SB Nation has been running a network-wide series on the “Best Teams to Never Win,” and we’re joining the fray. While this Bruins team isn’t necessarily the BEST Bruins team that never won, it’s a notable group for just how good the team was. Let’s take a look!
Heading into the 2008-2009 season, the Boston Bruins were entering unfamiliar territory: people expected them to make some noise.
While the team wasn’t a preseason Cup pick for many pundits, most people expected the Bruins to improve on a 2007-2008 campaign that saw a scrappy Bruins team push Montreal to 7 games.
What we all got was shocking, but in a good way: the 2008-2009 Bruins were, in hockey terms, a wagon. However, like so many of my games of Oregon Trail as a kid, they were a wagon that ultimately never reached its destination.
Before the season began
When the 2007-2008 Bruins season ended, they weren’t exactly a team laden with high-end talent. They had some nice pieces, but were more of a sandpaper squad.
Guys like Glen Metropolit, Petteri Nokelainen, and Vladimir Sobotka weren’t going to win scoring races, but they could wear you down.
Having seen what they could do with that group, the Bruins decided to upgrade their talent in the offseason, making two huge moves: the team signed former Montreal Canadien Michael Ryder to three-year contract and signed college free agent Blake Wheeler to a two-year contract.
Ryder brought proven scoring prowess, while Wheeler, who didn’t sign with Phoenix after being drafted 5th overall 4 years earlier, brought size, skill, and buckets of potential.
As a result, the Bruins entered the 2008-2009 season with far more skill, though they retained that element of toughness as well. Perhaps the biggest boost, however, wasn’t a signing, but a return: Patrice Bergeron, who played just 10 games the season before, returned to the team fully healthy, though he’d have another concussion scare before too long.
Adding Ryder, Wheeler, and a healthy Bergeron to that 2007-2008 team had fans excited, to say the least.
What made this team good?
If you look back at it now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this team was good.
Look at some of the names they had up front: Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Ryder, Wheeler...the list goes on. The team also had a nice complement of role players like PJ Axelsson, Shawn Thornton, Byron Bitz (Bitz!), and others.
Throw in prime Zdeno Chara and a number of other solid defenders, then add Tim Thomas and you’re good to go.
The regular season was a romp
It’s OK to admit it: you may have thought this team would be good, but no one saw them being THAT good.
The Bruins laid waste to the NHL for much of the regular season. They went 11-1-1 in November, then followed that up by going 12-1-0 in December. For those keeping score at home, that’s a mark of 23-2-1 in 26 games. Insanity. There were hiccups here and there, of course. Patrice Bergeron suffered another concussion. Phil Kessel got mono. There were losing streaks sprinkled in.
However, for the most part, it was good times rolling. Kessel had an 18-game point streak at one point. “The Stars game” happened.
The B’s were well represented at the All-Star Game, with Savard, Chara, and Thomas all earning nods and Claude Julien serving as head coach.
Bring in the reinforcements
Sensing that something special was happening, the Bruins were buyers at the trade deadline. GM Peter Chiarelli traded Matt Lashoff and Martins Karsums to Tampa Bay for Mark Recchi (the deal wasn’t that lopsided at the time, as both were regarded as decent prospects).
He also sent Petteri Nokelainen (the Nokamotive!) to Anaheim for defenseman Steve Montador.
A future Hall-of-Famer on offense. Some depth on defense. Let’s go.
Finishing the regular season
The Bruins finished the regular season on a strong note, going 8-2-0. They finished the year with 53 regular-season wins, the most the franchise had in a single season since 1971-1972. The Bruins won their division by 23 points, with the Montreal Canadiens their closest competitors (116 points to 93). They won the Eastern Conference by 8 points, and finished a point behind the San Jose Sharks in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Over the course of the regular season, the B’s were second in the NHL in GF/G (3.29) and first in the league in GA/G (2.32). They also had the league’s fourth-best power play, clicking at 23.6%.
A first-round bloodbath
The NHL’s 1-through-8 playoff seedings meant that the Bruins faced the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, and it was a true thumping.
The B’s swept Montreal without really breaking a sweat, beating the Habs 4-2, 5-1, 4-2, and 4-1. Patrice Bergeron even got into a fight!
Things were looking rosy for the B’s...until storm clouds (ha!) appeared on the horizon.
Caught in the storm, and ultimately wrecked
The B’s were set up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. The Canes had beaten the New Jersey Devils in seven games in round one, and were the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The B’s had done well against Carolina during the regular season, going 4-0-0 and outscoring the Canes 18-6 in those four games.
On paper, the Canes were nothing special. They had some talent up front in Erik Cole, Eric Staal, and Rod Brind’Amour, plus some talented-with-intangibles guys like Matt Cullen and Justin Williams.
This isn’t to say the Canes were bad, of course; just that at first glance, there wasn’t a ton for B’s fans to fret over.
However, the Canes did have a big asset in net in the form of Cam Ward. Ward was just a few season removed from his Smythe-winning efforts, and was still in the prime years of his career.
Things can change in a hurry in a playoff series, and that’s what happened to the Bruins. They won Game 1 handily, and looked ready to cruise along again, when Ward happened.
He shut the Bruins out in Game 2, making 36 saves and completely changing the tenor of the series. Then Jussi Jokinen won Game 3 in OT, and the Bruins couldn’t get anything going in Game 4, losing 4-1.
Just like that, what looked like a juggernaut had lost three games in a row and was facing elimination.
Ward hadn’t exactly stood on his head in the Games 3 and 4 losses, with the Bruins barely mustering 20 shots on goal in either content. Instead, the Bruins had trouble with Carolina’s speed, and particularly struggled getting anything going on the forecheck.
Carolina had talented puck-movers on the blue line in guys like Anton Babchuck and Joni Pitkanen, and the Bruins ended up chasing games all series.
They’d fight back, to their credit: the B’s won Games 5 and 6 to knot the series, and force a deciding 7th game at home. We all know what happened next.
The ultimate villain, and a clattering end
In Game 5, Scott Walker sucker-punched former Cane Aaron Ward in the face late in the blowout. Ward, clearly not interested in fighting in the late stages of a 4-0 win, made no effort to punch Walker, and instead got dropped.
Walker was initially suspended automatically for at least one game, with most fans thinking he’d get more; however, he ended up getting that suspension overturned completely after claiming in his appeal that he thought Ward was going to fight him.
(Side note: Looking back at that highlight now, how many games would Walker get today? Probably at least 5, right? Madness.)
Walker became public enemy number one in Boston after the cowardly cheapshot, with most fans (and even neutral observers) shouting that he should have been watching the games from the press box.
He wasn’t, however, and the rest is history.
Milan Lucic tied Game 7 early in the third period, but it was Walker who ended up winning the game and the series in overtime. Turns out the bad guys don’t always lose, eh?
A sudden end to a fun run
The mood after the Bruins’ series loss was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, no one really expected the Bruins to be as good as they were, so the result wasn’t horrible; after all, they improved over the previous year.
However, once you get that far in a season and show that much talent, crashing out in the second round to a lesser opponent doesn’t sit well.
Frankly, this was a very well-rounded Bruins team: talent on offense, talent in net, talent on the blue line, and intangibles in between. There’s no reason to believe that group COULDN’T have won the Cup.
The Canes went on to get swept by the Penguins in the next round, and the Penguins eventually beat the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup.
That Penguins group was a great team, but could the Bruins have beaten them? Probably, yeah. And they certainly could have given them more of a fight than the Canes did.
However, that’s not the way it works, and there’s no “deserves” in hockey.
Instead we’re left to wonder “what if...?” more than a decade later.
After the dust settled, it’s hard to look at the season as anything but a success for the Bruins.
Chara won the Norris. Thomas won the Vezina (and shared the Jennings with Manny Fernandez). Julien won the Adams.
This Bruins team laid the groundwork for the next few years of Bruins teams, including the one that won it all two seasons later.
Should this group have done better? Yup. But all’s well that (eventually) ends well, right?
- Marc Savard - 25G-63A-88PTS in 82 games
- David Krejci - 22G-51A-73PTS in 82 games
- Phil Kessel - 36G-24A-60PTS in 70 games
- Tim Thomas - 36-11-7, .933 save percentage, 2.10 GAA, 41.02 GSAA
Have another group that you think was among the Bruins’ best to never win it? Sound off in the comments below!