Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 29, 2011

At Long Last, The Black And Gold Return To The Finals

It has been two generations since the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and one since they last played for it. For most of that time, in a solid four-sport city (sorry New England Revolution), the Bruins were the fourth and last team. Just in the past decade, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and played in a fourth. The Red Sox put an emphatic end to an 86-year old curse in 2004, and won a second title in 2007. The Celtics raised an NBA record 17th championship banner to the rafters of the TD Garden in 2008, and took the Lakers to a 7th game in the 2010 finals. For that matter, even the Revolution, while never winning the MLS Cup, have at least played for it four times in the past ten years.

Then there were the Bruins, the also-rans on ice. Over that same period while Boston’s other franchises were bringing joy to their fans and being feted with victory parades through the city, the Bruins offered their faithful variations on a theme of disappointment. While they won the Northeast Division in 2002, 2004 and 2009 and made it into the playoffs six times through last season, their stays in the post-season were usually short. Four times they were beaten in the first round, including the humiliating loss to arch rival Montreal in 2004 when Boston led three games to one only to lose the series in seven. I was in the Garden when the Bruins coughed up Game Seven on home ice, amazed at how quiet 17,000 plus people could suddenly become. Surely for Bruins’ fans the subsequent cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season due to labor strife bordered on an act of mercy.

Finally in 2009 the Bruins advanced to the second round of the playoffs. They did so by sweeping the Canadiens in round one, thus earning a measure of redemption for the debacle five years earlier. But they would go no further, losing to Carolina in the Conference semi-finals.

Last year it seemed certain that Boston would play for the Eastern Conference crown. They had skated by Buffalo in six games in the opening round, and were up three games to none on Philadelphia in round two. In the entire history of the NHL only two teams had lost a playoff series after winning the first three games. But as their fans looked on in horror, the Bruins became the third such team, losing four straight to the Flyers in an epic collapse far worse than the 2004 meltdown against Montreal.

That is a record that will understandably make even the truest of true believers wary. So while fans cheered the Bruins throughout this most recent campaign, no hockey fan in the region was thinking too far ahead. To be sure, there were cheers when veteran Tim Thomas, relegated to the bench at the end of last season, had a renaissance year in goal. There was excitement when Boston went a perfect 6-0 on their longest road trip of the season in late February. And there was satisfaction when the Bruins won the Northeast Division comfortably, and finished just behind division winners Washington and Philadelphia to take the third seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For all that, when Boston, playing at home, promptly dropped both games one and two of their opening series against Montreal while netting but a single goal, fans had an aching sense of familiarity about yet another looming disappointment. But there may really be something different about this year’s team. Time and again they have bounced back from losses and overcome adversity. The players speak about being a resilient team. On the ice through the first three rounds of this year’s playoffs, they have proven that to be true.

Down two games to none, they traveled north to the decidedly unfriendly confines of Montreal’s Bell Centre and won games three and four to level the series. The first line came alive in game three, with David Krejci and Nathan Horton scoring their first goals of the playoffs. Michael Ryder was the hero of game four with two goals, the second winning the game 5-4 in overtime. From there home ice prevailed, with each of the final three games decided by a single goal. In seven games, the Bruins moved on to round two.

Facing their tormentors from last year’s playoffs, Boston once again skated out to a three games to none lead over Philadelphia. While there was some amount of gallows humor among fans prior to game four, there would be no repeat of the 2010 collapse. Johnny Boychuk broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period and the Bruins added three more unanswered goals to rout the Flyers 5-1, sweeping the series and moving into the Conference finals against Tampa Bay.

The Lightning have some prolific goals scorers, and four times in the seven game series Tampa Bay scored five goals. In three of those games that was enough scoring to ensure victory. But Boston managed to win one of the shooting contests 6-5, and in games three and five the Bruins were able to impose their preferred style of defensive play on the Lightning, winning 2-0 and 3-1.

On Friday night the two squads skated onto the ice in the big arena on Causeway Street for game seven. For sixty minutes they played, interrupted nary a single time by an official’s whistle. The penalty-free game was scoreless with less than eight minutes to play when defenseman Andrew Ference skated the puck out of the Bruins’ zone. Against the 1-3-1 defensive alignment favored by the Lightning, Ference would usually be pressed by Simon Gagne, the first Tampa Bay forechecker. In that situation he would pass across the ice to partner Boychuk. Typically as he did so two Lightning defenders would converge on Boychuk, forcing him to dump the puck into Tampa Bay’s end.

But this time Gagne gave Ference some room, so he held the puck and continued slowly up the ice as Boston’s forwards, Krejci, Horton, and Milan Lucic, wheeled around to gain speed and began racing through the neutral zone. Ference glanced to his right at Boychuk but then passed left, delivering the puck perfectly to the stick of Krejci, who was racing to the blue line. Krejci split the Tampa Bay defense and skated toward the left corner as Horton came behind him and then drove to the net. A moment later Krejci slid the puck across the crease and onto Horton’s waiting stick. With a quick flick of the wrist Horton put the Bruins in front. Seven and a half minutes later, a generation of frustration and disappointment came to an end. After 21 years, the Bruins will again play for the Stanley Cup.

Long, long ago, there was the night that Bobby Orr flew. Those words, an odd riddle to most, have immediate and lasting meaning to Bruins fans. In 1970, the greatest Bruin ever netted the winning goal in overtime to sweep the St. Louis Blues and give Boston its first Stanley Cup in 29 years. Orr was tripped even as he shot, and the photograph of the airborne defenseman, arms outstretched like Superman and stick raised in triumph, is iconic. In each of the next two seasons Orr and the rest of the Big Bad Bruins would play for the Cup, winning again in 1972.

It is of course impossible to know whether there will be another such moment next month. The Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks were the only team in the league to post more than fifty wins this season. Their +77 goal differential was by far the best in the NHL. But the Bruins’ +51 was second. Vancouver will be favored, but the resilient players in black and gold will likely have a thing or two to say about the final outcome. Perhaps Boston’s 39-year Stanley Cup drought will finally end, or perhaps in the end it will turn 40. But win or lose, they will be playing hockey in Boston’s North End in June. For Bruins fans, that in itself is a victory.

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