Sunday night, a truncated, chaotic, 48-game NHL season came to an end for the Bruins. And quite frankly, they were very lucky it wasn’t a game longer.
In a season finale that meant the difference between a Northeast Division championship and a second seed versus a fourth seed and a potential second-round showdown against the Penguins, the Bruins were outplayed down the stretch by a more committed Ottawa team. As the game drew to an unsatisfactory close, it became clear which team was playing with a playoff level of desperation and which team was still leaning on their reputation.
Memo to the Bruins: The team that hoisted the cup two years ago isn’t showing up in the third period to close out your playoff games. That team understood that to make the opposition capitulate in the third period, a mental and physical war needed to be waged in the two periods prior and then taken into the final frame. Hell, even last year’s team that ultimately stumbled against the Washington Capitals was able to stomp the life from a foe they had on the ropes.
The 2011-12 Bruins supposedly suffered from a “Stanley Cup Hangover” that included questionable tattoos, legendary bar tabs that increased Boston’s collective blood alcohol level for months, and a paucity of shirts that only a Gonkowski family function could rival. That team was still Rivera-esque in closing out games and beat teams by four or more goals 10 times in the regular season.
The Bruins championship team? They blew out their opposition by four or more seven times in the regular season and six times during a take-no-prisoners playoff run. Three of those blowouts came against a Flyers team that historically embarrassed them the year before. The other three postseason drubbings were served up in the finals against the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks, including the anti-climactic series clincher that brought the cup back to Boston and left Vancouver in smoldering ruins.
This year’s team hasn’t beaten a team by 4 goals once. Not once. It’s blown more late leads than Dan Shaughnessy’s dream Red Sox bullpen. It’s a team that was lucky its fast start was enough to let them limp to a fourth seed. With the exception of the goaltenders, who, during contract years, fought brilliantly for the starter's role, the rest of this team seemed listless and content to see if past accomplishments and reputation alone were enough to win games.
Reputations might be enough to get some members of this roster a piece of secondary hardware from a C-list celeb at the NHL’s post season awards gala. But those reputations won’t win you a single shift in the postseason, let alone the one trophy that matters in this league. You need a team willing pay the price that the NHL’s postseason tournament demands.
But you also need a bit of luck. If you remember, Claude Julien, Peter Chiarelli and large portions of this roster for that matter, were a Zdeno Chara skate or Michael Ryder glove save from a first-round loss to Montreal and the need to update their Linkedin profiles. Breaks were needed to fall that team’s way, but again, it was a team committed enough to manufacture breaks on their own. They were never too tired or worn out to pay the price that winning in the postseason required. And they rarely made excuses or were allowed to feel sorry for themselves for the schedule, injuries, or anything else.
But while this year’s team currently seems to lack the constitution to fabricate enough good fortune to escape the second round, it got the two biggest breaks of the playoffs without even stepping on the ice.
The first break for this team was the season coming to an end. Again this team was lucky the season was only 48 games long. Thirty-four more games could have led to the kind of epic collapse that makes Magic Johnson a trade partner. An end to the season and a new beginning in the playoffs will hopefully refocus this team on another Duck Boat parade.
And the second break was the opponent they drew in the first round: The Toronto Maple Leafs.
This is a team that is both on and off the ice a tailor-made postseason fluffer for the Bruins.
Off the ice, the Toronto media is already suffocating the Leafs. A decade-long playoff drought has the press swarming the Bruins' Original Six brethren. They weren’t done painting playoff logos on the ice and the eternally-photogenic Phil Kessel was approaching a level of awkwardness usually reserved for “You are/are not the father!” episodes of Maury Povich. An early series hole and the media frenzy that would follow could crush this team’s will.
But it’s on the ice where the Bruins really hit the jackpot, because the Maple Leafs offer an antidote for almost every issue currently plaguing this B’s squad.
The aforementioned Kessel, the Leafs top scorer, is a statistical ghost against his old team. A re-dedication to the Bruins trademark withering fore-check should provide shaky Maple Leaf defenders with more than enough opportunities for their share of turnovers. And the Toronto goaltenders, James Reimer or Josh Scrivens, shouldn’t be a threat to steal games and might be just leaky enough to instill some confidence in the Bruins currently anemic offense.
But most fortunate is that the Leafs play the kind of aggressive, physical, on-edge brand of hockey that should be just the thing to once again stoke the emotional and physical fire of the Bruins. There will be ample opportunity for the B’s to rediscover the fire, grit and menace a Cup contender needs against a team that’s captained by Dion Phanuef and gives Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Mark Fraser regular ice time. There isn’t another team the Bruins could have drawn in the first round that would provide a better spiritual springboard for a long postseason run.
The Bruins may not have deserved good fortune of this magnitude with the way they played out their season, but for whatever reason the Hockey Gods have thrown them a blue and white bone right before the playoffs. My advice to this year’s Bruins team is not to waste this golden ticket to the second round and use it as an opportunity to make playoff reputations of their own.
My advice to the Maple Leafs is much simpler: Don’t Poke the Bear . . . because it just might wake up.