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Next year: For Celts, the promise remains; Bruins may not be so lucky

The choice is between anger, which is needless, and that imprecise if fetchingly civil deference to the promise of ‘next year’, which has become, at this point, rather a bore.

After all it will have been 38 years and counting when the next Bruins’ ever more elusive ‘next year’ dawns. In the meantime we’ve had 37 touching farewells to quaintly unfulfilled seasons. As art forms go, it has become a considerable challenge. What is there about this team that inspires so much pity?

For sure the Celtics are also departed. But there is no hint of shame in that nor should there be any regret. You don’t lose your game’s single most potent defensive force and remain the ‘team-to-beat’. If basketball is not quite a one-man show, every team has one indispensable man.

So it was that the Celtics title defense ended in the desert wastes of Utah the night of 19 February when the ravages of Kevin Garnett’s knees finally caught up with him.

There’s an eerie precedent to what happened to the Celtics this year. Back in 1958 they were coasting to their second title when the incomparable Bill Russell went down with a severely sprained ankle and ‘Presto’, the party was over. The parallel is less than precise. In ‘58, Russ was still a young fellow and the ankle healed nicely over the summer. Whereas Garnett has a lot more wear and tear on those knees and off-season surgery still looms. 

Still, that they extended the discussion into mid — while surviving en route a veritable and memorable tong-war with the Bulls — brings all the credit to the Celtics they could have hoped for this season. History being forever on their side and the Magic being the Magic there was always the chance they might squeeze out another round, although the honor of being trampled by LeBron James and company was hardly inviting. It ended as it had to and you should salute Orlando’s ‘indispensable man’, Dwight Howard, and his delightfully oafish comrade, Hedo Turkoglu, dubbed by Bob Ryan ‘the Turkish Larry Bird’.

Mark the Celtics’ demise down to the random caprices of injury. They’ll be back.

The Bruins may be another story. Once again they’ve toyed with the regions’ emotions tapping into a latent affection for a rugged, old-world game that the smart set no longer deems fashionable. Once again we were just getting to know and like a crusty band of bearded, sweating, fairly nameless, yet amiable characters when they suddenly got the hook, leaving us to ask, “Is that all there is?”
If the on-going historical tides hold true, the next time we endure this phenomenon it will feature a whole new cast of characters and we’ll have to start all over again. But people will do so with remarkably little annoyance. The flip side of pity, it seems, is a willing disposition to forgive. It’s a cyclical thing playing out every decade or so.

Will these Bruins be back next season competing for the best record in the league and winning their division and conference to finish as a top seed and favorite to reach the Cup’s finals? It’s always polite when a season ends dramatically to say the answer is ‘Yes’. But one suspects the answer here is, ‘No’. History is a major factor. Where this subject is concerned even those who vividly remember the history are doomed to repeat it.

All along this season there was the gnawing notion that the Bruins were overrated and played substantially over their collective heads from October through January. Credit for that goes entirely to the superb coaching of rock-solid Claude Julien who imposed the highest degree of discipline and order the team had known since the early days of Pat Burns’ tenure in the late ‘90’s. Helping greatly was the fact that injuries, ever the dreaded wildcard, were minimal. It was a team that believed in itself.

Then came February, which is when this league truly gets down to business and games really begin to mean something. The Bruins soon marked the turn by losing six out of seven. Between the 5th of February and the 19th of March — the all important and highly revealing stretch drive when the level of intensity rises significantly— the Bruins were 6-13. (Editor’s note: For purposes of this discussion over-time losses are deemed not ‘one-pointers’ but ‘losses’, which is what they are.) When they finished with eight wins in their last ten games the extended skid was brushed aside. That was unwise. 

Meanwhile, those wild and crazy ‘Canes were closing the regular season with a furious surge. Given their sorry lineage as erstwhile Whalers it was easy for the Bruins legions to be dismissive. That was a mistake. Three quarters of the season the ‘Canes were lackluster but when the going got hot, they got torrid. Games won in March have more substance than games won in November. How you end a season is far more important than how you begin one.

With the wisdom of hindsight, always profound, the Hurricanes’ peril should have been clearly recognized. The Bruins regular season achievements were deceiving while the Hurricanes garrison finish snaring a playoff spot the final week was insufficiently appreciated; a volatile equation. True, the Bruins dominated the ‘Canes in the regular season, winning all four times they met; but it happened only once (17 Feb.) during the crucial stretch run. Actually, the Bruins may have been lucky to extend the thing to seven games.

What only matters is that in the end there was little doubt about which team was better. There was not a single category of play in which the Bruins had the clear edge. Surely it was not in skating, or moving the puck, or on the power-play (where they were 2 for 28), or in back-checking, or in handing out hits (surprise), or in taking them, or on face-offs, or in displaying sheer grit, or (especially) in goal. The ever-valiant Tim Thomas had a good series. But with less theatre and more solid fundamental play Cam Ward was better.

It’s hard to fault Thomas, the heart of the team, but he butchered the ultimate moment when Carolina’s bad boy, Scott Walker, tapped in a rebound to end the Series in game seven’s sudden-death overtime. Ray Whitney’s initial shot was an easy flip which Thomas should have devoured allowing no rebound for Walker. Dennis Wideman, the defenseman who was in Walker’s shirt, should have tackled him. There would have been no penalty for the officials had put away their whistles and would only have called one if Wideman had pulled out a switchblade and stuck it in Walker’s ribs. It was all so aggravating while, at the same time, being perfectly reasonable for the Bruins had no business winning the thing. 

Walker was the certified bete noire of this year’s heartbreak. There’s always one when the B’s get chilled; a particularly nasty opponent accused of high crimes and misdemeanors that allow him to play an instrumental role in our heroes’ demise. Over the years the likes of John Ferguson. Claude Lemieux, Ulfie Samuelsson, and Esa Tikkanen have starred in this curious role and this year the honor fell to Walker, a journeyman winger hitherto unknown.

It was Walker who knocked smooth-skating defenseman Andrew Ference out of the series with a borderline hit and Walker who sucker-punched defenseman Aaron Ward in a bush league stunt unworthy of  ‘Slapshot’ and Walker who sassed them up and down the ice and between the games and escaped unscathed and Walker who jammed the deciding goal past Thomas. He played with extraordinary passion and sheer abandon and after the series we learned ‘why’. It seems that during the series Walker’s young wife Julie was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The man’s rage becomes, perhaps, better understood.  

Such thin twists of fate and fortune cause the games to turn fatally. It is remarkable. Which is why we will wait — eternally patient — for ‘next year’.

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