By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON There are turning points to every hockey season in both the "good" and "bad" departments.
There are, of course, high points when a team is flowing with confidence, churning forward with unstoppable momentum. Its easy to succeed and flourish in those moments when the team has its chest puffed out and everything is developing according to plan.
That's where the Bruins were when they ripped off a seven-game winning streak on a road trip through Western Canada at the end of February.
But there are also nadirs that plague even the most dominant of teams. The Bruins had their fair share of those adverse moments, as well, in a season in which they eventually finished with their second Northeast Division title in the last three years.
Lets point to a couple of the major highs and lows of the season, and also the key turning point that might have helped change things:
There was a couple of listless losses in mid-December to Buffalo and Montreal that left Bruins president Cam Neely unimpressed with what he was watching on the ice. The Bs head honcho openly wondered on the radio if his team was trying to win hockey games 0-0.
With whispers that Claude Juliens job security was in danger, the team was put in an early position to prove itself after a promising start coming back from Prague. Shawn Thornton fought and scored two goals against the Atlanta Thrashers in perhaps his greatest NHL performance.
That was the first indication that this edition of the Bruins was blessed with more poise and depth than its predecessors, and had a real opportunity to journey deeper into the postseason than it had in the last three years.
The common denominator for me is that the players are calm, general manager Peter Chiarelli said when asked what was the difference in his team this season. Youd see some frenzy here and there, but players would get past the frenzy and settle things down. We stressed going into the Flyers series that you see this quiet confidence and you want to bottle it and display it.
I thought we showed it against the Canadiens in the opening round. Weve won overtime games and thats really got to be considered the highest pressure point when it comes to the playoffs. There were times we had defensive breakdowns, but I saw guys settling pucks down and finding seams for breakout plays. Thats been growing as things go along.
There was more, though.
The Bruins suffered a hideous defeat in early January at the Bell Centre, squandering a two-goal lead in the final minutes and eventually losing in a Max Pacioretty overtime goal. Paciorettys impetuous actions toward Zdeno Chara after the goal led to an enraged shoving match between the Bruins' captain and the Montreal power forward.
The Bruins were both enraged and embarrassed by that game, and concerned they once frittered away a two-goal lead in the final minutes of a game.
So the team gathered in Pittsburgh for a Sunday practice at the CONSOL Energy Center and talked about burying the bad feelings and tendency to run around late in games. The next night the Bruins engineered one of two epic third-period comebacks against the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins, and immediately forced itself back on track with a show of heart and willingness to work.
The Bruins scored four third-period goals in that game to wipe out a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead.
The Bruins squeezed in a couple of fight-filled games against the Dallas Stars and the Habs that finally put to bed questions about their toughness and heart that had Larry Brooks, of all people, writing poison-pen columns about their unwillingness to stand up for each other.
It may not have been a coincidence the Brooks column and those two pugilistic pieces of hockey paradise happened within the same week. The two games were another chance to show that the Bruins were unfairly labeled as a soft team unwilling to protect each other after Marc Savard was the victim of a Matt Cooke cheap shot elbow a season earlier.
That criticism stung, and sometimes the hard times, losses and vitriolic responses are the things that teams learn the most from.
Thats perhaps why one last ugly defeat at the end of this season might just have been the tipping point for this season when it comes to the holiday success the Black and Gold members are enjoying now.
The Bruins were wrapping up the end of the regular season with an April 4 game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Bs had basically wrapped up the Northeast Division title, but the Rangers were a team the Bruins might face in the playoffs.
There were things to play for in Bostons case, as the top seeds hadnt been locked in, and the Bruins had played that way over the first 30 minutes while building up a 3-0 lead. Things looked good and the lead appeared iron-clad against a Rangers team struggling for offense. But it all fell apart in a theme that was all too familiar last year.
The defense shriveled, Tim Thomas started getting antsy around his cage as the defensemen started breaking down and the forwards looked shell-shocked once theyd lost control of the game. The result was five straight New York goals and a 5-3 loss.
Anytime youre up and you have a game or a situation under control, to give it up is such a bad feeling, said Brad Marchand. Weve been through it before and weve got through it on the other side before. We dont want to let anything slip or slide.
The biggest thing I remember from that Rangers game is guys saying afterward, If we play like this in the playoffs then were gonna get killed. You cant play like that and let leads slide like that. We were playing bad defensively and we were playing bad offensively too. There was a lot of talk after that game that if we play like that in the playoffs were just going to get run over. "
The image of the loss was Tomas Kaberle blindly assuming Ryan Callahan was going to dump the puck behind the net, and then vacating the front of the net while basically paving a golden road for Brandon Dubinsky to pot the game-tying goal with nobody around him.
It was the kind of game that -- 10 days prior to the playoffs -- set off all kinds of warnings bells and danger whistles so close to the postseason, and was a firm reminder of how quickly things can fall apart as the Bruins lost the lead with less than four minutes to go in the game.
It was good that it happened in the regular season, said Johnny Boychuk. There are no excuses when it comes down to the playoffs. I hadnt really thought it about much at all until you mentioned it, but at the time it was one of these.
Boychuk then proceeded to make a slapping motion with his hand back and forth to signify the wakeup call that the Bruins received that night on the Madison Square Garden ice.
Several Bruins players in recent days have pointed to the heated exchange in the MSG visitors dressing room following that April loss as one of the most important moments of the season.
The anger and frustration was very real in a game some on the outside thought didnt really matter. One Bruin painted the picture: Every player in the room had something to say and the playoffs were very much on the minds of everyone. The pit in the stomach of every player in the room was very real, and was all too similar to the "What the hell just happened?" feeling after frittering away a Game Seven lead against the Flyers the year before.The B's were doomed to repeat hockeyhistory if they didn't start learning from it.
I remember it absolutely. It kind of felt like exactly what happened against the Flyers in the playoffs. It felt exactly like it, said one Bs player that lived through both experiences. Guys were saying We cant have this happen. This is unacceptable. If this was Game 7 of the playoffs then that would be totally unacceptable. If its like that then itll be just like last year against the Flyers and we cant ever let that happen again. "
Perhaps the Bruins never would have had enough to get by that pressure cooker of a first round series against Montreal if they hadnt stepped into a trap against the Rangers last month. Nobody will ever know for sure, but the Bruins seem awfullyglad to be upat this point up 3-0 in the series.