By Dan Rubin
Is this the year?
It’s the question that Bruins fans want answered, and it’s the question Bruins fans can’t answer.
And it’s the question that has never seemed so hard to answer as it has in recent years.
Three years ago, hockey underwent a renaissance in Boston that hadn’t been seen in years. The bottomed-out Bruins, coming off a last place finish in 2007, rallied to force the Montreal Canadiens to a bitterly hard-fought seven game series in 2008. They used that momentum to carry to a 53-win season in 2009 that died at home against Carolina, before last year’s playoff rally and collapse that must never be spoken of again.
This year there is no din of answer. There is no roar out of the faithful saying the Bruins can’t win or screaming that Lord Stanley will finally return to Causeway St. Because quite honestly we just don’t know. This is the most maddening Bruins team, one that can beat anybody, and one that can lose to anybody.
So why is this the year?
They’ve beaten the Flyers on the road twice. They’re the first place team in their division, on the inside track for the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. Throughout the controversies of the season, they’ve produced a 30-goal scorer in Milan Lucic. Nathan Horton is having a career year with 23 goals, and both David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron are top-flight table setters with 48 and 32 assists, respectively. Brad Marchand should win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, with 20 goals and a +25 rating. And they have this kid named Tyler Seguin who has 11 goals and 11 assists while playing buried on the 4th line when he’s dressed in uniform.
Two years ago, Tim Thomas ran out of gas after carrying his team with a Vezina performance. Last year, Thomas got hurt, and Tuukka Rask stepped in to fill the void. Rask’s performance against Buffalo in the playoffs is one of sports lore, when he went toe-to-toe and save-for-save with the world’s greatest netminder, Ryan Miller. This year, they head into the playoffs with the luxury of playing either one on any given night, so if one falters, they have a second world-class goalie waiting in the wings. If Thomas wasn’t on the inside track for the Vezina again, Rask might be playing more and splitting more time in net. But Thomas has been Herculean, relegating Rask to backup status.
On any given night, the Bruins can beat an opponent, and they can beat an opponent up. The playoffs are all about grinding out win after win, each day becoming harder work than the day before. The best teams are the blue-collar teams, teams that can score before sitting back and playing smash-mouth defense. Lucic is the embodiment of that game plan. His 58 points and 110 penalty minutes rank as Neely-esque, and he’s developed into the player Cam used to be. He’s the perfect two-way player for the way the game should be played, and he can take over a game on any given night.
Ok, so this must be the year, right? Wrong.
This is also the year where the Bruins started the year talking about brain injuries and concussions, and it’s always going to be remembered for the year Marc Savard possibly lost his career. Savard, the X-factor player who came back too early from a concussion to lead the Bruins last year, may never play again. At this point, with stories surfacing about his memory loss and inability to lead a normal life, we pray for his recovery and don’t think about his career, but how much better would the Bruins be right now with him? Imagine how good those lines would be if the top three lines were centered by Bergeron, Krejci, and a healthy Savard. The Bruins would be able to trot out any line and dominate. Instead, we just hope and pray that he lives long enough to recover, and we pray he gets to see the Cup banner raised to the rafters.
This is the year of constant controversy. From Savard’s brain to Chara’s brawn, the Bruins were at the center of attention. Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens couldn’t come at a worse time against a worse team in a worse place. Down the stretch of the season, Chara became the world’s largest lightning rod for the arguments about hits to the head. Every sport is cracking down on violence, and his play became the latest in a series of those arguments. It had to be against Montreal, late in the season, with the playoff race hanging in the balance. Montreal had to be seeded just close enough so the Bruins may draw them in the first round. Montreal’s fans had to be zealous enough to go off the deep end the way they did. If Boston plays Montreal, the lights will get that much hotter, the stage that much bigger, the pressure that much higher. Every time I hear some radio bit making fun of Canadiens fans, or some report about a back-and-forth newspaper war, or some fans protesting the hit, I think: “Why couldn’t it have happened against a team nobody cares about, like Florida Panthers?” If this happened down there, we’d never hear about it again. Instead, it happened to the world’s largest complaint department in their building, in front of their self-righteous fans.
This is the year of the hottest coaching seat in the NHL. The season has been one giant argument of “Should Claude Julien be canned?” As a vocal proponent of the axe, I said Julien should’ve been fired after last year’s playoff exit. I don’t like his attitude, and I want a coach with more fire in his belly. Julien’s style is too defensive, not aggressive enough, and for some reason, I think he hates Seguin the same way he hated Phil Kessel. Julien brought the Devils to a 103-point season, and then got fired for not having the team “playoff ready.” There’s a reason for that.
Continuing with Julien, everything is about this season being the way that it is. Every move he makes is under a microscope, and unless Boston makes the conference finals this year, he’s essentially out. The dangers and perils of coaching are real, and for Claude, his flat, emotionless feel behind the bench was called into clear view of everybody this year. Since the puck dropped in Prague, he’s been coaching to save a job he might lose no matter what.
It’s very real for this Bruins team that they might go as only as their goaltending takes them. It’s very real that they could exit in the first round or they could ride into the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s very clear that next year could be about a fresh start or about raising the first banner in 39 years. It’s very real that no matter what, the finish to this year will be black or white.
What’s unclear is how we’ll get there or that we can answer the question before it’s actually answered. We don’t know the answer. And that’s what makes this Bruins team the most intriguing team out there. We doubt a near-100 point team with the best goaltender in the league. We love that our team is statistically great, but we loathe the fact that they can lose to pretty much anybody on any given night. We stand firm that this team is finally the one, but yet we can’t logically answer the one question we’ve always been asking.
Is this the year?