BOSTON The Bruins wouldnt have won Friday nights epically cathartic Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning two or three years ago.
They certainly wouldnt have won it last season, when injuries and offensive ineptitude proved too formidable an obstacle.
Simon Gagne's third-period goal in Game 7 -- his version of a flying elbow off the top turnbuckle -- that completed the Bruins' historic collapse against the Flyers last season accentuated that point. But, truthfully, nobody thought the Bruins had a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup last year.
This season, the Bruins have landed in the perfectly sweet spot with their team development, and they've been able to fulfill the promise of this year while healing the wounds of yesteryears postseason flops.
I felt like from the very beginning of the season that we had some unfinished business this year, and Ive been saying it all along, said team captain Zdeno Chara. You just got the feeling that it was in here. Guys were really hungry in the playoffs, and now were just going out and showing it.
The Bruins showed their desire and revealed exactly how they're able to perform when theyre firing at full efficiency: stout and punishing defense, airtight goaltending and opportunistic offense capable of stinging even the stingiest of opponents.
It all came to a perfect crescendo when Nathan Horton banged home the only goal of the night with 7:33 to go in the third period, and the Bruins carried out a flawless Game 7 at TD Garden with a 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was a Herculean effort from Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson that stymied the Bruins attack into the third period, but Bostons unrelenting, unflappable approach eventually proved too strong.
Roloson made 37 saves on the night, but one shot off Nathan Horton's stick was the killer.
With the heartbreak from last year and the year before and with the Patriots doing it, the Red Sox doing it and the Celtics doing it, we wanted to be up in the same caliber as them, said Milan Lucic of Bostons other three sports teams capturing championships recently. I think the main thing was that we werent frustrated. Roloson made some big saves and he really robbed us. There was no coming to the bench and saying F this or F that, or guys getting frustrated with themselves.
You just felt like you had to keep going, and keep going. No matter how good he was we were just not going to stop. If you look at it, losing those Game 7s in the past probably made us stronger. Laying it on the line and playing with no regrets like we did Friday night is all about maturity.
The fact that Horton -- one of the team's new faces this season -- potted the game-winner and furthered his growing playoff reputation also perfectly illustrates that the Bruins are a different bunch this season.
But, then again, perhaps people should have already known this team was different. It was evident for those whod been examining them closely through the season.
They had shown a level of unity that only grew as the season wore on. The ultimate sign of togetherness came during the celebration after Game 7.
Chara brought the entire squad out to crowd around the Prince of Wales Trophy and accepted the Eastern Conference crown without ever once thinking about placing a Slovakian finger on the piece of hardware.
Then the players retired to a celebratory home dressing room with pumping music, and armed with hats and T-shirts that trumpeted the Black and Gold organization as Boston Bruins: 2011 Eastern Conference Champs.
None of it would have been possible without the headaches and heartache that saw the Bruins fall in Game 7 situations three straight seasons including the four-game collapse to the Philadelphia Flyers last year. That pain and dull ache for the entire summer steeled itself into resolve, courage and determination this season, and it showed as they overcame all sorts of adversity during the year.
It didnt matter if it was rumors of Claude Juliens job being in danger, Chara being chased by the Montreal police over the Max Pacioretty incident, or falling way behind in a playoff series.
The Bruins always responded to adversity during the long season, and have really made themselves impervious to just about any kind of pressure.
Pride is the biggest thing for me, said Andrew Ference, who assisted on Hortons score. Im so proud to be a part of this organization and what weve been able to build over the last few years. Even if we lost Friday night, that pride would still be there because weve come along way with building something and sticking with it.
Its a long time coming. Its a really hard league to win in, and to have heavy expectations and then to live up to them. Its a tough sports city. To have that setback in Game 6 and come out the way we did tonight, Im just really, really proud to be a part of this team.
That the Bruins have made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals since a 1990 squad smack dab in the middle of the Ray BourqueCam Neely era does a great many things for the Bruins. Not the least of which is that it validates the way Peter Chiarelli built his team as a hard-charging, hard-to-play-against bunch willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
Conventional wisdom said that great goaltenders could no longer raise their team up and take them to the Stanley Cup Finals in the new NHL because no Vezina Trophy winner had done it since Martin Brodeur.
Conventional hockey wisdom said that the Bruins couldnt dare to dance with Stanley Cup immortality when they had no game-changing offensive forwards on their roster like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg or Eric Staal.
Conventional wisdom held that Claude Julien didnt have the creativity, the resourcefulness or the chutzpah to lead a Cup-level hockey club to the finals when hed failed to take the Canadiens or the Devils to the promised land.
But the Bruins bucked conventional wisdom and instead became the third straight team to begin the season in Europe for the Premiere Games and end it as one of the two squads vying for the Stanley Cup. The Penguins and Blackhawks actually went on to win the Cup in the last two years after participating in the European season-opening showcase, and the Bruins will attempt to make themselves No. 3.
Its possible for a defensively responsible team with a good goaltender and a deep set of reasonably talented forwards to march their way to the Stanley Cup Finals and all the while overcome a power play thats successful only 8.1 percent of the time.
Its no exaggeration to say the Bruins have the worst power play of any team that ever made it to the Cup Finals, but that also underscores just how special they are in every other category that really matters.
The Bruins were among the best teams in hockey when it came to goals against average and goals scored all season long. They have the best goaltender in the world and their character has been forged through years of playing together and building toward this moment. Bostons entry into the Stanley Cup Finals against the favored Canucks isnt luck, good will or due to the residue of a fickle bounce of the puck.
The Bruins have earned their spot in the finals by building a team upward the old fashioned way: relying on hard work, using a little bit of skill, and remembering the bitter taste of past experiences.
It was a bumpy ride for the Bs, but theyve come out on the other side looking pretty, pretty good.