It’s amazing now to think that things could have gone so incredibly different for the Boston Bruins.
Almost a month ago, the Bruins were grappling with the scary notion that their season might be over. They were about to blow a 3-1 lead to the upstart Maple Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and everybody was aware there would be serious organizational ramifications if the Black and Gold fell in the first round for the second year in a row.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Bruins oblivion.
An experienced group of Boston skaters stepped away from the ledge, and decided they wanted to live on for a little bit longer in these Stanley Cup playoffs. They knew they didn’t want to go out like first-round wannabees.
Now they’re the hottest team still alive in the playoffs, and looking more and more like they're the former Cup champs ready to taste immortality again. Winners of seven of their last eight playoff games and outscoring opponents by a 29-11 margin since the start of the third period of that fateful Game 7 versus Toronto, it appears that making hockey history while coming back from three goals down against the Leafs has made all the difference in the world.
“Our team is really playing good hockey right now, without a doubt the best we’ve had this year,” said coach Claude Julien. “That has to continue to beat [the Penguins].”
The Game 7 comeback win has been the turning point of the playoffs for the Black and Gold, and looks like it will be the pivotal moment for the Bruins if they go on to bigger and better things.
“We definitely got a lot of confidence coming back and winning that Toronto series,” admitted Milan Lucic, who more than anybody else embodied the refusal to lose in the third period and overtime of that seminal victory.
“We also created some momentum from that, and we’ve been riding the momentum ever since then. We’re going to need to keep pushing harder if we want to go further.
“It’s the focus of our team. Our mindset got away from us in those Toronto games. You don’t want to take anything for granted, and especially against a team like [Pittsburgh]. You know they’re fully capable of taking that series, so you need to do whatever you can to keep coming out hard every night.”
The Bruins had two choices coming out of that cathartic, historic and highly improbable comeback against the Leafs: They could have flat-lined emotionally and continued their regular season pattern of inconsistency, or they could draw energy and inspiration from the win, touching the greatness their team has always been capable of.
Players who were wondering what was going to happen to them once the season was over instead became fully invested in the Bruins' playoff run, and every individual in the locker room was intent on having the backs of the guys around him.
Once that galvanizing moment had transpired, the Bruins showed the same kind of offensive punch, defensive strength and elite goaltending that’s made them one of the NHL’s most successful organizations over the last six years.
“I really think after Game 7 against Toronto, it was such a big comeback for us, it always seems to take something to really get the team really to gel and then to believe. That was a real big turning point for us,” Julien said.
“From there on in, I thought against the Rangers we played some really good hockey as well. They’re a team that was gritty and was going to give us a lot of hard work to compete against. They did that; there was no quit in that team.
“That just helped us get better. We know what Pittsburgh represents and we haven’t lost faith in what we can do, but also we haven’t lost track of what they can do as well. They’re a potent scoring team and we’ve got to make sure we stay on top of our game . . . it’s as simple as that.”
Clearly, the Bruins need to keep pounding away at the soft, weak defensive underbelly of the Penguins, and take care of business in the conference finals. It’s difficult to see an experienced group of Boston skaters blowing things against the Penguins after humbling them in the first two games in Pittsburgh, difficult to see anything but another Cup Finals berth on tap for a Black and Gold team seemingly ready to embrace greatness.
A sweep of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Boston home ice would be the kind of audacious playoff statement that would capture the imagination of everyone across the NHL. Even better, if they prove their Stanley Cup mettle again this season, that might finally once and for all quiet some of the local critics that have dogged the Bruins during six straight seasons of playoff-worthy hockey.
But all of that goodness depends on the Bruins showing the same grit, tenacity and unwillingness to bend that allowed them to come back from hockey death in Game 7 against the Leafs.
This is one humble hockey writer that doesn’t foresee that as much of a problem for the hottest hockey team in the land.