Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2013

The Bruins Can Win Quickly; Who Knew?

Behind 28 saves by Tuukka Rask, a pair of goals by the fourth line’s Gregory Campbell, and the improbable fourth goal in five playoff games by 22-year old defenseman Torey Krug, the Boston Bruins beat the New York Rangers 3-1 on Saturday, thus winning their Stanley Cup Playoffs conference semifinal in just five games. It’s a result that has left Bruins fans all around New England extremely happy and severely disoriented.

In six years under head coach Claude Julien the Bruins have once again become part of the postseason conversation in the NHL. After a two year playoff drought before his arrival, Julien’s skaters have made the playoffs every year. In 2011 the Bruins made it to the Finals for the first time in more than two decades and went on to win the Cup for the first time in nearly four. But as every Bruins fan knows, whether they are the favorite or the underdog, the skaters in black and gold have a disturbing tendency to turn every playoff series into high drama.

Their playoff pattern is an extended version of the way Julien’s Bruins often play individual games. When at their best the Bruins display a strong defensive game and crisp goaltending. While the team’s power play often seems charged by little more than AA batteries, at full strength the Bruins can generate bursts of offense leading to a barrage of shots. Box scores often report a wide disparity of shots on goal in Boston’s favor. And they can do all that for 45 or 50 minutes per game; which would be wonderful but for the fact that hockey is played for 60 minutes. It is in those brief periods when the team seems to take a collective nap that games turn against the Bruins. Because one never knows if any given night will be one on which the team will lose its focus for a time, the ideal promotional item to be handed out to fans walking into the TD Garden from Causeway Street would be free rolls of Tums.

As it can go in individual games, so it almost always seems to go in the playoffs. Under Julien the Bruins have now played twelve Stanley Cup series. Fully two-thirds of them have gone the maximum seven games. Boston lost in the 2008 quarterfinals to Montreal and in the 2009 semifinals to Carolina, both in seven games. But as the team began to develop its personality under a still-new head coach, those defeats showed some resolve. Both years the Bruins fell behind three games to one, and twice they rallied with a pair of victories to at least force a seventh game.

But the 2010 playoffs brought a loss in seven games that demonstrated anything but resolve. In the conference semifinals Boston won the first three games against Philadelphia, and seemed on the way to a matchup against archrival Montreal in the conference finals. But the Flyers won Game Four in overtime and then shut out the Bruins in Game Five. Philadelphia followed those wins with a pair of one-goal victories, becoming just the third NHL team to recover from a three games to none deficit. The loss at home in Game Seven was doubly galling because the Bruins led 3-0 early in the contest, only to let the Flyers back in the game. After forging a 3-3 tie in the second period, Philadelphia scored the eventual game and series winner early in the third period on a power play when Boston was called for that most inexcusable penalty in hockey, too many men on the ice.

More than a few fans called for Julien’s sacking after the 2010 debacle, but GM Peter Chiarelli stuck with his coach. One year later all was forgiven, if not entirely forgotten, when the Bruins sparked riots on the streets of Vancouver with a Game Seven win over the Canucks to claim the Stanley Cup. Of course in keeping with the pattern now firmly set by Boston, three of their four series in the 2011 playoffs went the distance. Against both Montreal in the first round and Tampa Bay in the conference finals the Bruins held three games to two leads but were unable to close out their opponents on the first try.

A year ago Boston lost to Washington in the first round, naturally in seven games; and this year’s playoffs began with a seven game series against Toronto. Thus when the Bruins and Rangers faced off Boston had played four consecutive seven game series over three years; making it understandable that no one in New England was guilty of any premature celebrating when Boston won the first two contests at home, and then came from behind to edge New York 2-1 at Madison Square Garden in Game Three. In addition to their problems closing out series during the 2011 title run, the Bruins had led the Maple Leafs three games to one in the first round this year before struggling to send Toronto home.

So when goaltender Rask caught his left skate in a rut on the ice and fell on his backside, allowing a harmless dump in pass off Carl Hagelin’s stick to find the back of the net and give the Rangers life in Game Four, no one was surprised. And minutes later, when All-Star defenseman and team captain Zdeno Chara allowed Derek Stepan to cleanly steal the puck from him and score on a wrap around, there was acceptance rather than panic; although Tums consumption in New England probably spiked a bit. The Rangers made the most of those gifts, eventually winning Game Four in overtime.

New York struck first on Saturday afternoon, on a Dan Girardi power play goal midway through the first period. The NBC television announcers started reminding viewers repeatedly of Boston’s problems closing out series. It seemed like every time the cameras showed Rask in goal his 2-8 career record in elimination games was mentioned one more time. Due to a late season injury to then-starter Tim Thomas, it was Rask who was in goal during Boston’s epic collapse against Philadelphia in 2010.

But if there are those teams and players who seem forever haunted by past failures, others learn hard but ultimately valuable lessons from their losses. These Bruins have already demonstrated stern character in the midst of adversity. They not only allowed Toronto back into the first round series, they also fell behind the Maple Leafs 4-1 early in the third period of Game Seven. Instead of collapsing the Bruins rallied, closing the gap on a mid-period goal by Nathan Horton, and then knotting the score with a furious charge in the final 82 seconds, their net empty with Rask pulled for an extra attacker. Patrice Bergeron eventually sent Boston on to the next round with an overtime winner.

With that history fresh in their minds, a one goal deficit in Game Five was no hurdle. Early in the second period Krug became the first rookie defenseman in the post-expansion era to score four goals in his first five playoff games when he rocketed a slapshot past Henrik Lundqvist. Minutes later Campbell pounced on a turnover to give Boston the lead. Then with nine minutes to play the Rangers’ Ryan Callahan split the defense and skated in alone on Rask. He went to his backhand, but the 26-year old Finn slid to his right and deflected the shot away with his blocker. New York’s best chance had passed, and Boston was on its way to the conference finals.

There they will face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the hottest team still standing. Beating the Pens and getting to play for the Cup will be a tall order for Boston, but this year’s edition of Claude Julien’s Bruins have proven themselves to be a resilient, if still indigestion-inducing bunch. That series won’t start for several days. In the meantime, it’s perfectly understandable if Bruins fans find themselves clicking their remotes out of habit, searching for Games Six and Seven, as usual.

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