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A year ago at this time no one -- and I do mean absolutely nobody here or elsewhere ranging from the looniest, diehard, devotees to the most ruthlessly dispassionate numbers' crunchers -- was picking the Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup.
That had much to do with the historical baggage the franchise had been long and famously lugging around the frozen ponds of North America. They'd not won in four decades nor come reasonably close in two. An even more pressing burden was the lingering humiliation of the previous year's abject playoff meltdown against the Flyers. The mood in the alleged "Hub of Hockey" was flat. The humble coach was being measured for sack cloth with banishment widely seen as certain when the inevitable flop materialized.
The rest, as the saying goes, is History!
A year later, the perception is vastly different although with a fortnight left and seven games to play in the regular season (as this is written) there's sufficient reason to believe it ought not be. The Bruins are not as strong as they were a year ago, nor as well positioned or prepared for the grueling playoff ordeal just ahead. Two weeks can modify that slant but not greatly alter it.
On the surface, last year and this year's editions may seem comparable although the Bruins must near run the board winning six of their last seven to match last year's regular season mark of 103 points. Barring an unlikely last-gasp swoon that would be as embarrassing as that swan dive against the Flyers, they'll again finish first in their not terribly tough division with their margin over Ottawa comparable to their edge over second-place Montreal last season. But that's where the similarities end whereas the differences in the two scenarios are noteworthy.
Four points of comparison stand out.
Last year's team finished very strong. After a plodding first four months, they caught their stride in late February and held it firmly right into April and beyond. This year's team (with two weeks left) has been flat, often feeble down the stretch. The season is brutally long and exhausting. It's how a team plays in February and March that reveals its promise not what it does in November and December. From the all-star break in January to the arrival of Spring, the Bruins were 11-15-2, roughly the same as the Leafs, Islanders, and Oilers. Ugh!
In the end, it's all about the goalie. Last season, Tim Thomas was at his artistic peak and then, in the playoffs, he got better. This year, since mid-season he's been ordinary. Is it coincidental that his decline formally kicked into gear at precisely the moment he was making a fool of himself in that ill-advised White House flap? Since then, last year's Vezina winner has been out-played by at least a dozen of his goal-tending brethren. Is it too early to wonder if the decline is irreversible? He's no kid, you know. Tuukka Rask's little skid climaxing in serious injury hasn't helped. Actually, Thomas has lately looked better but the beguiling swashbuckling that he formerly featured remains hors de combat. At best, he may hit the playoffs weary. Not Good!
I take that back. The injury issue may be as vital as the goaltending. Given the deep and often sorrowful stain of cruel losses to injury in their bruising history the most notable thing about last year was how bloody healthy they remained until Nathan Horton got bushwhacked in the Finals. No Bruins team in my lifetime had been luckier, in this critical regard. Is the charm up? Horton remains a huge loss. Hopes for a return to form by Rich Peverley are reasonable but then there is Rask, although some might argue that if they must depend on the kid the cause is already lost. There are more nicks and bruises down the ranks this year. Don't count on the Herculean captain bearing as much burden this time. It's worrisome!
Overall, the state of the league has changed. More teams classify as legitimate Cup contenders than was the case last year; maybe twice as many. Four teams in the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division -- New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey -- have better records in a tougher division and four more in the West's Central Division have also performed better -- St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville and Chicago. Tough enough a year ago, Vancouver is improved. Talent is more widespread in the brave new parity-packed NHL. Record-wise, the Bruins are rather closer to the middle of that pack than the top. They have a losing record against the aforementioned contenders. Interesting!
Of course, other top teams have had slumps too. The Red Wings struggled early on. So did the Penguins when they were brooding over the absence of Sidney Crosby. In a mid-season drift, the Blackhawks went nine games without a win. The Rangers recently had a 2-5 slide blemish what may otherwise be the finest campaign in their long and not overly distinguished history. Stuff happens; especially in this penitential slog through the cold and muddy depths of winter that the NHL features for a regular season. But the key difference is that all these teams have regained their stride for the stretch-run.
That's not yet been the case with the Bruins -- whose fade has been much longer and deeper -- although if they now run wild over the final fortnight that would soften the indictment. Two quite huge wins on the west coast sounded as hopeful a note as we've heard in two months. If they do turn it around and make a genuine Cup-run the back to back wins in LA and Anaheim will rank among the season's biggest. The stakes were that high.
Perhaps they've been pacing themselves; sort of "saving it for the prom," as they say. After all it's unwise to strive to go pedal to the metal from Columbus Day to Easter Sunday; the grind of the NHL's regular season being too harsh to abide that. Bruins teams of the past have seemed to make that mistake out of respect for their hard-nosed ethos so precious in their tradition. The Rangers and their manic coach may yet discover they've made that same mistake this season. On the other hand, trying to regulate the throttle -- as it were -- is risky for it's not easy to turn it on and off at will.
The whole idea is to stay healthy while getting red hot and mighty lucky at the right time. It accounts for the recent trend of neither great nor memorable teams springing out of nowhere to seize the Cup then promptly drift back into a familiar mediocrity. Charter members of this interesting but not terribly distinguished ''club'' improbably include the Lightening, Hurricane, and Ducks. Are these Bruins just another of those one-time wonders? The possibility is, alas, not far-fetched. We'll have a better idea in about a month.
The Bruins team that joyfully roared through last spring's playoffs capturing the heart of the entire region while charming a generation that had largely given up on the game was as gritty and gallant and downright brave a band of suddenly inspired warriors as may ever grace the scene. They seized the moment. It was unforgettable. They'll always have that.
But when the roll call of the all-time great hockey wagons is called don't expect them to be in that number alongside their own black and gold predecessors, circa 1970-1972, or the Red Wings of just a few years ago, or the Islanders and Oilers of the '80s, let alone various Canadiens' juggernauts of the glorious past. Is mere grit nowadays enough? More precisely, can it work two years in a row?
They've teased us once already this season with that spectacular 21-3-1 run beginning on Halloween and ending with a thud at the all-star game. Which team is the real one; that one or the one that dragged through the next two months often looking lost. The question soon to be answered is alternately vexing and fascinating.
In the meantime, we'll keep in mind last year when -- at this point -- nobody gave them the ghost of a chance.