The Boston Bruins are proven champions and the best bet to come out of the Eastern Conference this spring. They even have added motivation: winning a Stanley Cup for Jarome Iginla before Father Time catches up with him.
Back in 2001, the Colorado Avalanche had a chance to win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in six years. Cornerstones such as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and Adam Foote already had their names on the chalice, but the addition of future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque the year before had given the crew extra incentive. Bourque, the longtime Boston Bruins stalwart, saw his dreams crash down in 2000 when Dallas eliminated Colorado in the Western Conference final. But he still wanted that elusive Cup, so he came back to Denver for one more season and his teammates instituted “Mission 16W,” a.k.a. Get Bourque his Cup. As a greying veteran he finally hoisted the trophy after a harrowing seven-game series against New Jersey and the iconic moment was his forever.
Fast-forward to present day and gaze upon the situation of Jarome Iginla. Like Bourque, he toiled for years with a franchise that came close, but could not grasp Stanley’s prize. Then the window closed, and despite the noblest of intentions to go down with the ship, Iginla was finally dealt away from his beloved Calgary Flames so the erstwhile captain could earn his championship ring. And like Bourque’s, Iginla’s first attempt went sideways. He joined Pittsburgh via trade, only to see the Penguins maced by Boston in the conference final. This summer, he decided to join the ones who beat him, and now the Bruins have a little added incentive to win their second Cup in four years.
“With ‘Iggy,’ he’s had a phenomenal career, he’s one of the best to ever play the game, and it would be a huge accomplishment if we could win,” says left winger Brad Marchand. “It would be a great honor to be part of that, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
At 36, Iginla is at the tail end of his career. Not that he hasn’t been productive this season. Quite the opposite. But his bruising style of play can only go on for so long and he must know his personal window is closing. Iginla wasn’t available for comment for this story, just as he wasn’t available last year in Pittsburgh for a similar article about the Penguins’ chances of winning the Cup. The fact his story has been closer to Marian Hossa’s than Bourque’s may be one reason: Iginla infamously vetoed a trade to Boston last year in favor of Pittsburgh, hamstringing then-Calgary GM Jay Feaster into getting less in return for dealing him. Then, just as Hossa spurned Pittsburgh for Detroit only to see the Penguins beat his Red Wings in the final that year, Iginla suffered a similar fate last season. Hossa finally won his Cup the next year with the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Bruins would much prefer to win now. And that whole snubbing-of-Boston thing? Water under the bridge. Winning one for Iggy is much more fun.
“Yes, of course, it’s another motivation,” says center Patrice Bergeron. “We all want to win for the guy next to us in the room, but Iggy has been there for us all year and it would be great to do that.”
For a guy walking into a room filled with Cup winners, Iginla has been more than just a mascot in Boston. He’s been a force in the second half. Minor injuries aside, his power game and sniping prowess elevated an already lethal Bruins attack and his snarly on-ice attitude was tailor-made for the Black and Gold. “He’s a heavy player,” says coach Claude Julien.
“We like to play a heavy game. We like to play a territorial game and be strong on the puck, and those are all qualities Jarome has. He has fit in really well on that line with David Krejci, and he has made that line even better.”
Indeed, a Krejci-Iginla-Milan Lucic trio is scary enough on paper, let alone when the actual buzzsaw is at full speed on the ice. But the reason the Bruins are in such a good place to win another Cup is because they are strong at every position. Bergeron is the leading candidate to win the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward and a few stray voices have even mentioned him for the Hart as MVP (though Sidney Crosby will likely win the latter). Zdeno Chara has the size and statistics to win his second Norris Trophy as best defenseman, while Tuukka Rask is basically a lock to earn his first Vezina Trophy as goaltender of the year.
Starting with Bergeron, the B’s have one of the best two-way centers the game has seen in decades. He won nearly 59 percent of his faceoffs, placed in the top 40 in scoring and was a demon when it came to Corsi, the puck-possession stat that has been so closely linked to long-term success recently. Only one player affected his team’s puck possession more than Bergeron, and that was Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek, by a hair. But Voracek started nearly 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, making it easier to get shots toward the net (the crux of Corsi). Bergeron started just 46 percent of his shifts in enemy territory, yet ended up there more than Voracek (54 percent of the time versus 52 percent).
“I didn’t think a guy who has played for eight or nine years could get better, but he does,” Marchand says. “He’s the reason we’ve won so many games this year and why we won the Cup. Every night he’s on the ice he’s a guy you want to follow when you see his intensity. When you see how hard he plays, it makes you want to play better.”
In Rask, the Bruins have an uber-competitive netminder who has chewed up minutes and thwarted the rest of the league all season long. In a year when netminders such as Josh Harding, Ben Scrivens and Ben Bishop all made unlikely runs, only Rask stayed healthy and consistent throughout and his seven shutouts lead the league. The Finnish fortress is also top-five in save percentage and goals-against average.
“He’s been huge for us all year,” Bergeron says. “He hates to get scored on, even in practice, and he’s been improving ever since he got to Boston.”
Then there’s Chara. Even if you put aside just how intimidating a 6-foot-9, 255-pound defenseman is on a normal day, he has earned his accolades as a Norris contender. Chara faces some of the toughest quality of competition in the league (based on Corsi) and still ends more shifts in the offensive zone than he starts. Chara’s 15 power play points put him only behind Torey Krug and David Krejci among the Bruins, and he has still gotten down to block more than 100 shots, second only to Johnny Boychuk on the team. Amazing to think Chara came to the organization as a free agent when the Ottawa Senators decided they couldn’t keep both him and Wade Redden in the summer of 2006.
“The impact he’s had on this organization is huge,” Julien says. “When he came in, we had Bergeron, who was going to be one of those guys but was extremely young. Zdeno took over and Bergie has grown around him. Now we have a good core of leaders in our dressing room. When you sign a player like that who becomes your captain and then becomes a Norris Trophy winner who every year is regarded as one of the best defensemen in the league, it’s a pretty big job done by your GM to sign a guy like that.”
Now that GM, Peter Chiarelli, can only watch as his latest creation takes another shot at glory. The Bruins were stunned by Chicago in last season’s final when the Hawks scored twice in 17 seconds – all with less than a minute and a half on the clock – to come from behind and clinch Game 6 and the Cup on Boston ice. And though the Eastern Conference looks much easier to get through than the West this year, the Bruins cannot sleepwalk to the final. The team amassed so many points by early March that the final 30 days of the season were largely inconsequential. Desperate outfits such as Detroit, Toronto and Minnesota all took wins off the Bruins in early April and last year provided the perfect example of an intensity mismatch when second-seeded Anaheim fell in the first round to a Detroit team that scrapped its way into the post-season by the thinnest of margins.
“When you finish very high in the standings, a lot of teams can get complacent,” Marchand says. “On any given night, anybody can beat anybody and we’re aware of that. As long as we prepare that way, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to win. Whoever we play, we have to match their intensity.”
Assuming the preparation is taken care of, execution is next. Last year the Bruins nearly lost to a flawed Toronto team in the first round when the Maple Leafs used their elite skating to burn the Boston defense. Even Chara was victimized by the end. Opponents have learned you can’t go over the mountain and you can’t go through him, but you can get around Chara with enough speed (see Gustav Nyquist’s winner for the Red Wings in the aforementioned April loss). And this year the Bruins will have to make do without workhorse Dennis Seidenberg (knee surgery), putting more onus on youngsters such as Dougie Hamilton, who has partnered with Chara.
“Last year I was in and out of the lineup at this time,” Hamilton says. “Right now I’m trying to be physical and trustworthy and make them want to play me in the playoffs. I’m doing my best to be consistent and earn my spot.”
Hamilton, no shrimp himself at 6-foot-5 and 212 pounds, has cherished his time learning on a pairing with Chara, but his coach also sees a mutual benefit to having the 20-year-old play with the 37-year-old captain.
“In the last month his game has really picked up,” Julien says. “He’s more confident and a little more assertive, which is what we want. Playing with ‘Z’ helps, too. He knows he has a big-time partner there, but at the same time he’s capable of helping ‘Z’, too. He’s got great vision and he’s a good skater, so as a partner to Zdeno, he’s the young legs.”
Which brings us back to Iginla as the added incentive. With the Penguins last year, he posted 12 points in 15 playoff games, but none in the four-game loss to Boston. He wasn’t the only one to struggle against the vaunted B’s defense – the Pens scored just two goals total – but now he gets to be a part of that system that was so effective. And being a newbie doesn’t mean he’s out of place in Boston.
“It comes down to the leadership,” says Reilly Smith, who came over from Dallas in the summer as part of the Tyler Seguin trade. “From management down, the structure is there and they just fill you into it. Someone’s always trying to help you out, make your game easier and make you successful.”
Of course the Bruins would want to win the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup no matter who was wearing that iconic jersey with them, but in having such a popular player as Iginla to rally around, they have a focal point to use as an undercurrent to the mission.
“He’s been one of our best players this year and a really good teammate,” Hamilton says. “A lot of guys have learned from him – how he approaches the game and how hard he works. It’s been really good having him here.”
Ray Bourque still lives in the Boston area and owns a restaurant in the city’s North End. There’s naturally a possibility he’ll be in the building if the Bruins win the Cup, but even if he isn’t physically in the arena, there’s no doubt he will hear Iginla’s joyous cries once Iggy finally lifts that one special trophy over his head.
This feature originally appeared in the forthcoming May 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.