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For Bruins, Game 6 is the opportunity of a lifetime

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 25, 2011 08:42 AM

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"You want to have a mindset of winning Game 6. We talked about, 'Don't think ahead and don't think of the past.' We need to think of the present. [Game 6] is an opportunity to come out and play the best game we can, and it's as simple as that."
- Bruins coach Claude Julien addressing the media yesterday

In reality, of course, Game 6 is so much more than that. It is a chance for the Bruins to close out the Tampa Bay Lightning, to move one step closer to their ultimate goal, to officially become part of an era unlike any other in the history of this city or, perhaps, any other.

The Bruins and Lightning will take the ice for Game of the Eastern Conference finals tonight, and we all know the score. Boston 3, Tampa Bay 2. Another series is within grasp. The Bruins are 39 years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship, 21 years removed from their last trip to the finals, the latter coming when Mike Milbury was their coach, not a television analyst, and when Tyler Seguin was a concept, not a budding star.

More so than anyone else, the Bruins know what this game means.

And therein rests the danger.

"Yeah, I mean, it's -- obviously it's only natural to look ahead to really see where we are right now, and what the actual -- the finals, it's pretty exciting," Bruins forward Gregory Campbell told reporters. "But I mean, we're not there. And that has to be our mentality.

"Hockey -- in this game, it changes. Things change quickly. So if you look ahead too far and not focus on playing hard, then bad things usually happen."

And then there is this: the focus alone does not guarantee anything. The Lightning now know this as well as anyone. Tampa Bay outplayed the Bruins for the large majority of Game 5 and still lost what was effectively a 2-1 game. (The Bruins' final goal, to make it 3-1, was an empty-netter courtesy of Rich Peverley.) Tampa had an overwhelming 31-12 advantage in shots early in the third period, withTim Thomas magically paddling pucks away from the goal mouth as if he was playing table tennis.

As for whether the Bruins should have already won this series given their epic Game 4 meltdown, do not be deluded into that line of thinking. Had the Bruins won Game 4, there is no telling how Game 5 might have gone. Thomas would not have boldly predicted a Bruins win in the series and he might have lacked the focus he possessed in Game 5. Guy Boucher might have acted altogether differently. The playoffs truly go day to day, one game at a time, each team, coach, and player reacting to the specific task at hand.

How the Bruins respond to this one is anybody's guess. Plagued by an inability to close out opponents during the Claude Julien era -- the Bruins were 2-7 in potential series clinchers under Julien entering this postseason with much of that ineptitude coming in last year's Flyers series -- the Bruins are 2-1 in potential series-clinchers this spring. Meanwhile, the Lightning are a perfect 3-0 when facing possible elimination, having rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

In those three games against Pittsburgh, the Lightning outscored the Penguins 13-4, then carried that momentum into a second-round sweep of the Washington Capitals during which Tampa scored another 16 goals. As such, those looking for any kind of indicators entering Game 6 might note that Tampa generally has won the higher-scoring games in this series (Games 1 and 4) while the Bruins have won the lower-scoring affairs (Games 3 and 5), the lone exception being Seguin's breakout performance in a Game 2 contest that Boucher described as "pond hockey."

Beyond all of that, for those us on the outside who have had the privilege of following sports in Boston during this most extraordinary of times, there is this: the Stanley Cup Finals might now be coming here, too. In the last 10 years, starting in January of 2002, Boston teams have won six championships (three Super Bowls, two World Series and an NBA Finals) and participated in eight championship games or series. Additionally, the Red Sox have played in two American League Championship Series and the Patriots in an AFC title game. Add it all up and Boston teams have participated in the league semifinals on a startling dozen occasions, the most recent being this Bruins foray into the NHL's final four.

In modern American sports history, there has never been anything like it, anywhere.

You can look it up.

For the Bruins, certainly, this postseason has the feeling of a beginning rather than an end, the team's roster splattered with young, talented players who are the team's control for years to come. David Krejci and Nathan Horton are signed. Tuukka Rask is still waiting in the wings. Dennis Seidenberg qualifies as an older member of the core and he won't be 29 until July. Patrice Bergeron is not yet 26.

And yet, hockey being hockey, we are all smart enough to understand that opportunities like this do not come along so often. Ray Bourque played two decades in Boston and never won a Cup. The Bruins now are one victory away from the right to play for one. And so as much as the Bruins have a little wiggle room in this series, as much as Tampa Bay needs Game 6 more than Boston does, the Bruins need remind themselves of only thing tonight as they venture onto the ice.

They, like their most loyal followers, have so much more to gain.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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