How to explain the newly deft goal-scoring touch of the formerly punchless Bruins? The resurgence of Miroslav Satan, out of hockey only six months ago, is a good place to start
For most of the NHL regular season, watching the Boston Bruins move around in the offensive zone was like observing those deeply tanned old men with metal detectors whom you can see scavenging on Florida beaches. Like elongated wands humming over the sand, some of the hockey sticks occasionally stumbled upon something of genuine value—say, the odd goal. While their persistence was exemplary, the results seemed out of proportion to the amount of energy the players expended. At least the old men take in some sun while treasure hunting. The feckless Bruins could barely bask in the glow of a red goal light.
"Our trouble scoring goals," says Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli, a tight smile on his lips, "has been well documented."
Suddenly, Eureka! On the cusp of their first appearance in a conference final in 18 years—they led their second-round series against Philadelphia, three games to one, heading into Game 5 on Monday—the Bruins, whose regular-season 2.39 goals-per-game average was dead last in the NHL, are averaging 3.20, good for fifth best in the tighter-checking playoffs. (This represents an increase of about four fifths of a goal. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of four fifths of a goal, you probably didn't see Bruins banger Milan Lucic trying to whack home a rebound this year.) In six first-round games they pumped 15 past Buffalo's Ryan Miller, the league's best goaltender, and they had at least three in each match against the Flyers. After 82 games of near-historic futility—the Bruins had not scored fewer than their 196 goals in a non-strike-shortened regular season since the 70-game campaign of 1966--67, Bobby Orr's rookie year—there has been some black-and-gold magic in the attack.
Or black magic—if you believe in the devil's bargain. Goethe's Faust sold his soul for knowledge and power. In a less metaphysical deal last January, Boston paid roughly $350,000 for an unemployed free-agent Slovakian rightwinger (with 363 goals in 1,050 career games) who has had five playoff goals, including winners in three of the seven Bruins victories. He plays on the top line. He operates on the second power play. He celebrates some goals like it is Walpurgis Night.
The name, of course, is pronounced sha-TAN. Miroslav Satan has had a little upside-down hat over the S in his surname for all of his 35 years. When you leave Slovakia for the NHL, you have a better chance of keeping your identity as a sweet-handed goal scorer than your diacritical mark. So Satan, without a squiggle, it is—at least in print in North America. This can be a good thing. If his name were written as pronounced, fans would not show up at Boston's new Garden wearing horns nor would they unfurl this banner, as they did in Game 2 against the Flyers: SATAN: PUTTING GOALIES THROUGH HELL SINCE 1993.
Not bad for a forward who was in purgatory last fall. Satan's only season in Pittsburgh had, in equal measure, ended well and badly. There was that thing about winning the Stanley Cup, but he was a footnote to the championship. After flunking an audition as Sidney Crosby's right wing, he scored just once in 17 playoff games, averaged fewer than 10 minutes of ice time and didn't register a point in the finals. Coach Dan Bylsma scratched him for Game 6 against Detroit.
Like other slick forwards who fret insufficiently over defensive responsibilities, Satan needs at least 15 to 18 minutes a game with quality linemates to have a consistent impact. Sticking him on a depth line is useless. The Penguins, who demoted him to the minors for 16 games in a salary-cap move before recalling him for the playoffs, didn't re-sign him. And nobody else had an urgent need for a one-way winger who had not had a 30-goal season since 2005--06.
Satan wanted to play in his fourth Olympics, so he could hardly afford to allow his game to rot. He rented ice at the Islanders' practice facility near his home, often skating by himself. He was on the verge of committing to a team in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in December, but then the Metal Detector Gang in Boston called.
The Bruins were desperate for someone who didn't need a GPS to find the back of the net, but Chiarelli was wary about how Satan would fit into the defense-first mold of coach Claude Julien's team, which ranked second in goals against this season (2.33). So Bruins management studied tape of Satan in the 2009 playoffs. All 215 shifts. "He showed a good compete level," Chiarelli insists. "That's what we based his signing on." Although the money was light, it came with a no-movement clause, a dealmaker given Satan's experience with the Pens. "I know after Pittsburgh that a lot of people were saying I was done," Satan says. "I know that was a wrong judgment."
Satan played with brio in Vancouver despite suffering a gash to the palm of his right hand just before the Olympic break, an injury that kept him out of Slovakia's first two matches. Not everyone in Bruins management was thrilled that Satan jetted west with his bandaged hand, but Chiarelli says the Olympic tempo was remedial, allowing Satan's legs to catch up with his brain. He scored a game-winner against Norway and was a significant contributor on an aging Slovak team that beat Russia in the round robin, upset Sweden in the quarterfinals and played for a medal.
If a nice Olympic run and nine regular-season goals for Boston were not necessarily harbingers of a memorable spring, the three he scored in the final five games were telling. "He's a pretty unemotional guy," says Islanders goalie Martin Biron, a former teammate in Buffalo, "but the way to figure out what's going on with Miro are the celebrations."
Satan's goal celebrations are often memorable. After scoring the series winner against the Sabres in Game 6, he did a little dance-and-run number that was as '70s as disco. But in the long list of Satan-ic goal celebrations, that one cedes pride of place to the time he crawled on the ice after a double-overtime playoff winner for Buffalo against Ottawa in 1999. He once threw his glove on the ice after ending a lengthy goal drought and beat it with a stick to knock out the remaining cement. Says Lucic, "It's like almost every goal he scores is the biggest goal ever."
For a player whose career was slipping from afterthought to invisible, that may be true. Satan says the celebrations are unscripted, not unlike a postseason in which the three top Eastern Conference seeds (Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo) lost in the first round. The Bruins helped clear the path with timely goals, but Julien knows there is room for improvement. At the beginning of each practice in the Buffalo series, a Bruins coach would cover roughly the bottom third of the net with rectangular black pads, forcing players to lift their shots. The Bruins then switched to drills in which they shot deliberately into the pads, simulating a butterfly goalie making an initial save, and worked on roofing rebounds from in close.
The Bruins' first-line right wing was adept at this drill because . . . well, this Satan's work never did involve idle hands.
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Boston was desperate for someone who didn't need a GPS to find the back of the net.
Photographs by LOU CAPOZZOLA
HOT WING Playing on Boston's top line with Lucic (above), Satan had scored five playoff goals through Sunday—three against the Flyers.
KILLER B'S Goalie Tuukka Rask (left) is almost as hot as Satan, with a 2.39 GAA, second-best in the playoffs.