Bruins failed to learn the lesson…

It seems like I barely was able to supplant the bitter disappointment of puck ricocheting off of Scott Walker’s shin and slipping past Tim Thomas in OT of game 7, with the elation of the 2010 Bruins team using their current playoff run as the final answer to the lofty pre-season expectations because the inevitable happened in the world of a Bruins fan…I woke up.  It was not the dream ending I had hoped for, in fact it is an absolute nightmare.  The Bruins entered this season on the heels of  a long and miserable offseason that had many believing that the young squad that had taken the Carolina Hurricanes for granted in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in ’09 had learned a valuable lesson, and would be twice as focused on their pursuit of the NHL’s holy grail in 2010.  There was a palpable excitement to start the season, one filled with so much anticipation and promise.

The Bruins returned a solid core of players, led by the reigning Vezina, Norris, and Adams trophy winners. However after a lackluster opening season loss at the hands of the Capitals it was plain, this team was missing the grit and team chemistry that fueled its improbable run to the top of the Eastern Conference a year ago.  Then came the injuries, just as it would seem the team would start to get some traction another critical cog would need to be replaced.  Win one, lose one, the roller coaster ride was making fans edgy and understandably so, this was supposed to be another step forward in the rebuilding process, and for each step forward there was a step back; the Bruins it seemed were treading water waiting for the Winter Classic.

Surely the electric atmosphere of Fenway Park and a dramatic come from behind OT win would jump start the season…alas, it seemed only to send the team into a vicious downward spiral ending with a winless month of torment.  They played listless hockey, bumbling at times, seemingly skating with a total absence of purpose or direction.  It was not the lack of wins that infuriated so many, it was the team’s lack of passion, their missing heart.  Maybe the Olympic break would be what the team needed to get refocused and re-energized for a late season push, as the hope for even a spot in the playoffs for this team filled with such promise was beginning to slip from their grasp.

The Olympics were a shot of confidence for one struggling Bruin, David Krejci. Krejci was blessed with creative and intuitive line mates who could skate, find seams, and capitalize on his puck possession play.  He returned to the Bruins a game changing presence, and when finally unbound from the shackles of Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler good things began to happen for the young centerman, and Bruins.  If fans thought the dark days of January would be the worst thing they would need to endure this season Matt Cooke made it seem like a fleeting memory.  As Marc Savard layed motionless on the ice U2 played in the background at Mellon Arena, and the stunned Bruins seemed resigned to let the universe continue to swallow them whole.  Patrice Bergeron barked at a disinterested Sidney Crosby, and the officials shrugged, Colin Campbell hid behind past mistakes, and a Bruins team only a year removed from an all-for-one, one-for-all biggest, baddest, mothers on skates approach hid behind the all too predictable “we tried to win the game” excuse.

The fans called into radio shows, tweeted, and blogged, begging for action, for recourse, for justice, for some sign of HEART from their beloved Bruins.  After all, the real Bruins, the teams that defined the Black and Gold in the 60’s, 70, 80’s and 90’s would never have allowed this to pass.  Had Cooke ever hit Oates, Hodge, Cashman, or Janney like that he would have been on the next stretcher off the ice.  The Bruins faithful waited patiently as the Pens came to town, surely Cooke would have to pay the ferry man, two points be damned!  Well the Bruins flushed the two points down the toilet, and Cooke answered the Shawn Thornton’s dance request, and after an unsatisfying fracas the Bruins went back to auditioning for Disney on Ice.  The thud that was heard surely had to be the Bruins FINALLY reaching rock bottom from this free fall…

Bruins fans were embarrassed, humiliated by the lack of character and heart shown by their team.  Only Bergeron, Mark Recchi, and Tuukka Rask seemed to “show” on a nightly basis, and with the end of the season facing them like an on coming train, fans could not even revel in a “moral” victory that the Bruins had rallied for a fallen teammate.  Then a spark, a hard earned win at MSG, taking a complete team effort, Krejci catching fire, and new addition Dennis Seidenberg raised his game, tallying helpers and filling the void of any form of offensive contribution from the back end.  Bergeron and Recchi continued to grind and find a way to elevate their team on sheer will alone.  Just when it looked like the Bruins might be finding some traction they get struck by Lightening at home and despite throwing 50 shots on goal, played an undisciplined game and got run out of their own building.

All aboard the Yankee Cannonball roller coaster as the B’s used 3 straight power play goals to extinguish the Flames playoff hopes and then an NHL record 3 short-handed goals on a single kill to shut the door on the scrappy Thrashers.  The regular season finale in Washington was a harbinger of doom for the Capitals,as on National TV they decide to dress all their regulars, and the prospect of Alex Ovechkin capturing the scoring title had Gary Bettman beaming.  The Bruins fought and clawed and invisible entities Michael Ryder and Marco Sturm lit the lamp and Tim Thomas seemed determined to make sure Ovi left the Verizon Center empty handed.  It was a 180 degree flip from their opener with the Capitals, and Bruins would be seeded as high as 6th for their march to the Cup.

Rask had put the Bruins on his shoulders during their late season run and with show stopping saves, and poise beyond his years between the pipes, bailed out his struggling dmen, and late arriving back checkers on virtually a nightly basis.  He made anemic scoring efforts stand-up as wins, and stole points with late game and overtime stops, but how would he do in a playoff showdown with the best goalie in the world?  The Bruins beat the Sabres in every facet of the game, and although the series took one game more than it should have, they closed Buffalo out with a smothering forecheck, opportunistic goal scoring, and the devil himself, Miro Satan stuck his pitchfork in their heart and danced the “Slovakian Dance of Joy” on their grave.  Meanwhile, two other Eastern Conference foes who had also been playing playoff hockey for the last month of the season, Montreal and Philadelphia, gift wrapped for the Bruins, and their fans a dream scenario.  The top seeded Capitals were eliminated, and they would face the Flyers NOT Penguins in the next round.

Giddy Bruins fans with dreams of a return to the Eastern Conference finals flooded the airwaves, the interwebz, and the Garden.  The Bruins were about to redeem themselves for a painful and regular season of unfulfilled promise.  The Garden was bursting with emotion, as fans who had not dared to believe were faced with an improbable situation; the Bruins, the only team in round one who was undefeated at home would have home ice advantage against the hated Flyers, whom they had not faced in the post season since the era of the Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Bruins.  In game 1 the Bruins let 3 two goal leads slip through their fingers, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come in this series.  However on this afternoon Marc Savard would have his fairy tale moment, burying the puck top shelf on Brian Boucher and sending the Garden into an absolute frenzy.

The hockey gods were finally with the Bruins, you could feel it, this was their moment! The Bruins were gaining momentum, all of the pre-season predictions were coming true, this would be their year to take the next step.  Bruins fans could hardly contain themselves, until Zdeno Chara’s pass left Krejci entirely exposed at center ice in game 3.  Krejci made the pass and took the hit, the Bruins scored the goal, but the hockey gods it seemed were no longer holding the Black and Gold in their favor.  Krejci left the ice, and while the Bruins went on to win the game most long time Bruins fans would tell you there was a pall cast at that moment, and suddenly the invincible Bruins were fragile again.  It was as if Mike Richards had delivered a hit that jarred the Bruins so severely that they were transported back to January 2010.

In game 4 the Bruins had their chance as they fought back on the road and in the waning seconds Recchi scored on a roof job to send the game to OT.  The Bruins did not attack in the game 4 OT the way they had swarmed in Gm 1 and the first chink in the rookie netminder’s armor appeared as he could not steal the game for the Bruins.

The Bruins returned to home ice for game 5. Not unlike the series with the Sabres the B’s had missed out on a chance to close out a series on the road, but a raucous Garden fully believed that destiny was at hand.  The ghosts were evoked, with the 40th anniversary of “the Goal” and Orr’s statue unveiled, any Bruins fan over the age of 40 knew it was do-or-die for the Bruins.  There would not be a better chance to end this series, and after 20 minutes it was apparent to all those not watching through rose colored glasses, the series was all but over, and the Bruins were not going to advance.  The Bruins team who had played the role of the Tin Man all season, had returned and their lack of heart would prove to be their fatal flaw.

The team that had taken the sucker punch from Scott Walker a year ago, turned the other cheek, only to see him end their story book season had supposedly “learned a lesson: never take anything for granted”.  When faced with adversity during the regular season the echo could often be heard from tapping on their empty chests.  This team did not hate to lose and they did not show their teeth or wield their claws to defend their teammates, nor their turf.  With a return to Boston for game 7, there was an air of tension and a fan base on edge.  Would the Bruins allow themselves to become the butt of every choke joke, would they humiliate themselves and their fans, or would they rise to grasp victory and ascend to the ECF to face Original 6 foe Montreal in an epic playoff clash?

I wasn’t even home from work and the Bruins were up 3-0, I was getting text messages, blackberry messages, and tweets of joy from family and friends who know I live for this team.  I am a sports fan, but I love the Bruins, they are my team.  As I listened to Dave Gaucher and Bob Beers  on my commute home their analysis of Philly’s late first period goal made my heart sink.  The Bruins were losing their grip on the game, and it was far from over.  I walked in the house to start the second period and within moments I prepared for the crash; Rask was scrambly, the Bruins were disjointed, and the Flyers were buoyed by the B’s impending collapse.  The Bruins had not learned the lesson that the Flyers were not going to roll over, this was the playoffs, no team leaves without a fight.

The third period reminded all Bruins fans how cruel the hockey gods can be, only one team lives with the curse of Too Many Men on the Ice in their lore, and the 33rd time this playoff season the penalty was called it would once again be a dagger in the collective heart of the Bruins fans.  As soon as it was called we all knew it would be the defining moment for a team who had risen and fallen with the tide of expectations this season.  The best penalty kill in the playoffs would need to kill off a penalty bore out of lack of discipline and attention to detail; the soul sapping kind of penalty which almost always results in a goal.  That is why it is a most fitting fate for this Bruins season to end as a result of their own lack of focus, absence of urgency, and failure to rise above expectations.  The rookie goalie was out dueled by two back-ups, the reigning Norris trophy winner was outplayed by a pair of Philly blue liners, a mid-season replacement coach found a way to galvanize his team when the Adams trophy winner lost the ear of his troops; in the end it played out the way the Stanley Cup Playoffs do, the grittiest team advances.

For the Bruins fans who are not left feeling empty or disappointed, I do wish I was not as jaded by past failures, or lofty expectations for my team.  Yes, there were injuries, there always are in the playoffs, but the team that raises the silver chalice always finds a way to persevere.  As for the “given how the regular season went they are luck to get as far as they did” set; the regular season is meaningless once the second season starts, ask Washington and Pittsburgh, the ONLY thing that matters is being the first team to FOUR wins each round.

The Bruins could not have been dealt a better hand in the post season, and when the Flyers went “all-in” they had the temerity to fold.  Yes, I know it is just a game, and the sun rose on Saturday, and it was a beautiful day!! I am just wishing, hoping, and longing for the magical season when the team that wears the Black and Gold learns the price to raise the cup is to pour their heart and soul on the ice in April, May, and June with the singular goal of refusing to fail.  The shoulder shrugs, and the “we tried”, “we were close”, “we didn’t get the bounces”, “we learned a valuable lesson”, quotes have gotten stale for me as a fan, and it is far too bitter a pill to swallow quietly any longer. What I want to hear is “we failed, our fans deserve better and talk is cheap and we will prove it next season” and then I want to see on the ice the team that this city and its fans scattered around the globe deserve; a blue collar, nail spitting machine that lives for the challenge of raising the cup, and plays every game as if it were game 7.

It will be a long summer for me as a Bruins fan, and no, I am in no way taking any solace in having the number two pick in the draft, when I watch Montreal and Philadelphia face-off in the ECF.  I believed!! No one can tell me we didn’t have the skill or the players necessary to be playing in the next round, we were missing something much bigger and more important, and as a fan I feel cheated.  Take a look across the draw and see Hal Gill, in his second consecutive ECF with a DIFFERENT team.  Gill haters were quick to point to his Cup ring and tell him to thank Sid and Geno, maybe it was the other way around.  There are a dozen of those stories on the four teams remaining in the fight for glory. The Bruins had the desire of Recchi, the perseverance of Bergeron, the poise of Rask, but it was not enough.  As a fan, all I can do is hope that over the long summer the Bruins players themselves will use the bitter disappointment of what could have been to fuel their hunger to lift the Cup.  I’ll cling to the same hope as I have since ’72, and come October I’ll again don my Bruins gear, and lift my voice to the rafters with a full heart … and hope…2010-11 will be the year of the bear!

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About the Author: NHL Blogger, a fan of the Boston Bruins for 40 years, mom to the famous/notorious Bruins dog blogger, The Pup. The Pup is a savvy hockey dog in search of cookies (the jar is on the top shelf).

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