Like a dog when its owner returns from a long day of work, there’s a perception that follows Bruce Boudreau everywhere he goes: great regular-season coach: Can’t get it done in the playoffs.
Boudreau coached the Wild to its best regular season in history with 49 wins and 106 points and three points from the top spot in the Western Conference. The Wild was the best offensive team in the West by a wide margin and one of the best defensive teams. It had the second-best goal differential in the NHL.
Fair or unfair, though, Boudreau knows nothing short of a Stanley Cup — or a Game 7 win or two — will change the opinion embedded into the minds of at least some.
The Wild opens the playoffs Wednesday at home against the St. Louis Blues.
“Look it, I want to win as bad as anybody. It’s not easy to win,” said Boudreau, who has been to one conference final in eight NHL postseasons. “I’ve missed the playoffs once in 25 [full] years as a coach, and that was by one point [in 1997-98 with the Mississippi Sea Wolves].
“Making the playoffs is great. You want to win it. I want to win a Cup. The only thing I don’t like is the perception of losing Game 7s.”
In the NHL, Boudreau’s teams are 1-7 in Game 7. Last April, despite guiding the Anaheim Ducks to a fourth consecutive division title, Boudreau was fired after losing a fourth consecutive Game 7 at home after the Ducks also failed to eliminate an opponent in Game 6 four straight years.
“I don’t change anything,” Boudreau said, laughing. “I just put the same guys out and do it the same way. I can’t score goals or defend.”
Or, stop a puck.
A dive into Boudreau’s Game 7 losses shows that Boudreau’s Capitals and Ducks usually outplayed their opponents. But his goalies’ combined even-strength save percentage was .868 and total save percentage was .862, opposed to the opponent’s .943. And despite Boudreau’s teams outshooting many of the opponents drastically (263-203), stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry didn’t produce and his teams were outscored 28-15.
The Capitals went 1-3 in Game 7s. Ovechkin had two goals, Backstrom one goal and one assist. In four Game 7 losses, Getzlaf had no goals and three assists and Perry two largely meaningless goals. Their stats in the Game 6 defeats also were subpar.
A TV villain
Boudreau reminds that he has won three championships as a coach, been to the Finals two other times and won a Game 7 to win a Cup.
So Boudreau, after leading the Wild to a 19-point improvement this season, hopes to put the playoff thing to rest. There’s no doubt Boudreau has his critics, such as Mike Milbury, who sliced and diced Boudreau for saying “funky” things during the Wild’s March slide on a couple of recent NBC telecasts.
Boudreau rolls his eyes. There’s history with Milbury, Boudreau says.
“Milbury was [Islanders] GM when I was in Lowell sharing a team with L.A.,” Boudreau said. “He pulled all his players out in the middle of the night from the Island because he didn’t think they were getting enough ice time. He did it without warning. He never phoned me once that year.
“I’m the coach for L.A.’s [farm team]. The Islanders were supposed to put seven players there. He put 12. Yeah, they were better players than the Kings, but they had way too many players, so I had to play some of our guys even though they maybe were inferior to his guys.
“So he goes to NBC, I get to Washington, and me and Ovi were guys he just rips on a daily basis.”
As for the “funky” things Boudreau said during the Wild’s 4-10-2 March — like saying he was “embarrassed” after a loss to Vancouver and snapping at a reporter that he was acting like the Wild was “good” for nearly rallying from four goals down to beat Winnipeg, Boudreau admits: “I would say I was testy. You could tell in the news conferences I was a little short. You get used to winning all the time. Losing takes its toll.
“As far as coaching, my demeanor was fairly calm for the most part. I knew we were going to get out of it, knew things were going to get better, and maybe different from what I gathered in the past here, the team stuck together through it all.”
The one difference between Boudreau and former Wild coach Mike Yeo, who now coaches St. Louis, is Yeo always was even-keeled, at least publicly, during Wild swoons. Boudreau is much more emotional, and while Yeo’s fault might have been that he leaned on the same players every night, Boudreau’s arguably was he shook up lines probably way too much.
Fair or unfair, it gave the outward appearance he was panicking. The Wild will be pushed in the playoffs, and it’ll be up to Boudreau to remain poised and restore order when that occurs.
The next step
“It’s been remarkable when you look at his track record. His teams seem to win all the time,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “I don’t think he’s had many stretches like what we just went through [in March]. There were some new learning experiences for him.
“He’s incredibly honest, and what he feels, he says. And that’s his strength, and at times, that can be a weakness, too. He’s unflinchingly honest. But I thought he was really good through it.
“It’s like anybody after a tough loss, 20 minutes, 30 minutes after a game, whether you’re a player or coach or manager, you have a emotions and feelings and emotions can run high. Typically by the next day, what I’ve liked about Bruce, you get it out of your system and you come in the next day and we try to find a plan of attack to have a good practice or game plan for the next game.
“He’s got a lot of experience. He handled it well. I thought the players handled it well. We look a lot more now like we did earlier this year, and I think he’ll handle the playoffs well.”