TORONTO -- The Bruins have learned many playoff lessons over the course of the last six seasons.
One is to never expect a referee’s whistle to go your way in the Bell Centre when the game is on the line. Another is that vastly underrating your opponent, something they were guilty of four years ago against the Carolina Hurricanes, can lead to your untimely postseason demise.
The Vancouver Canucks were kind enough to provide a series worth of unbecoming behavior (biting, diving, tire pumping and enough skullduggery that forced the entire country of Canada to hate them, among other things) in the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago.
But the biggest lesson learned by the Bruins at any point in their Stanley Cup playoff was three years ago when they had a 3-0 lead on the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-seven playoff series, and watched it melt away in one of the biggest postseason collapses in NHL history. Some guys, like Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand to name a couple, weren’t on that particular Bruins team, though the Nose Face Killah was one of the Black Aces practicing with the team.
But the majority of players on this year’s edition of the Bruins were on that Boston team that dropped four straight playoff games to the Flyers, and they’d know if that helpless feeling started overtaking them again. Milan Lucic is fully aware the Bruins missed a Black and Golden chance when they couldn’t close out the Leafs Friday night while holding a 3-1 advantage in the series.
In the playoffs against quality opponents in postseason life-or-death situations, it can be a slim margin between winning and losing.
But No. 17 also knows the Bruins aren’t about to fold like a timid poker player in their series against Toronto, and that it’s a completely different feel for a veteran B’s club fending off a young, hungry, surprising Maple Leafs group.
“It's a part of the learning process as a player, as a person and as a team. [To] not take anything for granted. You look at the situation [in Game 5] and it's almost like we did take it for granted. Thankfully we're still up in the series.
You go back to how we played in the year after against Philadelphia, and how we had that opportunity to close them out. We made no mistakes again and closed them out.”
The Bruins were so authoritative in their four game sweep of the Flyers the following season that it spurred on the trades of Mike Richard and Jeff Carter that ultimately changed the fortunes of both the franchises in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
But the season before it was a dislocated wrist injury to David Krejci, caused on an open ice hit by Richards that started an avalanche of momentum Boston was powerless to stop.
"That year in 2010 was almost like a snowball effect," said Lucic. "They won in overtime, and then they came in here and won 4-0. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and we couldn't stop it. I think in this case, especially the way [Friday's] game ended and the way we played in the third period, we realize that we didn't have the best start.
“We kind of waited to see what they were going to do, and then kind of played like a deer caught in the headlights. If we can come out like we did at the end of last game, we're giving ourselves a chance to win.”
Lucic is talking about the final 20 minutes of Game 5 when the Bruins outshot the Maple Leafs by a 19-4 margin, and continued to show they can dominate a suspect Leafs defensemen corps and averaged goaltender when the mood finally strikes them. The match-up continues to favor the Black and Gold, and there’s been no tide-changing moment like the predatory Richards hit on Krejci that altered the DNA of the playoff series preceding the collapse.
That series has contributed heavily to the 3-7 record under Claude Julien that the Bruins currently hold in non-Game 7 elimination games, those playoff games when they have a chance to close out an opponent without their own playoff lives on the line. They’ll have another one of those on Sunday night against the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre, and another chance to prove they have what it takes to snuff out a lesser opponent making it difficult for them.
“That has been a challenge for us in the past…closing out series. We know that, and we’re aware of that. But at the same time, the strength of our team has also been to bounce back from adversity and situations like that,” said Claude Julien. “As much as yesterday was proof of it, hopefully tomorrow’s the proof of the other side: that we are capable of bouncing back and playing the type of game we need to [in order to] close the series off.”
The Bruins proved during their 2011 Stanley Cup run that they were once and forever over the Great Philadelphia Collapse of 2010, and did so while winning three different Game 7’s in a show of their steely resolve in the clutch earned through some hard lessons. They’ll get another chance on Sunday night in front of a raucous, hungry Toronto crowd to show their playoff education over the last six years wasn’t learned in vain.
The Leafs are waiting on a Bruins team looking to hammer home a playoff point that they know how to close in such situations, and Toronto continues to root around looking to mask their weaknesses in enthusiasm and some pretty impressive offensive skill. Unfortunately for the Leafs, that’s not the kind of combo likely to ground down a Cup-hardened Bruins team in a playoff series.