Different people had different hopes and expectations, and most because different reasons. 250 days ago exactly, the 2010-11 NHL season opened up, with the Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes playing the first of two back-to-back games in front of a capacity crowd in Prague. 251 days ago, there were endless amounts of questions just waiting to be answered. How much better will Tuukka Rask be? When will Marc Savard come back? How will Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton fare in Boston? Will Marco Sturm have another 20-goal year, or just another knee injury? Can Lucic bounce back after a letdown season? Who is Gregory Campbell? Why is Matt Hunwick's hair so long? When will they finally trade Tim Thomas for that much-needed sniper?
Thank God fans don't run franchises.
That being said, the mounting concerns and approaches that came up during the off-season were felt by the Boston Bruins Front Office. A big part of that is why one year ago today, Cam Neely was named President of the team. Change was needed. Claude Julien's head was being called for after a historic collapse. What it deserved? Debatable. Actually, maybe. Despite being part of the reason why the Bruins' popularity had grown vastly in the previous three season, Julien also hadn't proved to be a great playoff coach, with his team losing three consecutive Game 7s, and not making it any further than the Conference Semifinals. Regardless, 250 days ago, he started the season as the head coach of the Bruins, and was reunited with his former assistant coach, Doug Houda. And Julien had a mission he set out to accomplish.
250 days later, the Bruins are Stanley Cup Champions.
Looking back on this season, it was frustrating as all hell. But at the same, that same roller-coaster ride made the result that much sweeter. Granted, I hated seeing the last piece of the Joe Thornton trade, Marco Sturm, get sent to the Los Angeles Kings for practically a bag of pucks and a sandwich. I rolled my eyes when they got another defensive prospect for Matt Hunwick. I doubted Chiarelli just a bit when he traded a high draft-pick for Chris Kelly. Wait, who? I hated seeing one of the biggest physical forces on the Bruins, Mark Stuart, get traded with Blake Wheeler (who I didn't mind seeing traded) for one of Atlanta's "Star Players," Rich Peverly. Because looking back at the recent history of Championship-winning teams, I didn't see that makeup in the Bruins for a large part of the season.
Going back in the last ten years, these hockey-household names had graced Lord Stanley's silver siding. Toews, Crosby, Zetterberg, Selanne, Brind'Amour, St. Louis, Brodeur, Lidstrom, Bourque. And while Chara and Thomas were known to the hardcore and even casual hockey fans, many felt that the Bruins lacked that star, that force that would push them to their ultimate goal. Largely, this felt like the same team that lost ten straight games a season ago. This felt like the team that lost four straight to Philadelphia, including blowing a three-goal lead in the series-clinching bout. This felt like another year of "better luck, next time."
And perhaps it was frustrating because there didn't seem to be that potential. But it was more disheartening knowing that this team had potential, and that it was being wasted. Since I began writing for Hub Hockey back when Chris Crawford brought me on through Twitter, back when the website ended in a .Com, I believed Tim Thomas had a next level. I knew in my heart that 2008-09's Vezina-winning season was not a fluke. But I also had a sinking feeling that his time was running out, and he would be the Dan Marino of the National Hockey League, albeit having played for much less at the professional level.
Then came February. The Bruins' character finely broke through in the shortest month of the year. First, it was their 6-3 win over Dallas, in a game that record four fights in the first three seconds of regulation. Then, it was a wild 8-6 win over Montreal, where the Bruins beat them on the scoreboard, and beat them up. Finally, February was capped off with a six-game road trip, in which the Black & Gold won all six games. They came back to the Garden on March 3rd, and won a hard-fought, gritty game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, not letting down their faithful fans on home ice. They embarassed the Montreal Canadiens in defense of their Captain, Zdeno Chara, following the Max Pacioretty incidient. Mark Recchi announced that if the Bruins hoisted the Cup, he would retire after this season. This is when I first started to believe this team was different.
Maybe it was because of the win-streak that I felt this way. But I believe it was more than just wins or losses. The trade deadline had passed, and it was clear that if the Bruins were going to make a run for the Cup, this was the team they were going to do it with.
The Bruins finished the regular season going 7-4-1 in their last twelve games, and landed as the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference standings. Going into the Playoffs, fate and destiny began to take over. First, they simply wanted to defeat the Montreal Canadiens. Then, they needed to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers. And finally, they were the better team, and rightfully so, overcame their biggest challenge yet, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in an overpowering Game 7 performance, a 1-0 victory that was the essence of Bruins hockey.
The Bruins earned their first Finals appearance in twenty years. They did so with grit, will, and honor. They believed. They believed they could win the Cup. They believed there was no team in the NHL that could take them in a seven-game series. Even as they fell behind two games to the Canucks, because of the fashion they lost those games in, I wasn't worried. At no point in Games 1 & 2 did Vancouver's play overwhelm the Bruins. When they came back, and scored 12 goals despite being short of their (at the time) lead-scorer in Nathan Horton, I believed even more. And when the Bruins lost to Vancouver in Game 5, it was then that I knew they'd win the Cup.
To many, it was felt that despite playing their best, the Bruins simply couldn't beat the Canucks on the road. But they were wrong. That was the glass half-empty approach. Few believers understood that in fact, Vancouver was playing their best hockey, and barely leaving their home ice with a victory, three times in a row. As the Bruins had done all season, they came up big on the largest of stages, and would not let the Stanley Cup be won by another team on their ice. Boston pounded the Canucks in Game 6, and as they flew back to Vancouver, it was already sealed.
The Bruins had equalled the Canucks, if not out-played Vancouver, all series long. Counting their regular season meeting, the Bruins had already won four of seven games played against them this season. And they won that game at Rogers Arena. Their offense, while not flashy or quick, was too effective and skilled to score only two goals in four games. They would not be shut out again, as they'd gotten to Luongo for 25 goals to this point in the series. It came down to Tim Thomas, who by this point, was the last worry in the minds of Bruins fans.
No team had ever won three game-sevens in one postseason. No team had ever erased a two-game deficit in the Finals. Road teams were 3-12 in Stanley Cup Finals Game 7s. People started to believe that the word of EA Sports' NHL 11 was gospel. Literally every statistical fact was stacked against them. But the same way this team made history last season, losing a 3-0 series lead, they would make history. They were too good, too proud, too sure of their own abilities to come this far, and not perform. They wanted it more than the Canucks. They had earned it. They went out there, and they took it from the city of Vancouver. And with little resistance. The Canucks may have more talent on paper. But the Boston Bruins were the better team in the series. They are the better team.
As Game 7 went on, the 1-0 and 2-0 leads the Bruins held didn't scare me. The 3-0 lead they took into the locker room after the 2nd Period didn't make me worried about another disappointment. By this point, the Bruins had proven that they had the ability to finish games. Boston was a different team, because they had been there before. They knew the feeling, and the thought of failure resided in their hearts and minds the same way it did each and every person back in Boston. There was 20 minutes left of their season, and they were determined to give every fiber of their being until the final horn sounded, because they believed that would result in victory.
That is why they killed off a Vancouver power-play to open the 3rd. That is why Milan Lucic got a breakaway opportunity near the end of the period. That is why Brad Marchand got an empty-net goal just seconds after the Canucks pulled Luongo. Vancouver wasn't supposed to let up. By their track record, everyone expected Boston to lay back, and play prevent defense. But they didn't. They pushed the Canucks, and they maintained the control of play. The Canucks didn't lose the Stanley Cup. The Bruins won it.
This team is different. They stand up for each other. They battle back. They win when they should, and even sometimes when they shouldn't. This is the team we've come to love and believe in. This is the team we call our own. And the best part is, the core of this determined team is here for years to come. They represent the Big & Bad. They represent our city. And now, they represent Boston's winning ways. These are our Bruins. These are our Stanley Cup Champions. And I've never felt prouder to say so.