...PERHAPS IT WOULD BE THE MAPLE LEAFS ... OR THE RANGERS ... OR THE PENGUINS PLAYING IN THE MADHOUSE ON MADISON THIS WEEK ...
... BUT ON MAY 13, 2013, HISTORY WAS HIP-CHECKED BY THE BRUINS, SETTING THE STAGE FOR AN ORIGINAL SIX CLASSIC
Shortly before 1 a.m. last Saturday, Zdeno Chara was still lifting weights inside TD Garden, about two hours after his Bruins had completed a sweep of the vaunted Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals—the fruits of victory, apparently, still requiring an iron supplement. The postgame sessions are routine for the Norris Trophy--winning 6'9" defenseman, who is usually one of the last players to depart the arena after a home game. "Our workout room is pretty small, so I wait until everyone leaves before I start," said Chara. "A hockey game makes you use some muscles more than others, so this keeps the body level."
In the victory over Pittsburgh, Chara and his Boston teammates had used every ounce of muscle and sweat to construct arguably the most impressive defensive performance in Stanley Cup playoff history. The Bruins never trailed in any of the four games, and they limited the Penguins, the NHL's most explosive team—Pittsburgh scored 47 goals in its first 11 postseason games this spring—to two goals in almost 14 periods of play, including a 2--1 double-overtime win in Game 3. Boston did not yield a goal to the league's top power play and held superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a point. Tuukka Rask, the Bruins' underappreciated goaltender, popped out of the shadow of Tim Thomas and put up video-game numbers (0.44 goals against; .985 save percentage). He faced 21 shots from Malkin, 13 from Crosby, 20 from winger James Neal and 16 from defenseman Kris Letang, and stopped them all. In Boston terms, it was as if Thomas Gage and William Howe had had their muskets pulled right off their shoulders.
The Bruins' dominance was so thorough, so bloody ruthless, that it's easy to forget last month's dance with brinkmanship. There is a tissue-thin difference between glory and ignominy in the Cup playoffs—24 games (and likely counting) have required sudden death—but no team has skated a more perilous path than Boston. You may recall the night of May 13, when the Bruins trailed the Maple Leafs 4--1 with less than 11 minutes to play in Game 7 of the opening round. Boston was still losing by a pair with less than two minutes remaining when it pulled off the Hub version of the Miracle on Ice. "It's like the 70-year-old patient who is very sick," says Boston forward Jaromir Jagr, who's only 41. "He is waiting for the worst news, and the doctor walks in and says, 'You're cured, you can go home tomorrow.' You really appreciate a new life. After that Toronto game, now we're not afraid to make mistakes; we just play really free, like in the playground."
The Bruins' penchant for skirting the abyss was born in the 2010 postseason when they fell into it and blew a 3--0 series lead over the Flyers in the conference semis. Ahead 3--0 in the first period of that Game 7, Boston eventually lost the game and the series to become only the third team in league history to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games. Rather than cleaning house after such a humiliating defeat, however, general manager Peter Chiarelli only did some light remodeling, retaining 15 players from the 23-man roster. "[My decision was] part loyalty, part philosophy," says Chiarelli. "The number of reasons you could have [dismantled the team] all put together didn't convince me an overhaul was in our best interests."
"The process of learning how to win is more complicated than you think," says forward Milan Lucic. "It wasn't just a loss, I mean it was a shock.... Losing so badly helped us win."
Nothing fortified this theory more than the club's run to the Cup the very next season, when the Bruins twice came back from two games down and won three seventh games. "The fact that they didn't blow up the team [after the 2010 playoff loss to Philadelphia] gave us real stability," says forward Shawn Thornton. "Guys have wives, kids, some are playing for contracts. When you know that's safe, I think you play better."
The Bruins had already squandered a 3--1 lead in this year's opening round against the Maple Leafs to face yet another Game 7. When Nazem Kadri scored to put Toronto up 4--1 with 14:31 left, Boston president Cam Neely, assistant G.M. Jim Benning and Chiarelli, seated in a booth high above the ice, stared glumly into the fog of a wasted season. "I was thinking to myself, When are we going to have our exit meetings?" Chiarelli recalls. Under the stands, defenseman Andrew Ference, out with a foot injury, sat in the video replay room next to Jeremy Rogalski, the team's video analyst. "When you're not playing," Ference says, "you need to be able to kick a chair or two, and I didn't want cameras around." Several assistant coaches and other scratched players shuffled in and out of the room, but Ference kept the choice spot next to Rogalski's screen. "There's no 10-second delay on it like other places in the building," Ference explains. The room is nearly soundproof, and the only clues about what's happening on the ice come from the faint sound of the foghorn that blows whenever Boston scores. Ference could hardly bear to watch, but he also couldn't turn away.
From behind the Bruins' bench, coach Claude Julien was doing the math, trying to figure how many shifts he would give each line in the remaining minutes. On the bench Chara spotted Lucic glancing up at the scoreboard and told him, "Don't look at it. Not yet. Let's get one first." Nearby, winger Brad Marchand, ever chirpy and yammering, was unsettled by the uncharacteristic quiet of the bench and the building. "Hell, yeah, I felt panic!" he says. Boston had come back from three goals down once before this season, on Feb. 12 against the Rangers, scoring three times in the third period, including twice in the final 1:31, to gain a regulation tie. (They would go on to lose 4--3 in a shootout.) Still, no team in NHL history had rallied from a three-goal deficit in the third period to win a seventh game.
On his next shift, Lucic circled with the puck behind the Toronto net and found an open Nathan Horton, who beat goalie James Reimer with a wrist shot from the left face-off circle to make it 4--2 with 10:42 to play. "We all moved up in our seats," Chiarelli says. Marchand could sense a change on the bench too. "Now everyone was talking," he says. "I couldn't hear myself anymore."
The Maple Leafs, making their first playoff appearance since 2004, turned tentative, abandoning their forecheck and meekly dumping pucks out of their defensive zone and into center ice, hoping for time to run out. The Bruins kept pressing, sending Rask to the bench with two minutes left. Lucic forced the puck into the Toronto zone and belted defenseman Carl Gunnarsson into the end boards. Bergeron eventually worked the puck back to Chara, whose shot from the right point was stopped by Reimer. But as the puck lay free, Lucic knocked in the rebound with 1:22 to play.
The Bruins called timeout. After the next face-off, Chara rotated down to the front of the net, an eclipse darkening the view of a frazzled Reimer. When Bergeron unleashed a wrister from the point, three Leafs crossed in front of the shot without blocking it. Reimer never saw the puck. Suddenly the score was 4--4. There were 50.2 seconds left, but Boston had no doubt about how the game would end. "The best part of the season to me was the feeling in the room before overtime," Lucic says. "I've never been in a room like that where there was no doubt, like no doubt at all in our minds. It was just a matter of when. It's the most confident room I've ever been in." Before overtime, Julien said to his team, "There's a hero in this room somewhere. Who's it gonna be?"
The Bruins' answer came 6:05 into OT, when Bergeron rapped home a loose puck for the winner.
It was slow-churn torture for the Maple Leafs. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle described it as, "You feel like you were hit between the eyes with a hammer.... You're hurt. You're stung, all the words that are used to describe living that. It's almost like you go into a state of depression." Kadri confessed to having nightmares for several nights afterward. Said forward James van Riemsdyk, "It's one of those losses that kind of eats away at your soul." Looking for visual proof of life-as-death? Just Google "Maple Leafs fan."
The on-ice jubilation for the Bruins turned into restraint in the dressing room. "We were very humbled by having a second chance," says Chara. "Relieved. Businesslike. Not sure we deserved it."
Don't be fooled by Chara's taste for bone-crushing hits. Boston's captain is a thoughtful guy. What embodies his team? "Group texting," he says, smiling. "We have 20 guys getting the same message." Why does that matter? "Because it's like that on the ice too."
The Bruins need sync to swim. They are especially gifted with neither speed nor individual skill, and their power play was 26th in the league. But they are masters of minutiae. And they are deep, boasting the game's best fourth line (center Gregory Campbell and wings Daniel Paille and Thornton), which has scored five goals, including two game-winners, so far in the playoffs, and its most efficient face-off man. (Bergeron led the NHL during the regular season with a 62.1% success rate.) "The game has changed," says Jagr, who was a rookie in 1990--91. "The difference between the best and worst player isn't so much. The first line can play against the fourth line. This is a modern team, because anyone can score at any time. In my career I've never seen a team like that." In these playoffs Jagr—never known as a two-way player—has become an unlikely poster child for defensive responsibility. The play that produced Bergeron's double-OT goal in the Bruins' 2--1 win over the Penguins in Game 3 on June 5 started when Jagr, who came to Boston in a trade from the Stars on April 2, took Malkin off the puck (with an apparent, and uncalled, hook) and fired a leading pass up the ice to Marchand. "You don't have to look any further than Jags," says Julien. "He's played a certain way his whole career, and now he sees a team that plays a [different] way and he's bought into it."
Team-building exercises aren't necessary for the Bruins, most of whom live downtown, hit the North End together for Italian food and bike to practice. "A lot of guys are invested in the area, which is even more important this year after the marathon," says Thornton. "Those rallying points really help you on the ice, especially the way we play, because you need a guy's back all the time."
Pittsburgh fell victim to Boston's defense-by-committee approach. The Bruins may be the league's most talkative team on the ice, a versatile back-pressuring machine, often switching assignments so they don't chase individual players all over the rink. Their defensemen stay close to Rask and use short bumps up the wall to get the puck past defenders before moving through the center of the ice. They forecheck with a 1-2-2 scheme that relies on the weakside forward to keep the line of resistance from breaking down. Instead of the stretch passes that Chicago uses so effectively to open up the ice, Boston's defensemen will often reset, backing up a stride or two after recovering the puck to allow forwards to circle back and receive short passes in stride. "They're a team that waits for your mistakes," says Crosby. "There are times when they possess the puck. It doesn't mean they're carrying the play. They're just patient. We were trying to get three goals back on one shift. You can't do that against a team that thrives on your mistakes. They make you play in the neutral zone, which is our least favorite place to be."
It is in those heightened moments of discomfort and angst when the Bruins play their best. The most indelible image from this year's playoffs is Campbell, the dutiful fourth-liner, trying to finish his shift after a shot from Malkin broke his leg and ended his season in the second period of Game 3. He hobbled around the ice for 45 agonizing seconds. "Of course he stayed out," Bergeron says. "That's our team. When it's the toughest time, you don't want to miss anything."
There is a thin difference between glory and ignominy in the playoffs, but no team has skated a more perilous path than Boston.
Here's SI's pick for a rare Stanley Cup finals matchup that is destined to go the distance
The finals features two superbly coached throwback teams that embody their Original Six roots. Both rosters are deep, both play with discipline and attention to detail. In their victory over the Kings in the Western Conference finals, the Blackhawks proved they could win a series without consistent production from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Bruins, meanwhile, could still use breakout games from the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Tyler Seguin (the pair have combined for one postseason goal). Boston needed a miracle comeback to survive against the Maple Leafs in round 1, just as Chicago needed three straight wins against the Red Wings to survive round 2. If the Bruins' sputtering power play gets anything against the Blackhawks' outstanding penalty kill, it will be a surprise. The difference could be in goal. Corey Crawford (1.74 GAA, .935 save percentage) has been very good for Chicago and could well be the Conn Smythe winner should the club prevail, but Boston's Tuukka Rask (1.75, .943) allowed just two goals in four games to the Penguins, the best offensive team in the league. He provides the winning margin in an otherwise even series. Pick: Boston in 7
Photograph by SETH WENIG/AP
LET US IMAGINE THE WAYS ... Had Phil Kessel (left) and Toronto put Boston away in Game 7 of round 1, they would have met the Rangers in a conference finals showdown between two franchises with one Cup between them in the last 45 years.
JARED WICKERHAM/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
Photograph by JARED WICKERHAM/GETTY IMAGES
... BUT INSTEAD Game 7 hero Bergeron (37), flanked by Marchand (far left) and Tyler Seguin (19), pulled off a Miracle on Ice that sent Boston on a run that included eight victories in its next nine games.
JIM YOUNG/REUTERS (KANE)
KANE, ABLE Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks, too, endured plenty of bumpy moments in their Cup drive, but like the Bruins, saved their best for the conference finals.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES
GUTTY CZECH The play of Chara (black helmet) is at once supremely physical and intensely cerebral—and it set the tone in Boston's domination of Neal (18) and Pittsburgh.