BOSTON -- Everybody looks at the Stanley Cup of two years ago as the potential high-water mark for this current crop of Bruins, and rightfully so given all who remain.
For the last two years it’s been an open question as to whether the Black and Gold would ever get back to hockey's promised land again, and whether or not they were some kind of one-hit wonder.
There were even more questions when the Bruins limped through the second half of the regular season amid a Herculean schedule, and then nearly blew a 3-1 lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the Bruins taking a 3-0 series lead over the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals: The seasoned group, which includes 17 returnees from their Stanley Cup team and a goaltender bursting into super-stardom, has learned that they’re even better than they were when they won it all two years ago.
The Bruins have won eight of their last nine games, they've outscored their opponents 31-12 since the beginning of the third period of Game 7 against the Leafs, and they look, smell and sound like a Stanley Cup winner still gathering momentum with a few weeks of work to finish off.
At this point, having watched the unmitigated run that the Bruins are on as the hottest team left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine that they'll be denied another Cup.
Two years ago, the Bruins squeaked out hockey games while feeling their way through the playoffs. This season, they’re dictating the terms and forcing teams into their style of play; they clearly had a Penguins team with all-world talent psyched out before the series even got started.
The Bruins clearly weren’t at their best in Game 3 against the Penguins, but great hockey teams find a way to grind out those kinds of wins and that’s exactly what Boston did. Out-shot by the Penguins by a 29-14 margin in the second and third periods, the Bruins limped into the intermission prior to overtime.
But somehow the B's came out with a different gear in the extra sessions that very few, special teams possess. They absorbed the best shot that the vaunted Penguins could give them, and they are still standing unmoved as a team with it’s eyes on the prize.
It’s even more impressive when one factors in that the Bruins lost Gregory Campbell in the second period to a broken leg, and were basically playing with three forward lines for the remaining 63 minutes.
“I think the character is always the word you want to use, a lot of character in that room," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "We didn't play a bad game, but we weren't at the top of our game. Tuukka was good for us, but the character is because you get into overtime, and all of a sudden you become a better team. So the further the game went, the better we seemed to get, the more chances we seemed to get.
“I thought in that first OT we spent a lot of time in the O-zone. It says a lot about our team, because I know our guys right now are exhausted from playing with a short bench, and playing almost five periods here.”
The David Krejci/Milan Lucic/Nathan Horton line has combined for 19 goals and 51 points in 15 playoff games, and has been the most dominant force among any team in the playoffs. Krejci leads the NHL with nine goals and 21 points, and should become the first position player to win the Conn Smythe since Jonathan Toews back in 2010, provided he and the Bruins can keep it up.
Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have teamed for a series of overtime goals that are carbon copies of each other, and can only be scored based upon the chemistry of those two talented individuals having played together for the last three seasons. With his latest overtime winner in Game 3, Bergeron is becoming a clutch hockey hero, in addition to the best defensive forward in the NHL.
Tuukka Rask has a .940 save percentage in the playoffs, and is even better this spring than Tim Thomas was two years ago.
Gregory Campbell is done for the playoffs after breaking his right leg blocking a Malkin shot during a key penalty kill, but showed the price that Bruins players are willing to pay now that they're so close to their goal.
Zdeno Chara has topped 38 minutes and 42 minutes in a pair of overtime games during this year’s playoff run, and at 36 years old, his defensive prowess has been mind boggling.
The Bruins two best defensive players, Bergeron and Chara, have done a number on the Penguins, and have completely shut down arguably the two best players in the world in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, with a big assist to Rask as well.
Even the 41-year Jaromir Jagr has jumped into the act with three points in the last two games versus Pittsburgh, including an inspiring one-on-one battle he won against Malkin that freed Marchand and Bergeron for the overtime game-winner.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's Jarome Iginla is scoreless with a minus-3 and a measly four shots on net in three games. He's been completely invisible during this series after spurning the Bruins at the trade deadline.
When exhaustion hit, the Bruins relied on their experience -- and the mental toughness they've achieved as a result -- to prevail over the much-hyped Penguins.
“I think it's a little bit of everything," Bergeron said. "It's also mental. You've got to stay sharp and find a way, but I think it's all in your head. As long as you don't feel tired in your head, your legs are fine. But you're right, your body is cramping up and you've just got to find a way, just keep battling, because I think everyone is in the same situation. But obviously as it goes on, the more cramps you get, I guess.”
The seven-game series against the Maple Leafs was the kind of struggle that the “hard way” Bruins are used to, but since then, they’ve jumped out to 3-0 leads in against both the Rangers and the Penguins. The Bruins stand just one win away from another Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and it’s easy to believe that the Black and Gold could handle either the Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings given the way that they’re playing.
All of this means the Bruins are bumping into some heady dynastic territory if they can capture a second Cup in a three-year span.
Truth be told, they’ve validated everything the organization has done over the last six years with two extended Stanley Cup runs. But some kind of preordained destiny seems to be in effect with the Black and Gold this season, and anything less than another Cup would be a disappointment given the historic run they’ve been on over the last month.
Just don’t ask the Bruins about it.
“We’re not even thinking about [the Stanley Cup Finals] right now," Marchand said. "It’s one win but a very long ways away. We have to make sure that we do everything right to prepare for the next game, and come out very hard because we know they’re going to.”
It's OK, Brad. We know you can’t say it, so we’ll do it for you.
The Bruins are ready to touch greatness once again, and in the next few weeks, they’re going to win another Stanley Cup.