When push came to shove in the playoffs, it wasn’t ‘there’ for the Bruins this season

Bye, bye Stanley. We hardly got to know ye again. Let’s hope it’s not another four decades before we re-new acquaintances.

On the other hand, it has been well more than two score years and counting since the Maple Leafs, another once dashing and mighty franchise, last waltzed with you. Nor has there been a murmur in recent memory from the Canadiens, who so long espoused a divine right to your considerable charms. The Rangers are sniffing around again, but since they have won exactly one Cup in the last 72 years I’d speak softly if I were them.

The point being that there’s no challenge in sports tougher than winning the Stanley Cup, especially since the NHL has swelled to the “original thirty,” penalizing equally competence and historical stature in its determined effort to promote a blissful if too predictable parity, and with it a measure of cultural significance in the sunbelt. The only way to promote hockey in places like Arizona and Tennessee is to guarantee that the local team won’t get reduced to cannon fodder for a full generation.

You should never use a word like “never” when discussing sports. But one feels fairly comfortable stating that the age of the hockey dynasties is dead and gone. In the 15-season stretch from 1976-1990, three teams won 13 Cups: the Oilers (5 times) and the Canadiens and Islanders ( 4 each).
Nevermore! Hell will freeze over first.

Maybe it’s a good thing, especially if your team hails from Sunrise, Columbus, or San Jose. But frankly, I miss the old fashioned bullies. It adds to the fun to have a Goliath to bring down. Moreover, there was a certain magnificence about that Oiler team constructed around the Great Gretzky and it was even more the case with those glorious Habs of the ‘50’s and ‘60s who boasted the Messrs Richard, Beliveau, Geoffrion, Harvey, Johnson, and Plante, and that’s just for starters.

Successfully defending the Cup used to be no big deal. From 1954 through 1991, a span of 38 seasons, it happened 19 times. But it has only been done once in the last 22 seasons. The long-term effect of rampant expansion is an obvious explanation. Cornering the market on choice talent isn’t as easy as it used to be; and it never will be again, old Sport. But have they made it harder than it ought to be with all the regimens aimed at preserving precious parity?

With the Bruins’ swift and painful expiration, the Red Wings retain the distinction of being the last team to successfully defend, and it was 14 years ago they did it under Scotty Bowman’s shrewd guidance. What seems even more remarkable is the fact the Bruins are the seventh defending champ in the last nine years to fail to make it past the first round. So, the weight of recent history was very much against them this spring, although that’s hardly their only excuse.

Increasingly, it’s that first round that’s the very best of the playoffs. The desperation is greatest. The yearning to separate yourself from the pack is the most intense, with the tone and pitch of play often bordering on the frightening. Surviving that first round at least assures some bragging rights. To fail is to be cast as little better than non-qualifiers. Bitter is the nature of the first round; never more so than this year. Six of the eight match-ups were extraordinary, with four being memorably vicious to the point of churning up new embarrassment for the league and renewed criticism of its taste for mayhem. The Flyers-Penguins series was effectively a rumble fought in an alley with switchblades.

Out of that first round came four upsets, including the dispatching of your Bruins. Plus two very near misses, with the Rangers and Devils surviving by the narrowest of margins. With a seventh series, the ousting of Detroit by Nashville, being little less stunning even if it wasn’t actually an upset. Only the quiet triumph of St. Louis over San Jose was predictable.

In less than two weeks, the certified hockey hotbeds of Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and Vancouver were eliminated, taking with them heavy loads of tradition and color that sell better than whatever Nashville, L.A. , and Phoenix offer. In the pre-playoff reckonings, the Penguins and Canucks were heavy favorites to meet in the finals. In just eight days, both were wiped out.

That’s impressive and it dramatically affirms the NHL’s proudest claim that on any given day anybody can beat anybody because everybody’s equal. But is this runaway parity, offering a bland and faceless equality, really as popular as the NHL powers like to think? That’s not so clear. You wonder how happy they’ll be if they end up with the Predators meeting the Capitals in the final round for the Cup. That possibility, while still distant, remains hardly unthinkable and probably has NBC already shuddering.

As for the Bruins, in retrospect it was probably never really “there” this season. A sensational run from Halloween into early January etched an oddly distorted perspective creating a bit of illusion. They were absolutely terrific for those ten weeks and, overall, utterly ordinary the rest of the time. If they played those ten weeks the way they played the rest of the season, they don’t make the playoffs. You can look it up. In a season that lasts fully seven months you have to feature your A Game for more than ten weeks.

Of the several key factors, the loss of Nathan Horton was the most devastating. Even in his inconsistency, he’s their one pure sniper. Any chance they had of getting the power play fixed went down with him, and, by the way, this problem needs to be fixed. It’s getting silly. The loss of Horton disrupted the rhythm and balance of all three top lines, which led to ceaseless tinkering that continued into the playoffs. Overall, they were not as healthy this year and in this brutal game the injury factor is transcendental.

Goal-tending was another issue. There’s a bit of waffling going on about this vital matter, but the simple fact is this year’s Tim Thomas was not equal to last year’s and if he’s oft been wonderful, he’s now 38. So the matter must be examined. Closely! On the other hand, Tuukka Rask begins to seem fragile. The timing of this year’s injury was awful. That Thomas’s performance sagged after his mid-season political tantrum, then never quite fully recovered, also should be pondered, odd as it may seem. Maybe he was brooding about the president when he allowed those two awful goals in the pivotal Game 5 of the Capitals’ series.

But then picking on Thomas, so heroic just a year ago, is admittedly unfair. It’s equally reasonable to ask where Brothers Krejci and Lucic were hiding in the Washington series. Lucic, on whose game-temperament so much revolves, seemed in a swoon in that gut-rending seventh game. There are plenty of questions for the GM to ponder this summer.

Yet they might have prevailed save for an unlucky bounce like the one the valiant Patrice Bergeron swiped at and missed in overtime of Game Seven only because he was playing so hurt that if he were a baseball player he’d be on the DL for at least two months. We may be disappointed with these Bruins, but we should never forget they are Bruins. And this team has always played tough and played hurt.

They might have won that Capitals’ series. The Caps’ winning goal could easily have been disallowed because Mike Knuble was obviously not only in the crease but also clearly making strenuous efforts to further obstruct Thomas, making it easy for Joel Ward to slip the winning goal into the net. The rulebook clearly states such willful impairment obliges the referee to nullify the goal. But he didn’t, and the Bruins, being more classy than is often recognized, did not protest. Although they had every right to.

Oh, well. It might only have led to a harsher dispatch at the hands of the more hateful Flyers in the next round and that would have been tougher to bear. The fact is, it wasn’t “there” this year. It happens.