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Time to sober up, and grab a Cup

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 1, 2011 07:02 AM

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The easy and safest thing to do now would be to regard this all as some type of bonus, as if the final 25 percent of these NHL playoffs are free. They are not. They never were. And so for all that the Bruins have accomplished in this 2010-11 season, for as far as they have traveled, they now have the chance to go where so relatively few have been.

Whatever you do, do not fall into the trap that so many of us are being lured into this June, particularly in the wake of Friday's Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning that is likely to have induced at least a few champagne headaches. The Bruins do have something to lose here. They are not playing entirely with house money.

The Cup matters.

The Stanley Cup Finals will begin tonight with Game 1 at Rogers Arena, where the Bruins will face the favored Vancouver Canucks, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy and the indisputable best of the west. Depending on whom you believe and what you read, the Canucks are anywhere from moderate to prohibitive favorites in this series. Vancouver led the NHL in goals scored during the regular season and simultaneously allowed the fewest. Vancouver was first in the league in power-play percentage and third in penalty killing, and the Canucks have home ice advantage.

The Bruins? Suddenly, they are being regarded as a ragtag band of overachieving misfits, an assessment almost nobody was making when the Bruins were playing their way past the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Here’s another thing:

Once the games start, nobody really cares how well you play.

They only care if you win.

Here in Boston, where our Big 4 teams have now made an insane nine trips to their sport's finals in the last 10 years, we should understand these opportunities as well as anyone. How would we feel about the 2001 Patriots had they lost the Super Bowl to the Rams? How would we feel about the 2004 Red Sox had they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals? How would we feel about the 2007-08 Celtics had they ultimately ended in defeat, losing to the dreaded Lakers on their very own floor?

Here’s how: we would have put them in the same class as the '85 and '96 Patriots, the '46, '67, '75 and '86 Red Sox, maybe even with the '85 and '87 Celtics as good teams that simply were not good enough.

And that’s how we would forever describe them.

Good team, but they lost in the finals.

None of this is meant to detract from what the Bruins have accomplished thus far, which is certainly worthy of praise. That is hardly the point. But in the cold, hard realities of professional sports, there is the team that wins the championship … and then there is everyone else. What the Bruins possess now is an opportunity to enter the Boston’s very own Hall of Fame, that place where we store our most cherished memories.

With this Bruins team, in particular, this moment is especially dangerous. Under general manager Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins have sufficiently fortified their roster to the point where they are one of the younger, deeper teams in the league. There are virtually no contract issues. David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton are all signed. Tyler Seguin is just scratching the surface. The roster is absurdly stable. The most common belief at the moment is that the Bruins are built to last, that this march into the finals is merely the beginning of what could be one of the more successful eras in team history.

And yet, how do we know? After going 18-0 through the 2008 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have gone 0-3 in postseason play; Tom Brady is now officially in his mid-30s. After losing Game 7 to the Lakers last year, the Celtics now seem miles behind the Miami Heat. The Red Sox seemed to be building an empire when they won the 2007 World Series with contributions from a cast of first-year players, but they haven’t won a postseason contest since Game 6 of the 2008 American league Championship Series.

The simple truth is that there are no guarantees in professional sports, and so the opportunities must be treated with urgency, with the belief that there may not be another chance.

For the Bruins, too, the current NHL landscape is impossible to ignore. Unlike last season, the Bruins have remained largely healthy through these playoffs, which is no small feat. Meanwhile, the Canadiens played without Max Pacioretty, the Flyers essentially without Chris Pronger, the Lightning essentially without Sean Bergenheim, at least in the final two games. Beyond the immediate impact on the B’s, the Pittsburgh Penguins played without both Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a most dynamic duo in the Eastern Conference that will place the Pens, assuming health, among the conference favorites for years to come.

To their credit, the Bruins exploited every one of those weaknesses, which is what any elite team would do. But the point is that every team needs luck, too, whether it come in the form of the tuck rule (Brady), or a ball bouncing into the stands for a ground rule double (Tony Clark), or a player seemingly avoiding a potentially catastrophic injury (Paul Pierce and the wheelchair).

Let’s be honest here. It is easy for the most casual observer to now stand by the side, recognizing what the Bruins have done, and validating the team’s achievements as a “great year.” But that same observer probably hasn’t made the emotional investment that many of you have, particularly during a 39-year drought. In this lag between series, it has perfectly acceptable and appropriate to celebrate the Bruins, to forever preserve their performance against Tampa Bay in Game 7, to embrace them. They deserve it. But now the finals are about to begin and there is a championship to be one, and you are either clueless or delusional if you think that winning the Stanley Cup is some sort of bonus.

The Cup, after all, is what every player lives for.

It’s what every fan covets, too.

You just can’t get this close to it and claim to end up happy if someone else walks home with the trophy.

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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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