The Bruins hung their championship banner in the early days of October, but we all know how this works. In professional sports, the title stays with you for roughly a year, at which point you must choose from two very obvious things.
Or lose it.
For the Bruins, who dropped a dispiriting 3-0 decision to the New York Rangers last night at the TD Garden, the best news now is that there are still 28 games left until the playoffs begin, until coach Claude Julien and his charges dig in their skates for their official defense of the coveted Stanley Cup. But until then, barring further developments, the simple truth is that the Bruins may be the reigning champions of their league, but they are not even the best team in their conference.
"No doubt, right now, they're playing the best," Julien told reporters of the Rangers, who now lead Boston by nine points in the Eastern Conference standings. "They're playing like we did last year when we were playing well. Right now, that's the identity we're looking for again."
For sure, that was the familiar refrain from the Garden last night, from coaches and analysts and onlookers: the Rangers are what we used to be. It was almost as if the Bruins, indisputably caught in a midseason rut during The Year After, collectively lifted their heads and looked across center ice, recognizing that the real enemy these last few weeks actually has been wearing black and gold.Really, isn't that what this is about? After opening the season with their heads in the rafters - like their banner, perhaps - the Bruins ripped off a streak that again established them as Cup contenders. They won 10 straight, 14 of 15 and 21 of 24. There was simply no stopping them. The Bruins excelled in every phase of the game, from the power play to the penalty kill to their bread-and-butter 5-on-5, playing not as if spoiled by their success, but buoyed by it.
But then, when you are young, the hangovers don't last as long.
The problem now is that there appears to be a team that wants the Cup more than the Bruins do, which is certainly understandable. By default, the other 29 franchises in the NHL have gone longer than the Bruins since winning a championship. Professional sports are built on cliches that have more than a measure of truth in them, and this is why we know that is difficult to get to the top, even more difficult to stay there.
What we've all been seeing lately is simply insufficient, and everybody knows it.
"It's certainly not good enough for the Boston Bruins," noted Julien. "Somehow we've got to use the road trip here to turn things around."
Indeed, the Bruins tonight face the Montreal Canadiens in the opener of a six-game road trip, and if Julien is smart, here is what he will tell his team: you're not as good as you think you are. More than any other sport, hockey requires a workmanlike approach and commitment. You have to fight for pucks. You have to dig and scrape and grab. Those qualities are what lifted the Bruins past the Vancouver Canucks last spring and what have now twice lifted the Rangers past the Bruins this season, both of New York's victories coming on Boston's home ice.
Does any of that mean the Bruins have reached a crisis? Of course not. Heck no. But what it does mean is that the Bruins have slipped to the point where they are more like the team of 2009-10 than of 2010-11, and that is a dangerous place to be come late March and April.
Look, there is every possibility that the Bruins are just a little bored here. But that is hardly the point. In hockey, that can be a dangerous place to skate. The gap between the good teams and the average ones is astonishingly thin, and it does not take much for a club to slide back into the middle.
Had a puck or two bounced differently last spring, after all, the Bruins might have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Julien might have been fired. And there is no telling what president Cam Neely and general manager Peter Chiarelli would have done to the roster.
In the next 12 days, Neely and Chiarelli must decide what, if anything to add, particularly as it pertains to right wing, where the absence of Nathan Horton (concussion) grows more concerning by the day. At the trading deadline last year, remember, the Bruins acquired Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle, the first two of whom were critical contributors in Boston's road to the title.
Right after that, lest anyone forget, the Bruins put together a 6-0 road trip - including a win at Vancouver - for the first time since the Bobby Orr, era, which proved symbolic. The B's subsequently became the first team since Orr's to win the Cup. Bruins followers made a great deal of that road trip the way the Rangers are making a big deal about last night, if only because the first ingredient for winning is believing.
As for these Bruins, there is no reason to truly question them yet. But given the delicate balance that exists in professional sports, doubt is never that far off.
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