By Joe Haggerty
TAMPA Its difficult to ignore the plain fact that the Boston Bruins are two measly wins away from a date in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Black and Gold havent graced the Finals since 1990 when they fell to the Edmonton Oilers and Glen Wesleys missed overtime open net morphed into a symbol of Boston futility on par with Bill Buckners botched grounder and the sight of William The Refrigerator Perry spiking the ball in the Super Bowl.
But things are different now in sports-drunk Boston, and the Bruins hope its different for them this time as they stand perilously near the doorway to hockey greatness.
The room full of Bruins are not stupid men, and theyre not foolhardy enough to think Tampa is going to submit without a struggle.
The Bs certainly are not oblivious to their situation even if Bs enforcer Shawn Thornton refuses to let the word Cup escape his lips in casual conversation.
Better than most, the Bruins understand what its like to count hockey chickens before things are hatched, and treating an opponent as deceased after only a couple of decisive wins.
Youve got to take everything one step at a time, one game at a time and one win at a time, said Lucic. You cant really look too far ahead. Weve always worked best when weve focused on the present and stayed with the task at hand. This is a huge opportunity for us. These chances dont come around very often.
You talk to guys like Zdeno Chara, who is in his 13th year in the league and this is only his second time here. Mark Recchi has been in the league 22 years and its his fifth time. It sounds like a lot, but it really isnt. Youve got to go out there, enjoy it and say with no regrets that you did everything you could to move forward.
Its true the Bruins stunned and overpowered the Tampa Bay Lighting with their layered interior defense in Game Three, and Tim Thomas finally looked like he was again playing with energy, awareness and a healthy level of defiance in his eyes.
Those are the staples of Bruins hockey in their current incarnation, and the biggest reasons why Tampa really has a big uphill climb.
The addition of the defensively adept, indescribably valuable Patrice Bergeron to Bostons lineup for Game Three had to be disheartening for the Bolts as well.
But the Bs know theyll be taking Tampas fiercest punch on Saturday afternoon when Guy Boucher whips his team into a desperate frenzy on their home ice at the St. Pete Times Forum.
There are even whispers in the Lightning room about what happened to the Bruins against the Flyers last season, and the feeling among some in the Tampa room they can pull a similar reversal this season.
Right now Boston was in this position last year and they kind of dropped the ball, said Tampa big body forward Ryan Malone.
The Bolts will be fighting for their lives to keep from falling behind 3-1 in the series with the seven game series returning to TD Garden, and once again the Bruins need only look at their own recent history for inspiration.
The Bs closed out a limping, lame Flyers unit in four games, but its going to be a more challenging proposition to keep Marty St. Louis, Steve Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier under wraps in two more dominant performances. Team leaders like Chara, Recchi, Bergeron, Lucic, Andrew Ference, Thomas and David Krejci all lived through last years playoff misery, and they understand that awful, empty feeling.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli put together this Bruins team with a mix of conscientious, accepting veteran voices that also burn with a fiery compete level. Now is the perfect time where talent, experience, age and motivation are all in alignment for Stanley Cup dreams to come true in Boston, and those veteran Bruins are fully aware of the stakes.
The atmosphere within the room and the atmosphere within the organization over the last run of years that started when Claude Julien came is that its been consistent, said Andrew Ference. That consistency is a huge advantage for any team. You have a core group of players with a certain approach and certain attitude toward the game and you have that year after year after year allows you to build on the good things and learn from the mistakes or series past.
Patrice Bergeron is a solid player and he really fits into exactly that mold of what the coach and the GM are trying to build here: consistency, showing up every night and good, honest hockey. Thats what the Bruins were made up of back in the day when they were successful. Thats what theyve been trying to build up over the last few years.
Recchi and Thornton stand as the only Bruins players that have hoisted the Cup over their heads in their NHL careers prior to arriving in Boston.
For many of the current players on Bostons roster, this season represents the best chance theyll ever have at kissing the Cup.
There is going to be plenty of talk about the hot goaltender, exploiting Tampas weak interior defense and breaking through the Boucher 1-3-1 trap once Game Four begins in earnest Saturday afternoon and there is absolutely a technical side to the Xs and Os of hockey that must be achieved if victory will be awarded o the Bruins.
But the bigger question is whether the Bruins have learned enough lessons over the last three years to crunch a worthy Eastern Conference adversary thats been stunned by the Seguin Show and a suffocating defensive effort on its heels.
There has been no shortage of heart and courage in a full regular season for the Bruins, but theyll need equally preposterous levels of both if they hope to get those two more wins that will transport them to the NHLs promised land.