By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
I’m still not 100% certain that actually happened.
There’s no way. This team? They’re the ones that blow 3-0 leads. They’re the ones that underachieve, collapse under pressure, that rally late but come up empty. This was the team that was supposed to lose Monday night.
But instead, here we are, two nights away from Game One of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
How the hell did this happen?
This Boston Bruins team was very, very dead. This fact can’t be overstated. They were down 4-1 on home ice, halfway through the third period in a Game Seven. Their second best defenseman played all of 37 seconds thanks to an injury. Their trusted veteran depth D-men were watching from the press box. Their goaltender tried to bail them out for what seemed like the hundredth time this year, but the dam was bursting.
Fans took to twitter, not so much to rant about which players needed to be traded or who should replace Claude Julien (all of this would have come later), but to eulogize their team. Timelines were filled with tweets like, “Congrats Leafs fans, enjoy this”, “Awful. Awful.”, and “It’s called Bruins…” even after Nathan Horton cut Toronto’s lead in half.
When Tuukka Rask scurried to the bench, the countdown to the offseason had begun. This was most certainly the end of the Boston Bruins as the world knows them. A shakeup was inevitable, and the “core group” was about to be redefined.
Then Milan Lucic powered his way to the front of the net, and made it a 4-3 game. All at once encouraging and infuriating a fanbase who, for reasons of mental self-preservation, didn’t want to believe in this team again.
Patrice Bergeron tied the game, and by now you know the rest. One of the most historic and memorable comebacks in Boston sports history was complete, and a Bruins team once labeled “chokers” may have finally rid themselves of that moniker.
It was hysteria in Boston. A hysteria that is still lingering the day after. No one in this city can get enough of this story. The Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 3-1 series lead, Toronto’s resurgence, the “plane malfunction”, the 4-1 deficit, the comeback.
And now, the Rangers.
For the first time since 1973, Boston and New York will meet in the post-season. Both teams battled through seven games to advance, and both teams were penciled in as Eastern Conference favorites long before the season began.
Can the Bruins really win this series?
Try for a moment to forget about “The Comeback”. Take a step back and look at this Boston Bruins team. It’s not the prettiest of pictures. A mix of streaky and slumping scorers, frustrated and fatigued grinders, and a beat and battered defense corps.
Andrew Ference was reportedly seen sporting a walking boot and crutches prior to Game 7. Wade Redden missed two games in round one. And most glaringly, Dennis Seidenberg’s mysterious Game 7 injury left the Bruins blue-line tattered, and forced rookies Dougie Hamilton and Matt Barkowski to see extended ice time in an elimination game.
How far can a team go with their top defensemen playing 30+ minutes a night? Especially in a playoff series that promises to be more physical and more grueling than the one they just escaped.
Unless two of the three injured veterans are able to return for Round Two, Boston’s defensive depth will be tested severely. Bartkowski was phenomenal in Game 7, and may actually have an edge over Hamilton on the depth chart.
Beyond the rookies, who else could be called upon to try and plug the defensive holes? Aaron Johnson? Torey Krug? Yikes.
The Rangers aren’t exactly the picture of health either. Ryan Clowe, Marc Staal, and Darroll Powe are all question marks heading into the series.
So in a seven game series between two physical, battered teams, who could be the difference maker? More than likely, Henrik Lundqvist.
The perennial Vezina trophy nominee was once again outstanding in round one, shutting down and shutting out the potent offense of the Washington Capitals to help his team advance. Tuukka Rask will have his work cut out for him if he plans on trying to keep pace with #30 in blue.
Forget the seedings, forget home-ice, the Bruins can be considered underdogs in this series and they should embrace that role. Injuries and fatigue have already taken their toll on Boston players, and it could be tough for them to overcome it this time around.
Then again, maybe there’s a little magic left.