Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2014

History Repeats, To The Dismay Of Bruins Fans

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It definitely wasn’t supposed to end this soon. Most of all, the Boston Bruins season absolutely wasn’t supposed to end at the hand of their most hated rival. But as Massachusetts native James Taylor so mournfully wrote long ago, “in between what might have been and what has come to pass, a misbegotten guess alas, and bits of broken glass.” So it was that on Wednesday night, in just the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the Bruins season ended meekly; and the opponents celebrating victory on the TD Garden ice were wearing the tri-color sweaters of the Montreal Canadiens.

The Bruins won the Cup in 2011, capping a playoff run in which they went the full seven games in three of the four rounds. In each of those series Boston lost both Games 1 and 2, yet showed poise and pluck in rallying to eventual victory. Last year the B’s were back in the Finals, losing to Chicago in six games. To get there Boston once again had to survive a seven game series, this time in the opening round against Toronto. Their season seemed over when they fell behind the Maple Leafs 4-1 five minutes into the third period of the decisive contest. Yet once again coach Claude Julien’s team refused to yield. Nathan Horton made it 4-2 with just over ten minutes to play. Then with goaltender Tuukka Rask pulled in favor of an extra attacker the Bruins brought joy to the packed house on Causeway Street by scoring twice in the final two minutes of regulation. At 6:05 of overtime Patrice Bergeron netted the clincher that propelled Boston into the next round.

After so many comebacks perhaps it was inevitable that the tables would be turned. In Game 6 of last year’s Finals the Bruins appeared on their way to forcing the series back to Chicago, leading 2-1 with less than ninety ticks left on the game clock. But Chicago shocked the Bruins and their fans with a pair of late goals that meant the only thing going back to the windy city with the Blackhawks was the old silver and nickel trophy, the familiar hallmark of hockey glory.

In the wake of that stunning ending last spring, players, coaches and management all insisted that they would come back hungrier than ever for the 2013-14 campaign. The team’s play throughout the regular season certainly made it seem like those were not idle words. Boston ran away with the Atlantic Division title, outdistancing runner-up Tampa Bay by 16 points. The Bruins’ 54 wins were matched only by the Anaheim Ducks. When the final horn sounded on the NHL’s regular season Boston had claimed the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points in the league. Their outstanding record was earned on both ends of the ice. Only two teams scored more goals than the Bruins, and only one squad allowed fewer goals against. As one would expect given those numbers, Boston’s +84 goal differential was by far the best in the league.

Yet for all that and despite a relatively easy opening series against Detroit, won by Boston in five games, there was considerable anxiety among Bruins fans as the team prepared for its second round matchup against Montreal. On paper Boston was the heavy favorite, but the angst was caused by more than just the knowledge that the playoffs are contested on ice, not paper. As two Original Six members of the NHL, the Bruins and Canadiens have a long and, for Boston fans, all too often unhappy history.

More than half a century ago Rocket Richard was forced out of Game 7 in the 1952 semifinals with a concussion; only to return and score the eventual series winner for Montreal. In 1971 Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins were the defending Stanley Cup champions, while the Canadiens put their faith in an untested rookie netminder who had played just six regular season games. Ken Dryden seemed overmatched early on in the opening round series, as the Bruins won Game 1 3-1 and raced out to a 5-1 lead in Game 2. Even when the Cornell graduate stiffened in goal, the gap for Montreal seemed too large. But the visitors lit the lamp at the old Boston Garden five times in the third period, rallying for a 7-5 victory. One week later Montreal won Game 7 by a score of 4-2 on their way to a Stanley Cup. Eight years later the Bruins appeared to have Dryden and the Habs beat, leading Game 7 of a semifinal series 4-3 with but four minutes to play. Then Boston was called for the unconscionable sin of having too many men on the ice. Guy Lafleur tied the game on the ensuing power play, and in overtime Yvon Lambert won it for Montreal.

So there was concern in Boston when Montreal won Game 1 in double overtime two weeks ago; a sense of nagging doubt that would not go away as the two teams battled evenly in a back and forth series that from the opening faceoff was far closer than predicted. Only in Game 5 did the Bruins look like the dominant team that had brought joy to New England hockey fans throughout the recent long and brutal winter. But even that 4-2 victory, and the resulting three games to two series lead, was not enough to dispel the disquiet. Bruins fans know their team’s history, and the unpleasant role that the Habs have frequently played in it.

In the end of course, the anxiety of Bruins fans was entirely justified. There was no great hero like the Rocket, and the eventual Montreal triumph was not an upset on par with Dryden’s rookie year. Nor was there a single moment of shame for Boston, as there was in 1979. Instead the Bruins simply seemed to disappear. The team that was the class of the league during the regular season was but a pale shadow of itself in Games 6 and 7. Bruins fans couldn’t know it at the time, but after Loui Eriksson’s goal capped Boston’s Game 5 scoring at 14:42 of the third period, the Black and Gold would put just one more puck past Montreal goaltender Carey Price.

The Canadiens dominated Game 6, scoring early and often in a 4-0 shutout. Wednesday night in Game 7 Montreal again struck for a quick lead just 2:18 into the contest. It was the fifth time in seven games that Boston was forced to play from behind. With Price, who backstopped Team Canada to Olympic gold in February, turning aside all but one attempt on goal, Max Pacioretty’s score at the game’s midpoint would be sufficient for a Montreal win. But as if to emphasize the one-sided nature of this rivalry, the hockey gods saw fit to allow the Canadiens one final tally in the game’s closing minutes. It was a humiliating own goal, credited to Daniel Briere but scored on a ricochet off the right skate of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.

So Les Habitants, the only Canadian franchise to make the playoffs this year, move on to face the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference crown. Meanwhile on Causeway Street in Boston there is only a silent and dark arena, and for Bruins fans there is only disappointment. Well that plus a certain sad sense that we knew all along how this was probably going to end.

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