruins coach Claude Julien kept Marchand on the bench for a chunk of the second period of Saturday’s game. Boston is going to need their agitating winger at something approaching top form in what promises to be a much tougher series against the well rested and confident Canadiens.
• The Red Wings have some decisions to make about their future. Along with Gustavsson, forward Daniel Alfredsson's contract is up. The 41-year-old veteran went pointless in three games against Boston, returning on Saturday after missing the previous two games because of a bad back and finishing at -1 with two shots in 18:09 minutes. And then there are Datsyuk, 35, and Zetterberg, 33, two of Detroit's better players against Boston. They are surely assets that could help put a contending team over the top on its run to a title. Does GM Ken Holland feel he has the tools to contend with his current group of talented young players such as Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Danny DeKeyser while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still healthy and effective, or is it time to cash those veterans in for more young players who can help Detroit continue its playoff appearance streak for the next five or 10 years?
“It’s no fun,” Zetterberg said after the Wings' season ended in Boston. “You want to go deep in the playoffs. It’s tough right now. Obviously we have to do something different to go deeper.”