The pressure was on Claude Julien. The Bruins coach had survived last year’s historic collapse against Philadelphia, but every regular-season loss brought out the venom from fans and pundits calling for his head. A shaky start to the postseason didn’t help, but Julien’s belief in his system never wavered and his players never wavered in their faith in him. And last Wednesday, they were all rewarded by finally hoisting the Cup over their heads after a thrilling Game 7 victory in Vancouver.
“I don’t read or watch too much media, so I don’t know too much about what they were saying, but obviously there’s people who were saying he should have been fired 20 times by now, right?” Bruins forward Milan Lucic said.
Lucic never bought into that line of thinking.
“He’s been great for myself, talking from a personal standpoint,” Lucic said. “Obviously he’s the only coach I’ve had in the NHL, but he’s easy to play for. The way he wants us to play is perfectly fit for my game and perfectly fit for this team. He’s done a great job as a coach building an identity for this hockey club.”
Julien was nearly flawless in the postseason, pushing all the right buttons to lead the Bruins to their first Cup in 39 years.
When Boston dropped the first two games of the playoffs on home ice against the Canadiens, Julien switched up his defense pairings to put Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg together. That pair formed the best shutdown tandem in the league and played a major role in Boston’s championship run.
When the Bruins fell behind 3-1 on a pair of quick goals by Montreal in Game 4 and found themselves facing a potential 3-1 series deficit, Julien used his timeout to settle his troops down. Boston responded with a goal minutes later, rallied to win that game in overtime and ousted the Habs in another overtime nail-biter in Game 7.
When the Bruins began the Cup Final in another 2-0 hole following a pair of one-goal heartbreakers in Vancouver, Julien inserted popular tough guy Shawn Thornton back into the lineup. Thornton delivered a hit on Canucks agitator Alexandre Burrows on his first shift, drawing a huge ovation from the crowd. Thornton’s energy and leadership helped spark the Bruins to four wins over the next five games to clinch the Cup.
“He’s a thinker,” Chara said of Julien. “He likes to think about things and make plans and he’s always three steps ahead. … That’s just a skill that he has that not many coaches probably have. He’s been really, really good as far as getting us ready for games, mentally and physically, and finding the balance between practices and days off.”
Julien has a system that hasn’t always been popular with fans, but the players have bought in completely to the way he stresses defensive responsibility and a commitment to play strong in all three zones.
“He’s a very smart coach,” Seidenberg said. “He knows how to analyze players and he knows how to get his players ready. He’s defensive first, but if you play good defensively the offense comes by itself. I love playing for him and it’s been fun this year.”
Julien demands a lot from his players, but in return he’s extremely loyal to his guys. He shows faith in everyone on his roster, regularly rolling all four of his forward lines right up through Game 7 of the Cup Final. In turn, those players rewarded his faith with a balanced attack that featured contributions throughout the lineup. That included the fourth line, which provided some huge shifts in the deciding game in Vancouver and helped the Bruins wear down the Canucks en route to a 4-0 victory.
“Claude gave us a lot of confidence and he used us in the right situations,” fourth-line center Gregory Campbell said. “You have to give him credit. Sometimes when you’re sitting there for long stretches it’s tough to go out there, especially in these high-pressure situations in the playoffs. If you throw a line out there that hasn’t been on the ice for a while, it’s almost setting yourself up for failure. He was great at reading the situations and playing us [at the right time]. We had to work for it, but he also instilled a lot of confidence in us as a line.”
Julien believes in staying the course and refuses to panic when things go wrong, but he’s willing to listen to others and adapt when needed.
“Claude is a guy who is willing to take other views,” Chara said. “When he’s thinking about things, he’s not an absolute 100-percent hard-headed guy. If you say something he will change it.”
One thing Julien is determined not to change is his approach or demeanor, even after reaching the pinnacle of his profession with the Bruins’ Cup win.
“I don’t know, the one thing I can tell you is whatever way they see me, I’ve always said I will never change as a person,” Julien said when asked if he felt like the perception of him as a coach has changed now that he’s won a championship. “So I came up from a modest background and I’ve always tried to remain modest. I’m appreciative for everything that has happened to me in my career. [It’s] more than I would ever have expected. I played hockey to become an NHL hockey player and played a few games in the NHL but never became a regular. But I got a second chance at coaching. I don’t take things for granted.
“It is a humbling game,” Julien added. “Next year is a brand new challenge and when next year starts I’m going to put the Stanley Cup aside and work on another one. That’s the way I am so it really doesn’t matter to me. I just hope that people look at me as a normal person.”
A normal person, but also a very good coach worthy of some credit after the years of criticism he has endured.
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