Haggerty: Attention, B's -- Penguins show a different voice can work wonders

Haggerty: Attention, B's -- Penguins show a different voice can work wonders

The Penguins and the Bruins were eerily similar for quite a bit of the last two seasons.

In 2014-15, both underachieving teams had their playoff fates decided on the last day of the regular season. The Bruins missed out by a point and the Penguins barely squeezed in before getting dispatched quickly by the top-seeded Rangers.

In 2015-16 they started the same way. Both were in and out of the top eight, with neither looking like a bona-fide contender. There were talented, Cup-worthy holdovers on both rosters -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and others in Pittsburgh; Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask et al in Boston -- but, even though they each seemed to have enough talent to at least make the playoffs, it felt like something wasn't right on either team.

Then a funny thing happened: The Penguins made a coaching change. They fired Gary Hart lookalike Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 and replaced him with former Bruins boss Mike Sullivan, who had waited 10 years for his next chance at a head NHL coaching job after being terminated in Boston.

The transition was rocky, as the Penguins lost their first four games under Sullivan . . . including a home-and-home series to the B's, who looked more than postseason-worthy at that point, on Dec. 16 and 18.

But then they caught fire. They finished 32-12-5 in their last 47 regular-season games under Sullivan, easily making the playoffs, and -- after their stunning six-game dispatch of the powerful Capitals, favored by many to win it all this year -- are now 40-15-5 since Dec. 21. They're getting ready to face the Steven Stamkos-less Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals and have a good chance of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals.

So what does this have to do with the Bruins?

Pittsburgh’s rise is proof positive that simply changing the voice behind the bench can sometimes lead to a fundamental change with an underachieving core group of players.

Clearly, Johnston wasn’t as established as Claude Julien. And there’s no way of knowing for sure what will happen with a new coach.

But this much feels true: The decision of Bruins upper management to rely largely on player feedback to determine whether Julien’s message had gone stale seems to be a fundamental mistake. 

First-year general manager Don Sweeney recommended retaining Julien, and president Cam Neely agreed.

“I thought [Julien] did a great job coaching this year," Neely said at his end-of-the-year press conference. "It was a big transition year for him, different player personnel than he’s accustomed to. He tried to integrate a lot of younger players and I think he did a good job with the roster . . . [So] when Don said he wanted to keep Claude, I had no problem with that at all . . . 

“[Ultimately] that’s Don’s decision. If he comes to me and says, ‘Listen I think we need to make a change here,’ I have to go on his recommendation. He’s the one that deals with the coach on a daily basis.”

This is by no means an indictment of Julien. He's the franchise's all-time leader in coaching victories and would have had another job -- in Ottawa, Minnesota, virtually anywhere with an opening that he wanted to go -- within days had the Bruins let him go.

But isn’t the player endorsement of Julien part of the team's problem over the last two years? The B's have looked, felt and played like a group that's entirely too comfortable despite missing the playoffs. Julien's an elite coach, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best fit for Boston’s roster, and changing organizational philosophy, at this moment in time. 

Isn’t the impressive success of Sullivan -- who wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a hot coaching prospect -- proof that there are many brilliant hockey minds out there looking for a shot? Maybe even one or two who could do something greater with a young, offensively-skilled group of players in Boston who don't exactly mesh perfectly with Julien’s defense-first, veteran-heavy strengths.

Wouldn’t a shock to the system, and a fresh approach, be exactly what’s needed for the Bruins, rather than keeping just about everything the same after failing two seasons in a row? Didn’t this feel like a team begging for change when it was getting slapped around by the Senators in the last game of the season with the playoffs on the line?

There’s a reason, beyond bad goaltending, why Bruce Boudreau keeps losing Game Sevens and consistently underachieves in the playoffs despite rosters loaded with talent. There may also be a reason beyond blind, dumb luck and coincidence that the Bruins have collapsed, imploded and choked over the final six weeks in each of the last two regular seasons.

It’s clearly not all on the coaching; the players are the ones actually wilting under pressure on the ice. But one thing about it all has been astounding: The sheer unwillingness of many around the Bruins, in the media and elsewhere, to ask if change could be just as beneficial in Boston as it's been in Pittsburgh. 

'Light at end of tunnel' for Bergeron's return

'Light at end of tunnel' for Bergeron's return

BRIGHTON, Mass – The long regional nightmare for Bruins fans might be coming to an end sooner rather than later.

That’s because Patrice Bergeron hopped on the ice on Monday morning at Warrior Ice Arena ahead of his team’s morning skate and then stuck around to jump in and out of drills while showing strong progress from his fractured right foot suffered at the end of February. 

Clearly,  Bergeron isn’t ready to play now and will miss his 11th consecutive game Monday night when the B's face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night at TD Garden.

Still, it looks like No. 37 will be headed on the four-game road trip after the game and could potentially become an option to play at some point over the next week or two. Certainly, it’s a sign that Bergeron is going to be able to come back and play meaningful games before the playoffs. That’s something that has the 32-year-old excited after missing the past three weeks.

“It was nice to be back on the ice and skating. It felt good. It’s been a long three weeks, but it was nice to finally move forward and be on the ice. It was definitely nice to be on the ice with the guys,” said Bergeron, who skated on Sunday with Bruins Skating and Skills Coach Kim Branvold as well. “There’s definitely still some discomfort, but it’s a lot better. That was to be expected that it wasn’t going to be perfect when I was back right away.

“I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel right now being on the ice. We’re trying not to set a timeline right now, but just make sure I feel good and have my bearings on the ice. So far I’m happy with where we’re at.”

Certainly, it would be good timing if Bergeron returned soon when it appears David Backes (deep laceration on his right leg) is going to miss a week or two and Jake DeBrusk is out with no timetable for a return after getting dinged with a big hit in Carolina on Boston’s most recent trip.

Impressively, the Bruins have gone 8-2-0 since Bergeron has been out. Riley Nash has been a point-per-game player in March while filling in for No. 37 with three goals and nine points in nine games along with a plus-4 rating. Still, the Bruins all know their all-around game will rise to another level when they get their best all-around player back in the lineup and re-form what’s been the best two-way forward in the NHL this season with Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.


Donato to make Bruins debut as a member of the third line

File photo

Donato to make Bruins debut as a member of the third line

BRIGHTON --  Ryan Donato will make his NHL debut for the Bruins on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it looks like he’ll do it as a member of the third line.

The newly-signed Harvard star was wearing No. 17 at morning skate on Monday at Warrior Ice Arena, and skating on the left wing with Noel Acciari and Brian Gionta in a new-look third line made necessary by injures to Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and Jake DeBrusk in the last few weeks. 

Donato signed with the Bruins on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see how ready he is to “plug and play” at the NHL level after crushing NCAA competition with 26 goals in 29 games for the Crimson this season. 

Otherwise it was a fairly standard lineup for the Bruins aside from Tommy Wingels dropping down to the fourth line to allow Acciari to center the third line, and thereby allow Donato to play the wing position where the B’s project him to be at the NHL level.

In other very positive B’s news, Bergeron -- recovering from a fractured right foot -- made a return to the ice, working on his own ahead of morning skate and then jumping in here and there in the team skate/

Here are the projected Bruins line combos and D-pairings vs. the Blue Jackets based on morning skate: