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Looking backwards -- and forward


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As the Bruins roar into the Stanley Cup Finals, looking more and more like a runaway freight train on razor-sharp blades, many should be pardoned for wondering if what's left to be done is somehow anti-climactic.

In the end, a certain historical necessity insists the Cup will be the ultimate measure of this team. But no matter how this rich and moving saga does end, nothing can diminish all the wild and crazy stuff that glorified the mad dash to the ultimate moment. As the saying goes, the Bruins are playing with "house money" in these Finals. How terrific is that?

Was it some sort of Faustian bargain that they struck with the season slipping away in the waning minutes of the finale to the opening round with the woebegone Maple Leafs? As the years go by it will likely seem so.

"Never" is a long time, especially in sports, and there had "never" been a finish at least to a meaningful post-season tilt that had been quite so fantastic in the long, exhaustive history of this grueling game.

If you're searching for something comparable in other games the example that best works is that epic larceny the Mets pulled off in unforgettable Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the Red Sox were but one strike away only to have all hell break loose, and we know you don't want to go there.

Still it's important to keep all that in mind, the better to appreciate the pain presently besetting the good burghers of Toronto, another notably civilized town. Why do these things cut so deeply when they go wrong or exalt so greatly when -- however undeserved and uproarious -- they go so phenomenally well? When you figure that one out, give us a call.

Meanwhile, be sustained by the sure knowledge that having endured it all over the many, many years from the very good to the very bad and touching all points in between, we hereabouts owe no one elsewhere an apology.

Since their epiphany the Bruins rampage has been sullied by only one loss in the furious 10-game dash from the brink of elimination against the Maple Leafs to the start of the showdown with the Blackhawks. In the mindless intensity of playoff hockey, that is simply near ridiculous.

It set off alarm bells at the time, but it can now be seen as gracious of Tuukka Rask to have allowed the Rangers a bit of face-saving with his Chaplinesque pratfall that accounted for that only loss. It was wise of him too, as it kept expectations from becoming absurd. For in this fabulous run we've had little more evidence that this cool goalie from cool and limpid Finland might just be human.

The Bruins' surgically brilliant skewering of Pittsburgh's alleged juggernaut in four-straight thunder-bolts has boggled all hockey minds, it seems. The disbelief is monumental. But it says here that the feverish reaction is wildly excessive. The case is being grossly overstated. Moreover, it no doubt heaps more blame on the Pens than they deserve, while absolutely robbing the B's of that full credit they more richly deserve.

These latest Penguins are not the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s, the Leafs of the '60s, the Oilers of the '80s, nor even the one and same Pittsburgh Penguins of the early '90s. For sure, this year's gang was a certified offensive fire-wagon of the sort that fattens up statistically against the usual patsies and can be explosive when hitting on all cylinders, as it did in the previous playoff round against gallant but injury-ravaged Ottawa.

But as is too often the case with such hot-dog teams, a passion for scoring goals overwhelms a necessary commitment to fundamental hockey virtues. The Pens this year lacked the goaltending of a great team, and they didn't adjust well to changing circumstances, and they lacked deep and multi-layered defense, and as was brilliantly evident in the Bruins' series it's not a very smart team. You might further wonder about such issues as character and spirit, but going there on the basis of a four-game sample might be unfair.

We may look back and conclude the Penguins were ripe for the picking, with the Bruins -- a notably smart team that with perfect timing had dramatically arrived at the peak of its potential discipline under the leadership of a Coach, in Claude Julien, simultaneously arriving at the very height of his game after patiently paying his dues for a full generation -- was the perfect team to do the bloody "picking". All things considered, I'd say it's a rather classic tale.

Still, the way in which the Bruins swept the Penguins -- shutting them down so contemptuously, throttling their redoubtable power-play, outwitting them all over the ice, stonewalling them in goal, sneering at their reputations, scorning their celebrity, all with the casual disdain and professional elan of a boulevard dandy out for an afternoon stroll, being totally professional throughout and exhibiting no bombast -- was little short of -- dare we say, Glorious!!!

As such, we in this town haven't seen a local professional team deliver a more humiliating put-down of a mighty and haughty foe since 1914. That would be the memorable year the old Boston Braves of sainted memory bushwhacked the Philadelphia Athletics in four straight in the World Series which for evermore would be proclaimed, "Miraculous".

Those A's with their galaxy of stars had been billed as Connie Mack's grandest creation; "unbeatable", and all that balderdash. The Braves, on the other hand, were considered accidental pennant winners; no more than a humble, earnest band of dutiful, honorable, and hopeful pluggers. Does all that sound familiar, mate? The Series in 1914 was a romp. The Braves thrashed them four-straight whereupon Mr. Mack, in despair, promptly dismantled his alleged "juggernaut". The historical analogy is almost too good to be true.

Actually, there's another historical parallel to the Pens series I'd like to offer and it may illustrate the crucial point even better. For it involves the Bruins in one of their less distinguished moments, which might even make it therefore more apt.

In 1971, when the world was a whole lot younger, the Bruins of Orr, Espo, Cheesie, Chief, and so forth, were riding high, wide, and handsome. Coming off their first Cup in three decades, they were cult heroes gifted at routinely crushing opponents while shattering scoring records with few teams having the size, skill, or gumption to stand up to them. They were young, rollicking, deeply talented, seemingly omnipotent, and -- yes -- rather too full of themselves.

In the opening playoff round, which had been widely conceded to them before the first face-off, they met the Canadiens who'd been shaky all season after being shut-out of the playoffs the year before for the first time in 22 years. The Bruins breezily won the first game then emphatically lost the series, stymied by and large by a young, lanky, erudite, goalie from Cornell with only six games of NHL experience, Ken Dryden.

The 1971 blowout was a be-numbing experience for the flamboyant "Big Bad Bruins" of fabulous memory and while they shook it off to go all the way the next year that rude comeuppance in 1971 diminished what might have been and robbed them of that most precious of claims, "Dynasty"! This galled the Bruins for 40 years.

Are the Penguins today rather like the Bruins then and might the Bruins today turn the screw like the Canadiens did back then? As a guide, history has its limitations. But we will see, soon enough. It's not clear -- as of this writing -- that the 2013 Blackhawks are quite so willing to play the necessary role of foil.

Interesting above all, however, is the fact we've been down these roads before and isn't it grand, that it never gets boring.

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