July 13, 2011

From NEHJ: Bruins celebrate first Stanley Cup in 39 years

By Jesse Connolly

It was the belief of many that the events of May 14, 2010, would leave an indelible mark on the Boston Bruins, a permanent scar, an eternal reminder of one of the biggest choke-jobs in the sport of hockey’s grand history. 

Bruins center Patrice Bergeron celebrates after Game 7. (Getty)

Bruins center Patrice Bergeron celebrates after Game 7. (Getty)

On that fateful night, the Black and Gold jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game 7 of their conference semifinals series with the Philadelphia Flyers, giving TD Garden a sense of security equally as false as the one they created when ahead three games to none. Philadelphia scored four consecutive goals against Tuukka Rask and the beleaguered Bruins, who collapsed in the face of adversity to complete the epic meltdown.

When the final horn sounded, it didn’t just signal the end of the game, the series or even the season. It was a blaring announcement that a once-proud franchise had reached its lowest, most indescribably embarrassing point in 86 years of existence.

As a sea of rally towels from the shocked masses in the building poured onto the ice, it was as symbolic a gesture as any. New England was ready to give up all hope of the Bruins winning a championship ever again.

My, oh, my, what a difference a year makes. They say a tiger can’t change his stripes, but the Bruins proved in the span of precisely 398 days that a hockey team can, completing their dramatic, improbable turnaround June 15 in Vancouver with a 4-0 victory in Game 7 of the finals, capturing the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years.

From the moment the offseason began last summer until this year’s trade deadline, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli made the right move at every turn, though not everyone was singing his praises at the time of each transaction.

Nathan Horton arrived from the Panthers with the reputation of possessing a wealth of talent but a lacking drive. Gregory Campbell was supposed to be a throw-in. Neither forward had a single playoff game on their resume.

With Tuukka Rask emerging last season, an aging and injured Tim Thomas was supposed to be expendable. So was Michael Ryder, who as of August was expected to be demoted to the AHL in order to solve the Bruins’ salary-cap woes.

When Chiarelli began wheeling and dealing in February, the questions continued: Was Chris Kelly worth giving up a second-round pick to the Senators for? Could Rich Peverley, a standout on the perennially putrid Thrashers, make a difference in a smaller role on a Cup contender? Was Tomas Kaberle really worth the king’s ransom Chiarelli forked over to Toronto?

Now, Bruins fans must ask themselves this: Would a drought that spanned nearly four decades be over if Chiarelli hadn’t made each and every one of those moves?

Horton was a stud in his first trip to the playoffs, playing the role of hero time and time again with three game-winning goals, two of which came in Game 7s. Campbell was an unsung hero on the fourth line and contributed hugely on the penalty kill. The oft-inconsistent Ryder brought it every night at both ends of the ice.

Kelly nearly tripled his offensive output, going from five points in 24 regular-season games with the Bruins to 13 points in 25 playoff games. Peverley managed to put up points despite playing on three different lines throughout the postseason. After a rocky start, Kaberle finished the playoffs second on the team in assists and first in points among defenseman.

And while all of those individuals played key roles, none of them can even hold a candle to what Thomas accomplished this spring. The 37-year-old netminder’s history-making playoff run backboned the Bruins to hockey glory, as he stood on his head in every series, every game and every period along the way.

But there was one non-move by Chiarelli that everyone thought spelled doom for the Bruins: keeping coach Claude Julien. The Bruins’ bench boss was the recipient of nearly all the blame for last year’s collapse against the Flyers. Presumed to be too defensive-minded, a poor motivator and unable to change on the fly, Julien was public enemy No. 1 among Boston’s faithful fans, who wanted nothing more than to see the coach canned.

This year, we saw a different approach from the man calling the shots behind the Bruins’ bench.

“You do different things when you learn more about your team and you learn more about the experiences you’ve been through,” Julien said. “And we talk about players going through adversity, coaches go through adversity too and they learn from those situations. But there’s certain things you can control and some you can’t. The one thing we were able to control this year is the fact that we had some depth and we felt we had the right players in our locker room. Whenever somebody got injured and we brought somebody in, they had an impact.”

But not every change Julien made was a forced one. After dropping the first two games of the first round against Montreal, the coach revamped his defensive pairings, putting Dennis Seidenberg alongside Zdeno Chara.

“Early in the playoffs, we really felt like in order for us to win we had to shut down teams,” Julien said. “And at that point, we decided that it was important to put Seidenberg with Chara. We thought that that would be a wall that not too many people could get through.

“So we made that change, and with the other pairs, we really felt comfortable that we’re able to handle whatever other teams were going to throw at us. So you make those adjustments. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. It worked for us this year and gave us what we wanted.”

After narrowly squeaking past the Canadiens with a thrilling Game 7 win on home ice, it was time to erase some demons as a rematch with the Flyers loomed. The Bruins vanquished the black cloud that’d been hanging over their heads for the better part of a year, sweeping Philadelphia to move on to the conference finals for the first time since 1992.

“It’s nice that we’re not going to have to answer any more of those questions and we can put that behind us,” Milan Lucic said after the Bruins defeated the Flyers, 5-1, in Game 4. “I think we learned a lot from last year, that experience, and I think it made us a more determined hockey club.”

That determination carried over into their battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, as the Bruins not only kept the likes of superstars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos in check but also managed to win their second Game 7 of the postseason — a stage on which they’d failed so many times in years past.

“We believed in ourselves, and we were confident that we could do it,” said Patrice Bergeron, who missed the first two games of the series with a concussion. “There was a lot of doubters. Even tonight, looking on the outside, a lot of people were thinking Tampa was going to win. It was a tough game and a tough series. But no one said it was going to be easy to get to the finals, and we found a way.”

It was there that the Bruins faced their biggest challenge yet. Unlike their first three opponents in the playoffs, the Canucks were a team that seemingly didn’t have any holes.

Vancouver was stacked up front with the likes of Ryan Kesler, reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin and his twin brother, Daniel. Led by Kevin Bieksa on defense, the Canucks’ blue line was so deep that Keith Ballard — a No. 1 during his days in Florida — was eighth on their depth chart. Add Vezina Trophy nominee Roberto Luongo in goal to that list, and it was no wonder Vancouver finished the regular season with the President’s Trophy.

One thing the Bruins lacked, however, was a reason to hate the Canucks. This wasn’t a detested rival like the Canadiens or Flyers, two teams that brought out a raw, intense display of emotion from the Black and Gold. Instead, it was a squad the Bruins clashed with just three times in the past four seasons.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for that to change. At the conclusion of the first period in Game 1, a scrum began to form behind Thomas’ net. In the midst of widespread bickering, Alex Burrows bit Bergeron’s finger. Bad blood had officially been formed and remained for the duration of the series.

To the surprise of many, the winger wasn’t reprimanded for his actions, giving him the opportunity to chip in three points in Game 2, including the game-winning goal in overtime as Vancouver took a 2-0 series lead.

Having to win four of the next five games against the top team in the NHL, the uphill climb the Bruins faced was steep enough as it is. When Aaron Rome’s devastating hit on Horton knocked Boston’s clutch performer out for the rest of the series with a concussion, it easily could have been the deathblow for the Bruins.

Instead, it was a rallying cry. The Bruins possessed more heart, courage and resilience than any other squad in the Hub of Hockey in the past four decades. While their predecessors would have wilted in the face of such adversity, this edition of the Black and Gold did just the opposite, fighting back to tie the series by outscoring the Canucks 12-1 in Games 3 and 4 on home ice.

As if Vancouver’s dastardly behavior on the ice wasn’t enough to earn them scorn, their off-ice theatrics continued as the series wore on. Coach Alain Vigneault remained an incessant whiner throughout, complaining about Thomas’ aggressive style of play and even going as far as to poke fun at Horton for admiring his pass before getting laid out by Rome.

After Vancouver won again at home to take a 3-2 series lead with a 1-0 win, Luongo — the same goalie who allowed 12 pucks to get by him in Boston — had the gall to say he would’ve stopped the lone shot that eluded Thomas. He later bemoaned the lack of compliments he’d received from his counterpart, citing he’d been pumping Thomas’ tires throughout the matchup.

When the Bruins tied the series with a 5-2 victory at the Garden, they didn’t just have their burgeoning legion of fans throughout New England behind them. The entire world desperately wanted them to defeat the now-villainous Canucks.

Justice, as they say, prevailed.

With two goals apiece from Brad Marchand and Bergeron, the Bruins defied all odds against their heavily favored opponent, winning Game 7 on the road by a score of 4-0.

The magnitude of their victory in the Stanley Cup Finals is immeasurable. No longer are the Bruins an outsider in what has become a city of champions over the past decade. Years upon years of playoff futility, disappointment and utter heartache have been forgotten. Memories of too-many-men-on-the-ice in 1979 against the Canadiens, of getting bowled over by the Oilers and Penguins, of Scott Walker in overtime and Simon Gagne capping off the Flyers’ historic comeback are officially erased.

For once in their lives, the tears a loyal fan base had to wipe away weren’t of sorrow but of indescribable joy.

“Thank God for the fans,” Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said. “Thank God they’re there, I mean, this is their team. I keep on saying, I’m sort of the custodian at this point, but it’s their team. Without them, we’re nothing. And with them, we’re everything. They have stuck with us. They are the reason we’re here.”

No longer will the Bruins’ legion of devotees be reminded incessantly about 1972. In 2011, the Bruins went from perennial chokers to triumphant champs.

And for the fans throughout New England and beyond who stuck it out through thick and thin waiting for this moment, once chastised for ever fathoming it might happen, there is a sense of relief that’s nearly as strong as the overwhelming feeling of jubilance they experienced watching Boston’s 6-foot-9 captain hoist hockey’s Holy Grail high above his head.

For now, be it on their hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers and their black-and-gold jerseys, they can sport that Spoked-B with a greater sense of pride than they’ve ever felt before.

They, too, are champs.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com