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Bruins' Cup isn't empty

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 26, 2012 12:29 PM

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By Christopher L. Gasper, Globe columnist

The end was swift and stunning. Suddenly, the puck was behind Tim Thomas and the Washington Capitals were hugging the TD Garden boards and each other in celebration. A moment later the Bruins were in the handshake line, sent home empty-handed without a Game 7 victory, a playoff series win, or Lord Stanley's Cup.

A captivating and charmed 12-month span of hockey came to an unexpected conclusion. Joel Ward's backhanded sweeper at 2:57 of overtime put the defending Stanley Cup champs into a state of pucks repose. No need to get the Duck Boats ready this year, just the golf clubs, thanks to a first-round exit courtesy of the Caps.

There will be a rush to do a postmortem and try to detail the reasons the Bruins bowed out in the first round after suffering a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals in Game 7 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series. You can blame the power play (0 for 3 last night and 2 for 23 in the series), the play of Washington's playoff neophyte netminder Braden Holtby (2.00 goals against, .940 save percentage), or the lack of production from the Bruins' best players -- Rich Peverley (3 goals, 2 assists) and Andrew Ference (a goal and 3 assists) ended up as the Bruins two leading point producers in the series.

But what last night's loss provided is a greater appreciation for just how special last year's Stanley Cup run was, because this year's edition of the Black and Gold had largely the same cast of characters and got a much different result.

Last year's club was truly remarkable -- and blessed. It was the first in NHL history to win three Game 7s in one playoff year. It was also the first Bruins team in 27 tries to win a series after trailing 0-2, as the Spoked-Bs did to Montreal in last year's first-round. It had a goaltender in Tim Thomas who repelled more rubber than any goalie in Stanley Cup playoff history (798 saves). It overcame an inept power play.

Still, any number of unfavorable bounces or missed opportunities last year could have derailed the Bruins' Stanley Cup run, as it did this year.

The series with the Capitals was thisclose. After seven games, all decided by one goal -- an NHL first -- the cumulative count for the series was Capitals 16, Bruins 15. A solitary goal, triggered by an unlucky Benoit Pouliot dump-in, the difference between going on and going home.

That's not to ascribe the Bruins' success last year strictly to great goaltending and good fortune. It was much more than that. Last year's team was a model of resiliency, finely-tuned team play, and clutch individual efforts. They rose to the occasion and never shrank from the moment.

The short summer, a long, grinding regular season, the absence of Nathan Horton, and a recusant Capitals club that got a style makeover from coach Dale Hunter made it difficult for the Bruins to recapture that playoff magic, the 13th successive champions who failed to retain their Cup holder status.

That doesn't dull the disappointment of a first-round exit or provide underperforming Bruins like Milan Lucic, David Krejic and Brad Marchand with an alibi. But it illustrates that exultation and lamentation are separated by a margin as narrow as a skate blade this time of year.

Thomas never would have become a Conn Smythe-winning icon if the Bruins hadn't escaped against Montreal in the first round last year.

"We're not going to sit here and pick at our team," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "When I look at this hockey club and what it went through last year and you look at teams that have been through that situation and how they've struggled throughout the year...we had to really grind it out. It was a challenging year for our guys, and it was a challenging series as well.

"They made it tough on us. They deserve a lot of credit for the way they played and the number of shots they blocked. They helped their goaltender, but the young goaltender played extremely well. Let's not forget to give them a lot of credit for the way they handled us.

"At the end of the day when you look at your team, the team wasn't playing its best hockey in the series. Before this day started you just hoped you could get through this Game 7 and then hope to pick some momentum up as you moved forward in the playoffs. But you had to get through this game and we weren't able to."

The good news is that the core of this club figures to return intact, unless general manager Peter Chiarelli decides now is the time to sell off Thomas. The most prominent free agent is Chris Kelly, a versatile forward the Bruins should do their best to retain. The Bruins should get a boost with the addition of blue-chip blue line prospect Dougie Hamilton.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Bruins in defeat was the coming of age of Tyler Seguin. No. 19 was the Bruins' best forward in the last three games of this series. He scored the Boston's lone goal last night, knotting the game, 1-1, in the second.

That goal, even more than the Renoir game-winner he scored in overtime in Game 6, was a sign of Seguin's maturation. Noticeably contact-averse early in the series, Seguin crashed the net and battled with Washington's shut-down defense pair, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, before diving and poking a loose puck past Holtby.

It was the type of no-guts, no-glory goal you would associate with Lucic or Bergeron. It's the type of goal that earns the respect of your teammates and lets them know that you grasp what being a Bruin is about.

Hockey is over this season in Boston, but the Bruins run of success isn't. It has merely paused to allow them to catch their breath.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...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.

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