Bruins credit Julien's leadership
Despite taking the Bruins from last place in the Northeast Division to four straight playoff appearances, Claude Julien has been a lightning rod for criticism for much of the past two seasons.
Speculation was rife that he was coaching for his job this postseason, and the detractors were out in full force after the Bruins dropped their first two playoff games — both at home — against Montreal in the opening round. But Julien never wavered in his approach, and his players never doubted his ability to lead them out of that hole and deeper into the postseason than any Bruins team since 1992.
"There's been no doubt in this room from any of the players in believing in Claude and the coaching staff and their system," Bruins forward Gregory Campbell said Wednesday at the Garden as the Bruins prepared for their Eastern Conference Final showdown with Tampa Bay. "It's worked for us all year. I don't think when you get down, all of the sudden you change everything."
This is Campbell's first season in Boston and first playing for Julien, but he already respected the way Julien got his clubs to play when he faced the Bruins as a member of the Florida Panthers. That respect has only grown over the course of a season playing for Julien.
"It's worked for us all year and he's built this team on this system," Campbell said. "Not just this year, but going back, this team's always been a hard team to play against. We believe, as players, in this system and it's worked so far. He's demanding, but he also lets us play our games and gives us confidence. As a player, that's what you want."
When Boston faced the prospect of heading into the lion's den in Montreal with a two-game deficit in their first-round series, what the Bruins needed was a boost of confidence from their coach. And that's just what Julien delivered.
"He was great," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "You could just see him, when you're down in a situation like that, you kind of look around and you see guys and how they react in certain situations. Some guys panic, and he was one of those guys who was just really calm and he just seemed so confident that we were going to come back."
Julien made several important tactical decisions to help turn that Montreal series around. He shuffled his defense pairs, putting Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg together for what has become a dominant shutdown top pairing.
He didn't bow to pressure to change his forward lines, sticking with Michael Ryder, who rewarded that faith with the overtime winner in Game 4 to even the series. That came after Julien utilized his timeout to stem Montreal's momentum and regroup his squad when the Canadiens jumped out to a 3-1 lead in that game.
But the most important thing he did was maintain a calm demeanor and a steely resolve.
"I think first of all, as a coach, that's what you're hired to do, make sure that you don't overreact," Julien said. "You've got to stay the course and you've got to make sure you stay in control. And if you do that, you're allowing your players, obviously, a better balance. You've got to believe in yourselves once you get to this stage, and you should never panic no matter what the situation is."
With Julien supplying that steadying guidance, the Bruins rattled off wins in eight of the next nine games, beating Montreal in overtime in Game 7 and sweeping the Flyers in the second round.
"Because of that, it gave us all the confidence in the world to know that if we got that third game, anything could happen," Marchand said of Julien's confident leadership against the Habs. "We were right back in that series because of how calm he was and how much he just believed in our team. It really pushed us over the edge and gave us an opportunity to win."
Marchand's relationship with Julien has been rocky at times. An agitator who excels at getting opponents off their game, Marchand has strayed over the line a bit, forcing Julien to rein him back in. But while Marchand has raised Julien's blood pressure at times with his antics, Julien has helped raise Marchand's game to new heights.
Marchand earned a promotion to the second line midway through the season and finished with 21 goals in the regular season and 5-6-11 totals in 11 games so far in the playoffs. The rookie credits Julien's patience and guidance for playing a pivotal role in that development.
"I think we have a really good relationship," Marchand said. "He's had to talk to me a few times and give me a lashing, but I expected that coming into the year. I think those are the things that help you grow as a player. He really brought me along in a great way. He didn't rush me into anything that I was going to be in over my head. He let me start slow, then gave me more minutes as the year went on and let me grow into a different position. I don't think I'd even be close to the player I am now if he wasn't here and brought me along the way he did."
Without Julien, the rest of the Bruins wouldn't be where they are right now either — about to play in the conference finals for the first time in 19 years.