21-year-old Phil Kessel was the offensive spark on the 2009 Bruins team won its first playoff series in ten years.
On a Thanksgiving Sunday when the Patriots are basking in the glow of a blowout of the Jets, it’s time to take a look at our hockey-starved landscape. And if we can’t do it with the modern-day Bruins, then we’ll break out the B’s of lore—or at least recent history. Today, BST&N commemorates the 2009 Boston Bruins—a team that ended a ten-year franchise drought without a playoff series win.
Boston came into the season on an upswing. The previous spring they’d broken into the playoffs as the #8 seed, ending two years of being home for the postseason. The 2009 team was even better. Phil Kessel was a productive scorer on the right wing, only 21 years old and beginning a season that would see him score 36 goals. Marc Savard at center scored 25 goals and distributed 61 assists, the latter a team-high number. David Krejci was only 22 years old, but already in his third year and he ably backed up Savard with 36 goals. Michael Ryder aided Kessel when it came to scoring on the wing. 20-year-old Milan Lucic was another young talent on the left side.
But amidst the youth movement overseen by Claude Julien, it was 31-year-old Zdeno Chara who logged more ice time than any non-goalie at defenseman. And 34-year-old Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy. Together, they anchored a unit that was the best in the NHL at preventing goals. The offense was second in the league at lighting in the lamp. That’s a pretty good combination for winning a lot of games.
Win a lot of games is exactly what Boston did, as they started 14-3-4, capped by a shootout win in Montreal. In the lead up to New Year’s Day, the Bruins won ten straight, concluding with successive wins over the Penguins and stretching the record to a stunning 29-6-4. It gave the team complete command of the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference overall. Even with some hiccups the rest of the way—losing six of seven at the end of February, the Bruins were mostly steady at the wheel and they won six straight down the stretch to end 53-19-10, good for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Marc Savard’s passing keyed the offense and ’09 was his last good year before a cheap shot by the Penguins ruined his career.
The opponent would be a familiar one in the hated Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had struggled defensively, ranking 21st in the league, and 21-year-old Carey Price’s 2.83 GAA was well behind Thomas’ 2.10 per game average. Montreal had one reliable scorer in 35-year-old Alex Kovalev, and got its best passing from the back end, with defenseman Andrei Markov dishing 52 assists. And if Boston was playing well coming into the postseason, Montreal was going in reverse—they’d lost four straight to end the year, including a 5-4 overtime loss in the Garden in the penultimate game, and the Canadiens needed a tiebreaker to hold on to the final playoff berth in the East.
Nonetheless, the history of hockey is filled with upsets—in fact this same rivalry had nearly produced one the year prior. The teams were flipped then, and the 8-seed Bruins pushed the top-seeded Canadiens to a seventh game before falling. Now Boston had home ice and was hungry for their first playoff series win since 1999.
On a Thursday night in mid-April, the Bruins started off strong for the home crowd. Kessel and Krejci scored in the latter part of the first period to go up 2-0, although Kovalev would tie the game late in the second period. With 9:45 left, Chara scored on a power play, off a double assists from Savard and Kessel. Thomas made this lead stand up and Kessel finished it off with an empty-netter.
Two nights later, Boston again got the crowd into it early with a pair of goals in the first period. It looked like we might have déjà vu when Kovalev scored in the first minute of the second period to cut the lead in half. But the Bruins came barreling down hard. They scored twice on power plays, three times overall and pulled away to a 5-1 win, with Savard lighting the lamp twice.
The series reverted to Montreal and no Boston fan remotely familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of the NHL playoffs in general or this rivalry in particular, was getting ahead of themselves. Indeed, two years later, it would be the Bruins losing the first two games of this same matchup at home, but rallying to win in seven games. Surely, Montreal could do the same if they got momentum going their way.
Momentum is what the Canadiens got in Game 3 with an early goal, but Kessel took it away by tying the game late in the first period. The score was still tied 2-2, when Ryder scored the go-ahead goal. Thomas and the defense went into lockdown mode and a late empty net goal created another 4-2 Boston win. One more to go.
Montreal wouldn’t roll over, again scoring first on their home ice, but again Boston answered and then some. Ryder and Krejci made it 2-1 before the first period was out. In the second period Ryder scored again and Kessel also came through. The Canadiens couldn’t touch Thomas and the game ended 4-1.
From the perspective of 2009, the playoffs still ended in disappointment. Boston lost a crushing overtime Game 7 in the second round to Carolina. But from the broader perspective of history, we see a team that continued the upward trajectory that would lead ultimately to hoisting the Cup two years later. Part of that groundwork was the learning experience of how to close out a playoff series and that came against Montreal in April 2009.
What’s sweeter than ending a playoff drought against the Montreal Canadiens?