By Mary Paoletti
You go into a Game 7 and, on the surface, things are even.
Both the Bruins and Lightning have won three games. The best-educated guess for Friday's finale is a coin flip.
But this series doesn't feel even.
Say what you want about the behavior of Bruins fans -- and I know it ain't always pretty -- but you can't say Tampa's crowd can relate. The most diehard, crazy, obsessed worshipper of the Bolts has ridden the wave for 19 years. In Boston, 19 years of fandom is a blink. There are people here who have season tickets, rabid-bear tattoos, and Bulldogs named P.J. Stock, and who would get kicked out of Sully's if they were unable to name the entire 1972 Stanley Cup roster.
And a lot of what they've endured is really, really awful.
One playoff series win from 1995 to 2009. Zero Conference finals bids since 1992. Zero Stanley Cup Finals appearances since 1990. And then there's that 39-year monster: The Cup Drought.
It tests the heartiest of fans. And it's a trial that Tampa supporters -- no matter how loyal -- can't understand. No offense intended; it's just fact. It's history.
And that's why Boston bears the heavier load tonight.
What happens if the Lightning lose? Is Guy Boucher's job in jeopardy? No. The 2010-11 NHL season was Boucher's first as a head coach. His team compiled a 46-25-11 record for the second best record in the Southeast division. The finish is dead-on for NHL's preseason estimates; the Conference Finals run exceeds expectations. The only thing Boucher has to worry about is whatever sliced his face.
And what of the fans? Will they dissolve into bitterness and cynicism? Probably not. Tampa's championship drought is more like a dry spell: Seven years. That's all. Not even one full decade of Cupless hockey. What kind of suffering is that? Not the kind that makes a fan feel jaded or hopeless. It's not the kind of franchise failure that puts a coach under the gun.
Not the way Claude Julien is.
Julien is in his eighth season as an NHL bench boss. He's won more games than he's lost (298-189-69), which is good. He's also been fired twice -- midseason by Montreal and after one year with New Jersey -- which is bad. Look at Julien's resume and you'll see a lot of red: Missed playoffs. Lost in second round. Lost in first round. Lost in second round.
Going into tonight, something else stands out: Game 7 loss to Philadelphia, Game 7 loss to Carolina, Game 7 loss to Montreal.
There is a win atop the pile, thanks to Boston's first-round bout with the Canadiens this season. No matter where you were in New England you could hear Julien's sigh of relief when the final horn sounded. But it's turned out to be like dodging a bullet only to duck into a whole new line of fire. What happens if the Bruins lose this one? Which Game 7 result do you think will matter more to the brass?
Exactly. More pressure.
Mathematics tell us that we are again at 50-50 odds. But add Boston's frustrating, fruitless history into the equation and the series doesn't feel even. Not at all.