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Get ready, bandwagoners: Playoff hockey returns to Hub soon

The signs and omens lately have been discouraging, conjuring grisly images of other sags and swoons scattered over the past generation. But be not of faint heart, Bruins legions.

Despite all their stumbling about since Groundhog Day your kids remained - incredibly or otherwise - the NHL team with the best record with only 15 games left in the regular season. Whether that also means they are the best team is of course quite another matter. It could turn out to be merely fresh affirmation of the relative irrelevance of the NHL's regular season.

But this much is probable: Barring something truly cataclysmic like a plague of locusts or an invasion of frogs, we are going to have a real, live, good old-fashioned, genuine, bona fide, barn burner of a Stanley Cup hockey festival on our hands this spring here in what is oft called - with more than a little poetic license - the Hub of Hockey.

If it happens - and that little modifier is so well advised - it would be the first of any consequence since the dimly remembered winter of 1992, when they finally surrendered meekly to the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins under the legendary sway of Mario Lemieux in the semi-finals after out-brawling the Sabres and flogging the Canadiens (four straight) in the first two rounds.

The '92 edition was a worthy and rather typical of the times Bruins team built around Ray Bourque with Andy Moog in goal and the likes of Adam Oates, Joe Juneau, and Dave Poulin up front. It was your basic Harry Sinden production; honest, rock-ribbed, crowd-pleasing, and still a team few trifled with or wanted to catch in the playoffs. But once gallant warrior Cam Neely went down, entering upon the skid that would bear his career to a sadly early end, they were de facto cooked. The Penguins whacked them four straight.

If it seems like yesterday, be reminded that it was 17 winter/springs ago. Milan Lucic was three years of age; Phil Kessel all of four. And ever since, the indignities have mounted relentlessly.

That failed '92 run was their last reach as high as the semi's. Since then they've advanced beyond the first round only twice ('94 and '99) while failing to even qualify five times and if you add the scandalous year of the infamous strike that makes six seasons when the lights were out by Easter. They've only won one playoff series in the last 13 years, none at all in this millennium when three times they have been eliminated by the still much loathed arch foes from Montreal.

All of which extends the dry spell between Cups to 37 years and counting. How many ways need the point be made? It amounts to the second great stretch of wandering the wilderness in Bruins' history. Only this time the aimless journey has been not only longer but greatly more drab and annoying.

Because in the first such dryspell - extending from the eve of World War II to the coming of the messianic Bobby Orr - it was all within the context of that remarkable phenomenon, the Original Six. Somehow there seemed little shame in annually battling the Rangers and Blackhawks for the last invitation to the Stanley Cup waltz in a lodge of intimate and intensely driven brothers alternately dominated by the illustrious Maple Leafs and Red Wings and the near omnipotent Canadiens.

Moreover, if the last seven years (1960-'67) of the odyssey were rough the Bruins were plenty competitive over the long preceding era missing the playoffs only three years out of 19 while reaching the finals six times. The oft-told tale of Bruins ineptitude in those times is mainly mere myth. It's a point that - at the age of 91 - the beloved Milt Schmidt can still make forcefully.

This latest run of mediocrity, however, has lacked such redeeming charm. Runaway expansion diminished the NHL's personality. Now thoroughly global, no one should dispute the sheer talent the NHL features. It is fabulous. But the end product is less so. We do not know these teams, let alone their players. We see these Ducks and Sharks, Coyotes, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets maybe once every other year and when one of them ends up winning the Stanley Cup, we yawn. That the likes of Tampa, Carolina and Anaheim have danced with the Cup in just the last few years has only sharpened the sense that the Bruins are hopelessly out to lunch. Losing out to Les Habitants is one thing. Bowing and scraping before the Lightning and the Ducks is quite another.

And so we arrive at the moment when maybe - just 'maybe' - they can turn it around. It's an awakening that's the more interesting because it's been so sudden and unexpected. The new regime grabs most of the credit but as many key moves were made by their wrongly discredited predecessors in the last gasps of the Sinden era. Those so very decent lads - led by the estimable Harry - were run off much too callously, for my tastes. The Jacobs gang did a clumsy and heartless job of it, which of course is so very much in their style.

But it remains a fact that under Harry's watch, Mike O'Connell, Scott Gorton and their henchmen assembled roughly half this team with strong drafts and personnel moves topped by their very smart recognition that goalie Tim Thomas is the real deal for nobody else in the game believed it back then. Harry Sinden and his boys have their fingerprints all over this team but if something really big comes of this year's awakening, don't expect them to be asked to take a bow. The Boys from Buffalo will be dispensing credit to no one but themselves. But then who gets the credit isn't yet relevant, nothing having yet been won.

Even if they somehow manage to finish with the league's best record the Bruins will certainly not enter the playoffs any kind of Cup favorite. Most hockey savants believe San Jose and Detroit are measurably better and with Maestro Martin Brodeur, their matchless goalie, fully restored they would near unanimously add New Jersey to that list. A growing consensus further holds that both Philadelphia and Washington (as long as the Great Ovechkin is healthy) also have an edge on the Bruins.

And as we all know, it matters not what happens in the regular season. If the Montreal Canadiens are around they too will have their usual rather spooky advantage, although at the moment Montreal - locked in a fierce six-team tussle for the last four playoff spots in the East - will be lucky to qualify. Would it not be the Bruins luck for the Habs to not only qualify but to catch them in round one. How ruinous would another first-round exit in Montreal be for the Bruins? The very suggestion is chilling.

Faced with the need to shore up the cause, management's response at the trade deadline seemed weak as they came away with only a marginal veteran defenseman plus the ancient journeyman, Mark Recchi. But there may be something clever about the Recchi acquisition even if the mere notion of obtaining a 41-year -old hockey player for two allegedly decent prospects each of whom is roughly half his age is a bit astounding.

Recchi, however, defies such glib presumption. There's nothing typical about him. He's from the old school and, like Neely, a charter member of the warrior class, even if he's no brawler. He could have played with the Original Six. It's no coincidence that success follows him and his scoring marks this year with a lousy Tampa team - 13 goals and 32 assists in 61 games - are remarkable.

At 41, Mark Recchi can still play this game in this league and there aren't that many wings in the business who are 10 or even 20 years younger who you'd rather have beside you either in a fox hole or a desperate scrum in front of the net with the Cup itself on the line.

But is he enough? Stay tuned!

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