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Two Strong [Boston: 33-8-4 / San Jose: 33-6-5]

Jan. 26, 2009
Jan. 26, 2009

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Jan. 26, 2009

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Two Strong [Boston: 33-8-4 / San Jose: 33-6-5]

Three years after a trade that led to the remaking of both teams, the Bruins and the Sharks are winning like never before. The two best lines in hockey have plenty to do with that

THE BRUINS tradedcenter Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 30, 2005, a day that, inBoston, seemed destined to live in infamy. In a city that created a sustainableindustry out of the Curse of the Bambino, the exiling of the Bruins captain forthree middling players was custom-made to be the source of more sportinghoodoo. The Jinx of Jumbo Joe? When Thornton was named the NHL's most valuableplayer the following June, the vote couldn't have been more galling to the Hubof hockey if Bucky Dent had been tabulating the ballots. ¶ Three years laterthat shocking trade has helped produce two torrid, first-place teams:Thornton's new club and, surprisingly, his old one.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2009 issue

At the 2008--09All-Star break, conference leaders San Jose and Boston stand as exemplars ofintelligent redesign. Stale after three straight second-round playoff defeats,the Sharks revitalized themselves and roared through their first 24 home gameswith 21 wins and just one loss in regulation while making a persuasive case forbeing the NHL's most complete team. Without dismantling an already formidablecore, general manager Doug Wilson tweaked the team last summer by trading forpuck-moving defenseman Dan Boyle, signing veteran blueliner Rob Blake andhiring a new, upbeat coach, Todd McLellan. Although the Detroit Red Wings stillstalk the Sharks—they were three points behind San Jose through Sunday—theWings realize that the road to consecutive Stanley Cups will likely take themthrough the Shark Tank, the Western Conference's most inhospitable arena.

Given its moremodest portfolio and lower expectations, Boston, which has not won a playoffseries since 1999, has been even more impressive. The Bruins were having theirbest season ever, with 70 points in 45 games, including an NHL-best 16-5-3 roadrecord. They have capitalized on a first-rate power play, defenseman ZdenoChara's return to elite form, the sturdy goaltending of Tim Thomas and MannyFernandez and the breakout of second-line center David Krejci to forge anine-point lead over Washington in the Eastern Conference. (Of the playersobtained for Thornton, only winger Marco Sturm, out for the year after havingknee surgery last week, remains.) The Bruins still lag behind the city's otherteams, but at least hockey season in Boston is no longer defined as the timebetween the Patriots' last snap and the date that Red Sox pitchers and catchersreport.

Beyond thestandard qualities of success—strong coaching, special teams and goaltending,plus depth—the Sharks and the Bruins are connected through Thornton, who, sincejoining San Jose, ranks second in the league with 1.33 points per game. WithThornton's three-year, $20 million contract off the books, new Boston generalmanager Peter Chiarelli pounced in the summer of 2006, landing free agentsChara and center Marc Savard, whose dazzling play has stopped the fretting overthe loss of Thornton. Indeed, the superb performance of both teams can beattributed largely to their No. 1 lines, the two best forward units in hockeythis season. Thornton and linemates Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi hadcombined for 145 points, 24 more than Savard and wingers Phil Kessel and MilanLucic. The three Bruins were a combined +63, and Savard, suddenly committed todefense after a career of ignoring it, leads the league at +30. The threeSharks are +57.

The differencesbetween those Bruins' and Sharks' lines are visually striking. Savard andKessel are compact enough to squeeze into the backseat of a VW Beetle, and fiteven more comfortably alongside the rampaging Lucic, whom Thornton calls,"the prototypical Bruin." Savard's on-the-tape passes and Kessel's Mach3 skating and whoosh of a shot allow the line to do most of its damage on therush. The Sharks' trio—6'4", 235-pound Thornton, 6'2", 220-poundMarleau, 6-foot, 200-pound Setoguchi—does its job by relying on bulk and rawskill. Thornton's line is more effective than Savard's in the offensive zonebecause it can wear down defenders and score off the cycle.

Yet the lines arecuriously alike in other ways. Each has a glorious playmaker. Each has anatural center, Marleau and Kessel (now suffering from a bout ofmononucleosis), playing the wing. Each has a complementary second-year wingerin Setoguchi and Lucic, who at week's end was day-to-day with an undisclosedinjury. The most intriguing commonality is this: Together the lines boast someof most disparaged high-end players of their generation. Thornton, uninspiring.Marleau, undependable. Kessel, soft.

And Savard?Selfish.

THE DAY afterGame 4 of Boston's first-round playoff series against Montreal last April,Bruins senior adviser Harry Sinden, in a wide-ranging interview with BostonGlobe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, declared that Savard was not his kind ofplayer, likening him to a baseball player who hits .300 but doesn't drive inruns. The sentiment was hardly groundbreaking for a player who has always beenkeenly aware of his own offensive statistics—Savard has often piled up pointsbut was a minus player in seven of his eight seasons before coming toBoston—but the source and timing were astounding. For one thing, Sinden, coachof Boston's 1970 Stanley Cup champions and a longtime Bruins G.M., bleeds blackand gold. For another, the object of Sinden's derision had scored the overtimewinner in Game 3 and was playing with a broken bone in his lower back that he'dsustained three weeks earlier. Reputations such as the one that dogged Savardcan be difficult to shed.

"When he gothurt before the playoffs, everyone in the room was kinda, 'O.K., what's Savvygoing to do? Is he going to sit out or come back?'" says Chara, the Bruinscaptain. "His playing hurt, and being one of our best players in aseven-game series showed a lot to his teammates."

Of course,Savard, 31, had always been the center of a paradoxical question: If he takessuch joy in passing the puck, how can he be considered selfish? "I see myson play, and all the kids want to do is go coast-to-coast and score, but eversince I was little I've always passed the puck," Savard says. "My momsaid that's why other parents always wanted me to sleep over."

Moms loved him.Coaches and teammates ... well, not as much. There's an oft-told story fromwhen Savard played with Calgary in the early 2000s—maybe it's even true—thatwhen a scuffle broke out in a game and several players paired up, one Flametold his opponent, "I'll let you go if you promise to beat up Savard."("Yeah, I've heard that one," says NHL Network analyst Craig Button,then Calgary's G.M.) At the time, Savard's disdain for backchecking and forstaying in shape rankled coach Greg Gilbert. After one particularly productiveoffensive game by the creative center, Button recalls, Gilbert was asked ifSavard was out of his doghouse. The Zen-like reply: "A dog has more thanone paw." (Translation: "No.")

If Savard, whohas played for the Rangers and the Thrashers, has been the bane of conditioningcoaches—"If a player showed up here like he did with 19 percent body fat[at his first Bruins camp]," says one NHL strength coach, "we wouldhave told him the audition for The Biggest Loser was next door"—he has beenan asset to his right wings. Savard set up Jarome Iginla in Calgary(career-high 52 goals in 2001--02), Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta (career-high 52goals in '05--06) and now a rejuvenated Kessel, who already has 24 goals thisseason, after his celebrated playoff benching last spring. Savard is alefthanded shot, which means he instinctively dishes to his right on hisforehand. "He's one of those guys that you think you have him, you thinkyou have him, and, wham, he makes a quick play and there's an open net forsomeone else," the Ottawa Senators' Daniel Alfredsson says of defendingSavard.

The menacingLucic—at 6'3", 228 pounds he was second in the NHL with 3.85 hits pergame—provides the right environment for the two artistes to work. In applyingclassical techniques to line construction (playmaking plus shot-and-speed plusphysicality), Julien overlooked Lucic's lumbering skating. When Savard dumpsthe puck into Lucic's corner, the center figures to get it back because Lucicwill either dig it out or steamroll a defender off the puck and leave it freefor Savard. "I've seen so many [defensemen] bail when they've seen Loochcoming," Julien says.

Because Lucic cancontrol the puck while shielding defenders, Savard can survey the ice to seewho's open rather than waiting until a pass reaches his stick to take apeek.

In a city thathas always embraced the passer—Tom Brady, Bob Cousy, Adam Oates—Savard hasfound a home.

AS MCLELLANlooked forward to taking over behind the San Jose bench, he looked back to his2007--08 job as an assistant with the Stanley Cup--winning Red Wings. Detroitcoach Mike Babcock had paired superb centers Pavel Datsyuk and HenrikZetterberg, nominally designating Zetterberg as a left wing. McLellan employedthe strategy with San Jose's top centers, Thornton and Marleau, who had seemeduncomfortable when former Sharks coach Ron Wilson tried him on wing at thestart of the 2007--08 season. Marleau's relationship with Wilson had soured,but under McLellan the captain was getting a fresh start. Why not at adifferent position? "I wanted Patty to feel good about it," saysMcLellan, who before making the move discussed it with Marleau. "I thoughthe and Joe would make each other better."

Thornton has madeothers better throughout his career—linemate Sergei Samsonov in Boston; TeamCanada when he cheerfully accepted a third-line checking role in the 2004 WorldCup; the Sharks in the season of the trade—but his winning the Hart Trophydidn't spackle the holes in his reputation caused by spotty playoffs and adeference to his skills that hasn't always served him well. Thornton has oftenlooked as if he wanted to play a hockey game rather than dominate it, passingup quality shots while tripping merrily through a career that has beenimpressive yet unsatisfying. ("Every shift," says McLellan when askedhow often he still urges Thornton to shoot more.) As marquee players withsmudges on their résumés (Thornton has only 48 points in 70 playoff games;Marleau's defensive gaffe helped cost a series against Detroit in 2007) theyhave more in common than similar skill sets.

By putting histwo dominant forwards on one line, McLellan was also dangling a carrot in frontof the team's right wings. The job as Thornton and Marleau's wingman would comewith a built-in 60 points for anyone who'd buzz on the forecheck, pick uprebounds and get into the seams for Thornton's dreamy passes. Setoguchi, whosemuscular shot is sometimes a trigger for the line, passed the audition late inthe preseason.

Says Thornton,"When you take three good players—and we are—and you play them together,you have a chance to get three great players."

Still, Setoguchiviews his spot on the line as a privilege. "At any time that I don't playwell," says Setoguchi, who already has more goals (20) than he had points(17) in 44 games last season, "I know there are guys here who can step upand win that spot."

McLellan hasoccasionally separated Thornton and Marleau on the theory that almost any linecan be shut down in the playoffs, and he might have to spread the offensivewealth. "If I do have to split them up in the postseason, their experienceplaying apart now will be valuable," McLellan says. "I'll be tinkeringas the year goes on."

NHL coaches willalways hunt for perfect line combinations. Sometimes all it takes are the rightimperfect men.

Savard has been the center of a paradoxical question:If he takes such joy in passing, HOW CAN HE BE CONSIDERED SELFISH?
By putting his TWO DOMINANT PLAYERS ON ONE LINE,McLellan was dangling a carrot in front of the Sharks' right wings.

SI's All-Stars

A lineup with only one Canadien (four were voted in byfans) is matched with an unheralded goalie and his single-Wing offense

EASTERN CONFERENCE

G Tim Thomas, Bruins
D Zdeno Chara, Bruins
D Andrei Markov, Canadiens
C Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
LW Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals
RW Alexander Semin, Capitals

WESTERN CONFERENCE

G Steve Mason, Blue Jackets
D Dan Boyle, Sharks
D Shea Weber, Predators
C Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings
LW Patrick Marleau, Sharks
RW Jarome Iginla, Flames

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PHOTOPhotograph by Don Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesJOE IMPACT Boston's dealing of Thornton (19) to San Jose has allowed Marleau (12) and Savard (above) to thrive.PHOTOJAMES GUILLORY/US PRESSWIRE (SAVARD)[See caption above]PHOTOLEON HALIP/US PRESSWIRE (CONKLIN)PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (CROSBY)PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (STREIT)PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLATWIN ENGINES Though undersized, Kessel (81) and Savard baffle opposing teams with their dash and ingenuity.PHOTOROBERT BECK (OVECHKIN)