After 17 games, 11 wins, six losses, and several memorable moments the Bruins are right back where they started when the postseason did. Like the Spoked-B on their chests they've come full circle to be in the faceoff circle with the tag of being a team that must prove it can win the Big One.
All the ground the Bruins have gained during this enjoyable playoff run -- the Game 4 comeback against the Canadiens, winning a Game 7 at home against the haunting Habs, exacting revenge on the Flyers in a four-game sweep, Tyler Seguin's preview of coming attractions, Tim Thomas' Save of the Century -- will be lost if the Bruins are not victorious in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow night at TD Garden against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Eastern Conference finalists for the first time since 1992, the Bruins can't throw their faithful fans under the Zamboni by subjecting them to a third straight dismal playoff demise via a Game 7 at home, this one coming with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line. Then this postseason will go down as one big, bad bear trap for die-hard and newbie fans alike.
This is probably not a good time to mention that Game 7 against the Flyers last year also came on a Friday night in May. Or that the Lightning have never lost a Game 7 in their brief history (3-0). Or that Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson is now 7-0 in elimination games. Or that Simon Gagne-Dent-Boone is on the other side.
Okay, so now we have the negative thoughts out of the way.
Count me among those who believe this iteration of the Black and Gold is more up to the task and mentally tough than previous versions that have failed miserably in this spot. They've shown it all playoffs long, responding to adversity and performing under pressure (4-0 in overtime games). They bounced back from the Game 4 debacle in this series to win Game 5, despite ceding the obligatory early-bird goal.
Even in defeat, they flashed their newfound determination last night. The Bruins could have waved the white flag after Steven Stamkos scored 34 seconds into the third period to give Tampa Bay a two-goal lead. They could have mentally been clearing TSA security for the trip home after it took just 29 seconds after a David Krejci tally for the Lightning to restore that two-goal lead. Instead, they made the Lightning and a restored-in-goal Roloson sweat out a 5-4 victory until the final seconds. Then they roughed them up at the buzzer for good measure.
The Bruins are different, but no one will care if the result is the same as 2009 or 2010. Tomorrow night is Judgment Day for the Bruins as an organization. Fair or not, legacies and jobs could be on the line.
It starts in net with Thomas. If he had played the way he did in Game 5 we wouldn't even be discussing a Game 7. He didn't lose the game last night, but the power-play goal he allowed to Teddy Purcell in the second period won't be part of his Vezina trophy reel. His failure to corral a rebound of a Marc-Andre Bergeron shot from the point led to the desperation cross-check Andrew Ference took on Stamkos, which set up Stamkos's power-play strike early in the third.
Thomas was pedestrian on a night when the Bruins got the offensive equivalent of a solar eclipse -- a goal from Milan Lucic and a power play goal happening in the same game. Four goals should have at least ensured overtime.
Thomas is the primary reason the Bruins are in this position, but for his amazing Vermont-to-Vezina story there still remains the question of whether he is a big-game backstop. Thomas is 1-2 with a 3.22 goals against and a .899 save percentage in three Game 7s. It should be pointed out though that it was Tuukka Rask, not Thomas, who was between the pipes for the fold against Philly.
Not surprisingly, the Game 7 marks for most of the Bruins' centerpieces are low. Patrice Bergeron, the team's Rock of Gibraltar, has played like a pebble in Game 7s. In four of them he has one goal, one point, and a 1-3 record. Zdeno Chara was 0-5 all-time in Game 7s until the Bruins broke through against Montreal. Krecji, who missed last season's Game 7 loss to the Flyers with a broken wrist, has one assist in three Game 7s.
Lucic has been a big-game player with three goals and an assist in four decisive games, but his scoring touch has been on the fritz all postseason.
Perhaps, no one has more to lose tomorrow night than much-maligned coach Claude Julien. Anything short of the Bruins hoisting the Stanley Cup and a very vocal segment of Bruins' backers wants Julien's next line change to be to the unemployment line. If his team exits the playoffs in ignominious fashion on home ice for the third year in a row, then his critics will have more ammunition for his ouster.
With the suddenly-invisible Seguin no longer the cause du jour, they can point to Julien waiting too long to park Chara in front of the net on the ineffective power play (5 for 61 in the playoffs). Or the fact that Mark Recchi, who is pointless in the Eastern Conference finals and hasn't scored a goal since Game 1 of the Flyers series, is still seeing regular time on the man advantage, while averaging 16 minutes and 35 seconds of total ice time per game in the series.
If the Bruins lose, let the second-guessing of everything and everyone Black and Gold begin.
Tomorrow marks 43 days since the Bruins began the playoffs with a lot to prove. It's been a long journey to arrive back at the same old place -- Game 7 at home.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.