April 26, 2012

Early exit a 'shocking' experience for Bruins

By Jesse Connolly

BOSTON -- For 39 long years, the only feeling the Boston Bruins and their loyal fans knew was disappointment come playoff time. Year after year, the Black and Gold fell short of every hockey team's ultimate goal. And then, along came came 2011.

A magical run that began with their playoff lives in early peril against the hated Habs ended with a triumph over the Vancouver Canucks on June 15 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, as the B's put a much-needed end to a championship drought that spanned nearly four decades.

Given how rare repeating has become in the NHL these days, no one thought the Bruins repeating was even remotely close to a foregone conclusion. But when the B's embarked on their quest to capture the requisite 16 wins to capture the Cup again this spring, beginning with a first-round series against the seventh-seeded Capitals, few foresaw Washington being a hurdle the reigning champs couldn't overcome.

As it turns out, that's just what they were.

The Bruins' 2012 playoff journey came to an abrupt end on Wednesday night at TD Garden, as Joel Ward's goal 2:57 into overtime gave the Capitals a 2-1 victory in  Game 7. The win sent Washington on to the next round, and left the B's -- losers of three of their four home games in the series -- shaking their heads.

"I don’t know. I’d have to say I’m probably in shock," goalie Tim Thomas said. "I really believed that we were going to win tonight. I really had a deep feeling that this wasn’t the end of the road for us tonight, that this wasn’t going to be the last game of the season. So that’s my first reaction."

Thomas and the Bruins certainly understood the challenge that lied ahead of them. After playing in a total of 107 regular season and playoff games the year prior, then another 82 regular season tilts this year, the B's still came into the playoffs confident they could defend their title.

"Well it’s obviously a very difficult thing. That’s why nobody’s done it in a long time," said Thomas. "But having said that, I thought we had a better chance than most. I thought that if we could get past this first round hurdle that we would pick up some energy and momentum.

"I mean, I had the picture in my head of holding the Cup again this year. And I thought, I believed in that this team still had what it took to get it done, even with that short summer and everything else."

The grind of playing so many games in the last 18 months hasn't solely been physically demanding.

"The mental part of it is just a challenge," coach Claude Julien said. "It just seems like, even getting into these playoffs, it seemed like it was just yesterday we’d gone through it, and so things happen fast. The summer was short, guys came back, and now you’re asking them to re-focus for a whole season, and that’s not an easy task to do.

"We had a slow start, and we finally picked it up again, and midway through the season, February, we started having our struggles again, and then trying to pick it up at the end of the year, which were did a little bit, but, again, I don’t think our team was in tune as well as it was at this time last year."

Now, an offseason nearly two months longer than they experienced last time around is about to begin for the Bruins. While that oh-so-familiar sense of disappointment was shared by everyone throughout Boston's dressing room, Thomas believed his teammates should walk away feeling proud of how hard they battled to even be in a position where they'd have a chance of bringing the Cup back to the Hub of Hockey.

"I’m very proud," said Thomas. "It was a tough season. There were difficult periods at times. I looked around the locker room at many different points during this season and saw some very tired guys. And that’s no excuses, that’s just reality.

"They still found a way to finish second in the conference and get ourselves home ice for this playoffs here. (We) gave ourselves at least an opportunity and got the game seven to overtime to take it to that next step."

Unfortunately, in their quest to to step up to the next rung on the playoff ladder, the Bruins fell just one goal short.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ.