BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins have shown two different sides in this lockout-shortened, 48-game season.
Prior to the playoffs they seemed disinterested at times and almost sapped of emotion . . . something that can happen with a veteran team that’s tasted winning at the highest levels.
But now they're displaying what happens when a group of established, Cup-hardened veterans who were simply going through the paces ratchets things up in the postseason.
In taking a 3-1 lead in their first-round series against the Maple Leafs -- and winning consecutive games against a playoff team for the first time since Feb. 26-28 (Islanders and Senators)-- the Bruins have finally shown exactly what everyone came to expect from this nucleus of champions.
The sneering, physical skaters who are counted on to set the emotional tone have been there on a nightly basis: Milan Lucic is punishing opponents and making key plays with the puck, and Brad Marchand is whispering not-so-sweet nothings into the ear of goal-scoring savant Phil Kessel, while getting squarely into his head. And the skill players are stepping up, too: David Krejci is back to being a dominant, playmaking force who suddenly becomes the second coming of Pavel Datsyuk in the playoffs, and his line is carrying the Bruins offense in the first round.
“Krejci’s line is, no doubt, the dominant line, I think that’s the biggest thing,” said coach Claude Julien. “We saw that -- I feel like I’m repeating myself -- a few years back when I thought [Chris] Kelly, [Rich] Peverley and [Michael] Ryder were a dominant [line] in the Montreal series, and then other lines picked it up afterwards.
“At the end of the day, it’s a matter of always having somebody doing something to help us win hockey games and, so far, that’s what’s been happening.”
The Bruins coach is repeating himself because he, along with everybody else, is seeing a lot of the same things out of his team that people saw two years ago in the playoffs.
Tuukka Rask is holding strong behind a defense that’s making attackers pay the price in the defensive zone, and his .932 save percentage puts him in the same neighborhood with the other goalies advancing to the second round. The Bruins' aggressive style has forced Toronto’s defense into a host of series-altering mistakes; Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser and Jake Gardiner have the four highest turnover totals in the entire playoffs.
The Bruins have admittedly been pushed by the Maple Leafs in a hard, clean playoff kind of way, but that’s exactly what they needed.
“As much as our opponents have been really good and given us a real good challenge, I’m also proud of the way our guys have handled themselves. They’ve done a great job,” said Julien. “We’ve found ways to win, we’ve blocked shots, we’ve taken our bumps and bruises like everybody else and we’ve just gone about our business.
“We understand that we’re the ones that may be a little bit more under the microscope because of who we are and what we’ve accomplished. That’s why [we should] give our guys credit . . . for handling that situation extremely well.”
There were plenty of laments last season that if the Bruins could have somehow squeezed their way through the first round against Washington, they could have gathered momentum to stave away the Stanley Cup hangover haze. That may or may not be true, but what is true is that the B's had to kicking themselves watching the unheralded New Jersey Devils make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals once teams like Boston and Pittsburgh were eliminated from the Eastern Conference equation.
This year, with the Canadiens already out and the Penguins getting all they can handle from the New York Islanders, things could “part like the Red Sea” for the Black and Gold, to borrow a catchphrase Julien used to pick apart the defense of Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg in Game 2.
The Bruins will be buoyed by the scent of the Stanley Cup once they get into the second round, and they’re showing that they once again have the stomach, heart and brains to pay the price this spring. Many people viewed the B’s as the Eastern Conference’s sleeping giant given their experience, toughness and talent, with 17 players back from the Cup team of two years ago. That Black and Gold giant snored through a good chunk of the 2013 regular season, but they’re awake now and ready to prove that winning three Game 7’s two years ago wasn’t a fluke.
It will take good health, of course, and a fair number of bounces like the ones they earned in Game 4 through dogged determination. But teams with playoff-hardened vets like Johnny Boychuk, willing to eat a puck rather than give up a goal when his leg gives out, end up in the winner's circle when a playoff series is over.
"So far, our guys have been pretty good warriors," remarked Julien.
That's important because it will take a bunch of warriors to close out the young and hungry Maple Leafs, who've proven worthy while also clearly battling some serious flaws in their team’s roster construction.
But the Bruins team everybody was looking for through the season has finally made an appearance during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They are now the savvy Cup winners who know what needs to be done in order to get back to the mountaintop. After not looking like they had anything close to the right stuff to be Stanley Cup champions while slogging through the months of March and April, they’re looking more and more like they’re on the trek again.