What team in any sport might openly disdain finishing first in the endless, relentless, thankless ordeals of what nowadays pass for “regular seasons”?
In the NHL, the brutal grind from early October to mid-April is a ragged slog through mindless travel, brutal weather, interminable distraction – too long, too packed, too grueling – and ever a danger for even genuine warriors of becoming a trek from tedium to burnout with a side trip to irrelevance. To survive with the highest honors, bloodied but unbowed, is a mark of considerable distinction; or certainly ought to be.
Yet on finishing with the season’s best record and a fistful of striking accomplishments verifying it was no fluke, the Bruins are mildly contemptuous of the fancy bauble called the President’s Trophy that goes to the lead dog. They’re entirely indifferent to its meaning. They are of the attitude of that sassy chap in Abe Lincoln’s favorite anecdote who, when about to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, was heard to say wistfully that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he’d just as soon walk.
Well, maybe they aren’t quite that turned off. But consider what the glory of the “thing” earns the Bruins as we veer into the only season that counts in this sport, that two-month trail of tears leading to the Stanley Cup. The “prize” is that they win Detroit’s Red Wings for the opening round, the team no other team in its right mind would have wanted to catch. In fact, of the seven potential opponents – that’d be all the other playoff qualifiers in their conference – the only one you’d less want them to draw for openers is the Montreal Canadiens for reasons anyone dimly aware of the passions of Bruins’ history understands without further elaboration.
On the road to the Cup, Round One is the trickiest. In recent years, it has consistently featured the festival’s best and most tenacious hockey, with bitter showdowns exploding all over North America. First-round match-ups tend to be tong wars, often deteriorating into on-ice blood baths, as was the case last year in the nasty Canadiens-Senators series, and the year before, when the Penguins and Flyers disgraced themselves. For most teams, surviving the first round redeems an entire season. So that’s how they play them. As if striving, not merely for glory or money, but for redemption itself – desperately! For the most recent affirmation of this point hereabouts recall last year’s Toronto Maple Leafs whom the Bruins but thinly survived thanks to a bloody miracle on ice more improbable than the original.
Overall, the Red Wings are the NHL’s best team over the generation roughly straddling the old and new millenniums. Even through their slow but steady decline in recent seasons they’ve remained dangerous; a team no one wishes to tangle, with all the chips on line. This season, Detroit was ravaged by injury; no team got hit harder. With age and attrition further eating at their lineup the Red Wings seemed out of it in February, but they rallied in March, only to stagger again in April, finishing eighth and last among playoff qualifiers. They survived by just two points, clearly lucky to make the dance.
But don’t read too much into all that. The Wings remain smart, don’t beat themselves, and have above average goaltending. Furthermore, you’ll not be pleased to hear their veteran core of crafty Euro-imports, including the stray Russian and all those implacable Swedes, led by Henrik Zetterberg, is the healthiest it has lately been although it’s their new core of hot-shot rookies you should probably most worry about, for the kids – there are five of them and they’re all swift – saved the Wings this season. The best of them is Gustav Nyquist, yet another snappy Swede and quite a sensation the last three months. He beat the Bruins near single-handedly early in April in the game that likely saved Detroit’s season.
Simply put, the Wings are dangerous! They match up too well with the Bruins. They won three of the four regular-season meetings, handing Boston its most embarrassingly one-sided whipping (6-1) en route. Perchance, does that sound like a dog to you? Their coach, Mike Babcock, is generally regarded the NHL’s best, which is why he was tabbed to lead Canada’s Olympic squad to its gold medal moment. You’ll recall Babcock’s right-hand man in that precious endeavor was our own guy, Claude Julien. They were roommates in Sochi and seem to be pals. More room for concern. We’d much prefer they despise each other as even those otherwise amiable lads, Don Cherry and Scotty Bowman, once did. It’s worth repeating. The Wings are the team you should least like to see your team open against.
The Bruins, of course, also get home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs to go with the new lump of hardware that is about to land far back in their trophy case. But that’s of marginal importance to the team that has the league’s best road record. They’d likely much prefer to catch Columbus in the opener and let them have home ice. Instead it’s the loathsome Penguins, who finished a distant second, who get the privilege of wiping out the Bluejackets in Round One. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Still, all such fears notwithstanding ,the Bruins will be heavy favorites in the Red Wings series and should be. Such was their highly impressive domination in the regular season. When they romped through March, losing only one of 18 games, they were as good as any team I’ve seen since the fabled Canadiens of the ’50s and ’60s, who were dang near perfect.
For sustained stretches this season the Bruins were clearly the NHL’s toughest, deepest, most balanced, best coached, smartest, and most disciplined team, with all those virtues being trumped by the best goaltending. There are ample stats further affirming all that, which I’ll not bore you with, save for the one gem I think is most telling: The Bruins finished second in goals scored (to Chicago) and second in least goals allowed (to LA). Their differential between the two was a whopping plus 84. Tied for second were St. Louis and Anaheim at plus 57. Detroit’s differential was minus eight.
The Bruins have been quite a package this season. But the difference between the regular season and the playoff season is eerie, near mystical. Strange things can possess a team in the playoffs, or dispossess them, for that matter. It’s why many teams prefer to lie in the weeds over the long haul, fine-tuning and ripening and poised to spring like the veritable viper when the Cup is finally at stake. In their long-ago glory days under Punch Imlach, the Toronto Maple Leafs excelled at the tactic. You can burn up too much energy in the pursuit of the President’s Trophy. Did the Bruins do that even if all along they didn’t give a hoot for the bloody thing? We’re about to find out.
It’s hard to believe, but this is the Bruins first Stanley Cup joust with their dear old Original Six buddies from Detroit in well more than a half century. When last they met, in 1957, the Wings were the NHL’s powerhouse and heavy Cup favorites, loaded with Hall of Fame bound stalwarts: Brothers Howe, Lindsay, Ullman, Delvecchio, Pronovost, Arbour, Hall, and a very young Johnny Bucyk, not yet “The Chief.” Smartly coached by Milt Schmidt, the Bruins had a nice nucleus that included such worthies as Don McKenney, Dougie Mohns, Vic Stasiuk, Fleming Mackell, and Johnny Pierson. But by the exalted standards of those Orginal Six days, they were strictly back-benchers.
In a shocker widely proclaimed the biggest upset in NHL history, the Bruins whipped the Wings in five mind-boggling tilts. Whereupon, of course, they went on to get stonewalled by Jacques Plante and the Canadiens in the Finals. No matter! They had been David, taking down the mighty Goliath. It was heroic. The Wings would not win another Cup for four decades.
Is all of that in Detroit’s thoughts this spring? Hockey people have the longest memories and the gravest thirst for revenge. Why, in this game, 57 years is only yesterday.