Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2013

Bruins’ Dream Run Ends; Now Comes The Hard Part

Here in New England the end came with a savage swiftness Monday night. Just when it looked like the Boston Bruins were going to force a seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks scored twice in just 17 seconds late in the third period to claim their second championship in four years. The twin goals, one by Bryan Bickell that tied the game with 1:16 to play and the other off the stick of Dave Bolland that put Chicago up 3-2 with just 59 ticks left on the clock stunned the packed house at TD Garden and many thousands more who were glued to their flat screens all around the region.

For six weeks Bruins fans had been living with the belief that theirs was a team of destiny. That fantasy began on the night of May 13th, when Boston’s season appeared about to end. The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, had already rallied from a 3 games to 1 deficit to tie the first round series and force a Game Seven. Then they scored twice early in the third period of the decisive contest to turn a tight 2-1 lead into a seemingly comfortable 4-1 advantage. With little more than ten minutes remaining hope was waning at the TD Garden. But then Nathan Horton scored for Boston to begin a comeback. With time winding down and an empty net sitting behind them, the Bruins used the extra attacker to pepper Toronto’s goaltender with shots. Miraculously, first Milan Lucic and then Patrice Bergeron scored to tie the game, and Boston went on to win in overtime.

The dream continued for Bruins’ fans when their team easily dispatched the New York Rangers in five games to move on to the Conference Finals. Had it ended there, when Boston faced the offensive juggernaut from Pittsburgh, no one would have been surprised. Instead the series against the Penguins made belief in predestination seem entirely reasonable. During the NHL’s shortened regular season Pittsburgh led all teams with 165 goals scored. In four straight losses to the Bruins the Pens scored exactly twice. Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both held without a single point in the series. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask stopped 134 of 136 shots while recording two shutouts, an astonishing .985 saves percentage.

Fantasies can be fun, but the Stanley Cup Finals are an unlikely setting for a Hallmark Channel movie. The Blackhawks had scored the second most regular season goals behind the Penguins; but unlike Pittsburgh they were a more balanced team. The Bruins under Coach Claude Julien pride themselves on defense, but Chicago was every bit as capable as Boston without the puck. Most tellingly, these Blackhawks also boasted tremendous speed up and down the roster; speed that ultimately allowed Chicago to race past Boston’s attempts to stunt their offensive charges at center ice. The series was hardly a rout, and the Bruins and their fans have plenty of reasons to be proud of this season’s accomplishments. But in the end, except for Game Three when the Blackhawks were without forward Marian Hossa, and the first period of Game Six when the desperate Bruins came out flying, it was Chicago that dictated the pace of play throughout the series. Only in the Game Three shutout did Boston manage to outshoot Chicago.

Speaking of fantasies, once upon a time Chicago winning a pair of championships in four years, and Boston winning one and playing again in the Finals in a three-year span, would have fans in both cities contemplating long runs at the top of the league. But that was the old NHL, before Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners threw the entire 2004-2005 season away in order to win a hard salary cap. That cap made it difficult for teams to retain star players, and this year the Blackhawks and Bruins became just the third and fourth teams to make a second appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals since the cap went into place, after the Red Wings and Penguins played back-to-back Finals in 2008 and 2009.

After Chicago won the Cup in 2010, general manager Stan Bowman was forced to let leave as free agents or trade nine members of the championship squad. The next year the new-look Blackhawks barely squeezed into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the West, and were eliminated in the first round. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was more fortunate after his team won, and the Bruins who skated for the title this year looked a lot like the team that hoisted the Cup in 2011. But now both teams, like all the other 28 NHL franchises, must deal with the strict limits of the new collective bargaining agreement. In an event unheard of in the other team sports, next year’s NHL salary cap is actually going down, from $70.2 million to $64.3 million.

Bryan Bickell’s goal to knot the score on Monday might well have been his last in a Blackhawks’ sweater. About to become a free agent, Bickell is in position to see his current salary of just over $500,000 tripled or quadrupled. He’s said he’d like to stay in Chicago and Bowman has been quoted as saying the team will “do our best” to keep him. But if they do, then several other Blackhawks may have the traditional day with the Cup that each player gets over the summer while in the employ of another team.

For Boston the cap problem is even more serious. The Bruins start out just $5 million under next year’s cap, and they don’t have a goalie under contract. Both Rask and backup Anton Khudobin become unrestricted free agents next Thursday. After emerging as an elite netminder this year, Rask’s new salary number along will likely eat up most of what room the Bruins have left. Defenseman Andrew Ference has already acknowledged that he’ll be gone. Chiarelli has said he hopes to re-sign winger Nathan Horton, but doing so will clearly require jettisoning other players. Boston made Tyler Seguin the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he led the team with 29 goals a year later. But his production declined this season, and he was a non-factor in the playoffs. As much as Boston needs his speed and even though it’s unfair to judge a young player on a single so-so season, Chiarelli may look at Seguin’s $5.75 million annual cap hit that stretches out for another six seasons and consider trade offers. After all, he still needs to sign a backup goalie. And Chiarelli, like every GM, needs to keep one eye on the penurious future of Gary Bettman’s new NHL as he considers multi-year deals. This time next year, defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and center Patrice Bergeron, the team’s best player, will be entering free agency.

The old Jerry Seinfeld joke is that in the age of free agency, fans are just rooting for laundry; the obvious message being that as players come and go the only constant is the uniform. That is true to a degree in all of our team sports, but nowhere more so than in Gary Bettman’s NHL. It makes the work that both Chiarelli and Bowman have done all the more impressive. But for both men and all of their fellow NHL general managers, the heavy lifting has only just begun.

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