Note: After more than four years at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, this is Tony Massarotti's final blog entry on Boston.com.The beauty of Boston is that the stories are always evolving, the teams always developing, the objectives always changing. The Bruins appear to be at the beginning of an extended run of success, the Patriots perhaps much closer to the end of one. The Celtics are clinging to hope. The Red Sox trying to rebuild it.
Where these teams end up remains as uncertain as ever, if only because there are no sure things in sports.
But then, ultimately, that is why we all watch.
Here, then, is a long-term prognosis for Boston's four major franchises, each of which has won a championship in the last eight years, each of which stands as a cornerstone in what is, subjectively, the very best professional sports town in America.
Tyler Seguin just turned 21. Dougie Hamilton is 19. Tuukka Rask is 26. Those three players are the axis around which the Bruins could swirl for the next 10-15 years, the kind of franchise nucleus that every team would like to possess.
And we haven't even begun to mention Brad Marchand (24), Patrice Bergeron (27), David Krejci (26) or Milan Lucic (24). The Bruins are young. They're generally signed. And they are seemingly in position to contend for Stanley Cups through the current decade, which is no small feat given where they were as recently as a few years ago.
Quite simply, it will be a disappointment if this team doesn't win another championship sometime in the new few years (or so).
The challenges? To stay healthy and focused. To avoid complacency. This is as true for management as it for the players, particularly as the annual trading deadline nears. The Bruins do not have a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos, and trades will be necessary to bolster the talent. Good trades result from good drafts, the recent lot of which have helped bring the Bruins to where they are.
On the cusp of another golden era of hockey in Boston.
Let's hope they relish the chance.
For those chanting that all-too-familiar refrain - Blow it up - be careful what you wish for. From the fall of 1993 through the spring of 2007 – the 14-year period between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett – the Celtics ranked 23d among the 30 NBA teams in winning percentage. They missed the playoffs nine times. The Celtics went an aggregate 472-644, a .423 winning percentage that translated into an average annual record of 35-47.
Why are we reminding of you that? Because it took 14 years to sufficiently arm them with the pieces necessary to acquire Garnett.
Admittedly, this team is probably in better shape, though it would be interesting to see the same group return next year minus Garnett and Paul Pierce. Get the picture? If Danny Ainge were to have traded either Garnett or Pierce at the deadline for a collection of lesser players, the Celtics would be the Milwaukee Bucks. And just who, exactly, would they target as their next Garnett?
Yes, it could be some time before this team wins another championship. In the interim, we'll just have to ask the Celtics to max out. As disappointing as the recent five-game road trip may have been to some, the Celtics are 3-4 on the road since Rajon Rondo was lost to a season-ending injury. Prior to that, they went 7-14 away from the Garden. They're still no worse off than they basically were a month ago because they weren't going to win a championship anyway.
In the interim, enjoy the competitive basketball for as long as it lasts.
In the Eastern Conference, short of Miami, does anyone really want to face them in the playoffs?
As we all know, NFL contracts aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Tom Brady is now signed for the next five years, and there is every chance he will play that long, be it under the terms of this current deal or a renegotiated one. And so long as Brady is upright, the Patriots will continue to chase Super Bowls.
Beyond that, the Patriots now have a number of young pieces in place for the long term. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Nate Solder, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Wendell, Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes are all basically 26 or younger. There are a host of other players who are between 26 and 30 (including Jerod Mayo). What Bill Belichick has effectively done in recent years is rebuild much of the New England roster save for a few places.
Of course, quarterback is one of them.
As the Baltimore Ravens recently proved, you don't need the best quarterback in the league to win a championship. You just need a good one. In the long term, that might make it a little easier to find Brady's successor, particularly given the age of the Patriots roster and the great flexibility with which New England is entering this offseason.
Obviously, the next 2-3 years are huge. While the roster is growing, Brady is still playing at a high level. Thus, the needs on this team are obvious to everyone. Belichick's ability to address them will determine the success of this club in the short term, and we all know the standard to which the Patriots hold themselves.
Super Bowl or bust.
Over the last 10 years, owner John Henry and his partners have almost entirely rebuilt Fenway Park. Now, oddly enough, the entire Boston baseball operation is undergoing the renovation.
And so, as they transition to the next era in their history, the please-pardon-our-appearance Red Sox enter 2013 with avalanche of questions and issues. For the first time in a long time, we really have no idea how this is all going to look. Ultimately, the idea is transition from a star-studded Hollywood cast to a pack of new up-and-comers, a process that will take months, if not years.
From (Humphrey) Bogart to (Xander) Bogaerts. Given the disdain with which we all held the Sox of September 2011-October 2012, let's remember that this is what we all wanted: to build something again. More than anything, what we need from the Red Sox this year are some real signs of progress in the second half of the season, by which the members of Red Sox Youth should be having a greater impact. Next offseason may prove the most important of the Henry Era - however long it lasts - because, by then, the Sox should have won many of you back.
And once the Red Sox get closer, will they stick to their plan of rebuilding from within? Or will they succumb to their indisputable urges and start focusing on the ratings again?
Growth, as we all know, is not necessarily linear. Over the next months and years, there will be an ebb and flow to this process. We will all need to be patient. But for now, at least, it certainly feels as if the Red Sox are building something again.
And this time, they truly seem to be building it as much for you as they are for themselves.
* * *
A few words on the end of this blog: Eventually, we all say goodbye. This seems a lot less final.
For those of who you care, I am fairly certain I will write again. I'm just not sure when or where. The Globe and Boston.com were gracious enough to keep me on as contributor when I pursued other endeavors late in 2009, and they were willing to keep me now. I cannot possibly thank them enough for that because I've recently wondered (quite frequently) whether I was really pulling my weight.
But as we all know, things change. Parenthood requires more and more energy as children grow older, and every endeavor demands greater focus and commitment over time. There just haven't been enough hours in the day for me of late. So that means cutting back, redistributing, reorganizing.
To all of you who have happily or critically read this blog, thank you for showing up. The Globe has indicated a willingness to keep blog archives accessible, so for nostalgia's sake, I've picked out a few of my personal favorites and identified them in the "Top 5" list on the side of this page.
Writing and talking about sports in Boston remains a passion of mine and always will. Thanks again to all of you for giving me the opportunity to do that, for keeping me in line, for offering validation. There is simply no better place in America to do what we do.
See you later.
Without picking sides, without talking about maximum length contracts and revenue-sharing, without getting into Gary Bettman and Jeremy Jacobs and the Fehr siblings -- The Brothers Grim? -- let's just join hands and collectively pull the plug on a league that clearly does not recognize a good thing when it has one.
If you feel that way this morning, you certainly have the right.
Because that is the response NHL owners and players are evoking across North America, particularly in Boston, where we should be in the midst of yet another quest for the Stanley Cup during the Renaissance Era of Bruins hockey.
Instead, we get the childish banter of Agent 86 commissioner Bettman and the bitter-beer face of Donald Fehr, the current director of the NHL Players Association and the former head of the baseball players union who is halfway to the work stoppage Grand Slam.
You complete and utter fools.
For those of you who have not been keeping abreast of such things, let's give you an admittedly simplistic overview of the current dilemma. Coming off a season in which the league generated a record $3.3 billion in revenue, NHL owners sought to cut the players' share of revenue upon the expiration of the last bargaining agreement. Citing losses for several teams, the teams proposed to cut the player revenue from 57 percent to -- get this -- 43 percent. For the players, that represented a pay reduction of roughly 25 percent, which seems like a rather illogical amount for a business that was, relatively speaking, booming.
Of course, the NHL made no mention of the fact that, according to people like former NHLPA director Paul Kelly, the Toronto Maple Leafs turned an annual profit of somewhere near $125 million. (The Bruins, according to a recent Globe story, made $14.1 million.) Further, the NHL has done little to publicize the fact that, according to the Globe, league owners share only an estimated 11 percent of revenue as compared to roughly 30 percent in the NBA.
Understand? The successful NHL teams are making plenty and the failing ones are losing. And rather than increasing revenue sharing to the levels of the most similar league -- that is to say, tripling it -- NHL owners opened negotiations by putting almost the entire burden on the players, sending a message from the very start that has set the tone for these entire negotiations.
Hockey players being hockey players -- and the Fehr Brothers being the Fehrs -- the boys dropped their gloves and engaged, which has done what it often does: load the proverbial penalty box with players who should instead be on the ice.
Did the owners start this mess? You bet they did. But Donald Fehr, in particular, has since engaged in public gamesmanship and posturing, proving once again (as he did with baseball in 1994) that his ego often gets the best of him. Few could ever forget the site of Fehr obstinately resisting Congress -- Congress! -- during baseball's steroids era, and one can't help but get the feeling that he reacts to every slight personally, that he looks at Bettman, especially, with the disdain of Col. Nathan R. Jessup.
You messed with the wrong Marine.
Put your gun back in the holster. Your job is to get a deal done. Not prevent one.
Here in Boston, the passions may be running especially hot for a very obvious reason: The Bruins are back. Or at least they should be. The last time the NHL had a work stoppage, Jacobs and his management team so badly botched the process that Bruins ended up in the Stone Age. Jacobs and his team needed years to recover, their fortunes turning during the 2010-11 season. In one year, the Bruins secured the No. 2 overall pick in the draft (Tyler Seguin) and won the Stanley Cup, and they assembled a roster that was built for the long haul.
Seguin. Patrice Bergeron. David Krejci. Tuuka Rask. Milan Lucic. Nathan Horton. Brad Marchand. Dougie Hamilton. The list goes on and on. Add in a cast of solid veterans that includes Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ferrence, among others, and what you had was a team built to contend for championships for a succession of years.
But once again, Jacobs can't seem to get out of his own way.
Indeed, according to some reports, Jacobs was prepared to get up and leave the negotiating table on Wednesday night, at which point other voices intervened and cooler heads prevailed. At least for a succession of hours. Ultimately, of course, NHL owners and players pushed apart on Thursday night, unable to agree even on what they had agreed upon in an avalanche of words and finger pointing.
In the process, they unknowingly joined forces.
And they spit directly in your face.
Halfway through the football season, I believe the NFL is as unpredictable as it has been in any year of recent memory, that line between winning and losing is microscopically thin, which is to say that the Patriots are every bit as good as a number of teams in both the AFC and the NFC.
Of course, that also suggests the Patriots are no better.
As a result, I believe Aqib Talib was worth the price of a fourth-round draft pick, whether he succeeds here or not, because the Patriots have the youngest team of Bill Belichick's tenure and because they do not need another fourth-round draft pick.
What they need is someone who can cover.
I believe that David Ortiz should thank his lucky stars that the Red Sox agreed to give him a two-year contract for a guaranteed $26 million, no matter how small the relative risk for Boston, because I believe there was no team out there willing to give up a high draft pick to sign a soon-to-be 37-year-old designated hitter who just missed 72 games with an Achilles injury.
But I also believe that the Red Sox needed left-handed power in their lineup and that the free-agent market is thin, and that Ortiz isn't the kind of potentially damaging signee that Carl Crawford was.
I believe Barack Obama will win the Presidential election on Tuesday.
I believe that Scott Brown will win the local Senatorial election.
And I believe that neither one of those predictions should be regarded as any reflection on my beliefs or voting intentions.
I believe the NBA would be a better league if the Los Angeles Lakers fell completely on their faces because there are two players in the league no more unlikeable than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, no matter how many championships Bryant has won.
Though it is still worth noting that Howard has never won any.
I believe that NHL owners and players are on the brink of permanently damaging their league if they are not careful, that they should get back on the ice as quickly as possible.
Because I believe the Bruins are hurt as much as any team by this lockout, because the Bruins have a nucleus in place that should be able to contend for Stanley Cup Championships for years to come.
Unfortunately, I also believe that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are obstructionists to a deal more than conduits.
I believe the Red Sox should sign Cody Ross to nothing more than a two-year contract with some sort of option for a third season, vesting or otherwise, and that Ross' salary should fall somewhere in the range of $7-9 million per year.
Because, while I like Ross, I believe he's quite replaceable.
I believe the Red Sox' catching problems are far more significant that we are giving them credit for.
And that the Red Sox should look into trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavaranway and picking one or the other.
I believe the Celtics will need time to develop chemistry, but that people are overrating the club and its potential, and that the Celtics are not nearly as good as many think they are.
Because Kevin Garnett is another year older.
And because so is Paul Pierce.
I believe that Devin McCourty is a far better safety than he is a cornerback, that the Patriots would be far more prudent to keep McCourty at safety along with Patrick Chung, and to start Talib at the left cornerback position with Alfonzo Dennard on the right side.
I believe that Chandler Jones is certified, bona fide, and undeniable freak, which is to say that I believe Jones has the chance to go down as one of the most prolific defensive players in Patriots history if he stays healthy, keeps his head screwed on straight and is committed to getting better.
I believe the Atlanta Falcons are still a bit of a mirage.
And that the Houston Texans are the real deal.
And that the Denver Broncos are rapidly become one of the more intriguing teams in the league.
I believe that Tyler Seguin is having one whale of a team in Switzerland, because there is no better place than Europe for a 20-year-old bachelor with world class skills and a pile of money.
And that there is also no more dangerous one.
I believe that "Argo" is worth seeing.
And that most science fiction movies are not.
And that any film featuring Kevin James or Adam Sandler (or both) is generally a waste of time.
I believe that Mike Aviles is in Cleveland now because Terry Francona wanted him there, because Francona always had an affection for players like Aviles and Willie Bloomquist or Eric Hinske and Mark Kotsay, who could play in the infield and outfield and make his life easier.
The way most any manager would.
I believe the Celtics will get significantly better the day Avery Bradley returns to the team because I believe the energy Bradley brings on defense is something the Celtics currently lack terribly.
I believe that Ray Allen acted like a baby.
And that John Farrell will not.
And I believe, with little hesitation or doubt, that the golden age of Boston sports is far from complete, that we have entered a stage in our sports history where our teams will be expected to contend for championships year in and year out, because success fuels success.
And because winning is terribly, terribly hard to give up.
Today, on the one-year anniversary of the Bruins' Game 7 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, I believe that Boston is still the best sports town in America, that no one else really compares, that even in the absence of a title since then Boston has played for one championship (in the NFL) and came within a whisker of playing for another (in the NBA).I believe that despite similar records since Sept. 1 of last year, the Red Sox are not at all like the Chicago Cubs and that comparing the plights of the two franchises is a convenience of mathematics and an obvious thing to do given the goings and comings of Theo Epstein.
I believe the Patriots are loaded, with a deep and talented roster, and that they are about to prove that losing the Super Bowl does not jinx your chances for the next one.
Rather, I believe the loss can improve them.
I believe that Kevin Garnett is going wake up one day and retire, that an impending departure from the NBA is what fueled him, and that Danny Ainge now faces perhaps his greatest challenge as the Celtics' basketball architect.
Because when Ainge rebuilt the Celtics the first time, we didn't have the expectations we do now.
I believe that as baseball detaches from the steroids era, pitching throughout the game has improved while the pitching in Boston has deteriorated.
And I would like to know why.
I believe that Tim Thomas is sticking it to the Bruins, at least on some level, though I believe there is probably a whole heck of a lot more to the story.
I believe that Aaron Hernandez is really a wide receiver, that Daniel Fells and Bo Scaife are now behind Rob Gronkowski on the depth chart, and that Tom Brady has more toys to play with this year than his children.
I believe that if Rajon Rondo can continue to improve as a shooter, that people like me will have to admit that we were wrong and that Rondo could become an indisputable force for years to come.
Because when Rondo made his jumpers in Game 2 of the Miami series, that is exactly what he was.
I believe that Theo Epstein was a good general manager here, that he inherited a good team from Dan Duquette, and that if media people could put aside their personal and professional biases they would have seen that a long time ago instead of seeing it now.
Because I believe that Epstein was responsible for, among others, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, and J.D. Drew, and that he wanted Jose Contreras as badly as he wanted Matsuzaka.
I also believe that Epstein never wanted anything to do with John Lackey, that the Red Sox player development system generally flourished during his tenure, that Red Sox ownership should have coughed up the extra dough and listened to him when he wanted to sign Mark Teixeira.
Because I believe, in the event you have not noticed, that the balance of power in the American League East shifted when Teixeira ended up in New York, that the Red Sox have not won a playoff game since, that Boston ultimately had to give up basically the same money and highly regarded prospects to get Adrian Gonzalez.
I believe the Bruins need to add a top six forward because both Milan Lucic (restricted) and Nathan Horton (unrestricted) are free agents at the end of next season, and that a salary increase for either seems unwise.
I believe that Roger Clemens is guilty.
I believe the same of Jerry Sandusky.
And the same of Lance Armstrong.
I believe that LeBron James is getting closer, that he is maturing as a player and person, that he is finally starting to understand that all the world ever wanted was to see a little humility.
But I also believe that he is going to lose again this year.
I believe that the Miami Dolphins signed Chad Ochocinco almost exclusively for "Hard Knocks."
I believe that Tim Tebow will work out far better with the New York Jets than anyone imagines.
I believe that Devin McCourty should remain at safety unless or until the Patriots have injuries at cornerback.
I believe the Red Sox should do everything in their power to start making the transition now to younger players like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish, and Ryan Lavarnway, because I think the Sox will be far better off in the long term as a result.
I also believe the Red Sox will be better off in the short term.
I believe that summer is now an underrated time of year in the world of professional sports, what with the major league trading deadline, free agency in the NHL and NBA, and the start of training camp and personnel evaluations in the NFL.
And I believe, finally, that Boston will somehow be among a group of cities in the middle of it all, that administrators for the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins will looking to further extend what is already one of the great runs in professional sports, the local teams now having produced a stunning 16 trips to the league semifinals or better since the start of this millennium.
I believe that has to be some kind of record.
In the wake of their collapse, beating up on the New York Jets is the fashionable thing to do, just as it was to beat up on the 2011 Red Sox. The teams share some similarities, and they still share them entering their respective 2012 seasons.
Which is why neither should be dismissed.
Let's start with the Jets, who are now being mocked for being so downright stupid as to take on Tim Tebow, whom they acquired from the Denver Broncos for essentially a fourth-round pick. Why is this so dumb? The Jets have an inconsistent quarterback in what is now, more than ever, a quarterback league, and they failed in any pursuit of Peyton manning, however brief. So what were they supposed to do? Go into next season with the same situation at quarterback and offense that has proven insufficient for three years?
Here's what Tebow gives the Jets: options. New York isn't going to win a Super Bowl solely with its passing attack, and the Jets still may not win one now, either. But if the Jets are being truthful by saying about Drew Stanton is still their backup quarterback, then Tebow could provide them with an offensive wrinkle the way Kordell Stewart once did for the Steelers.
And there are these factors: Sanchez, who has been babied since he arrived in New York, needs competition, be it from Stanton or Tebow. And the Jets clearly need character in a locker room that badly lacked it, which something Tebow absolutely, positively possesses in bulk.
After all, look at the impact Tebow had on last year's Broncos, who quickly became believers once he began to play.
* Some of us still would have liked to see the Patriots invest in a true impact player on defense, but it's hard to argue too much with what the Patriots have done thus far in free agency. While retaining Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Dan Connolly and Wes Welker, among others, the Patriots now have added Brandon Lloyd, Daniel Fells, Robert Gallery, Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Will Allen, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Gregory and Spencer Larsen. Some of those players will prove to be nothing more than names in a pile of bodies, but the New England passing attack suddenly looks as prolific as ever.
At the moment, three questions remain -- two more significant than the other: the defense, the left side of the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, running back. (Fare thee well, Benjarvus Green-Ellis.) With Logan Mankins injured and Matt Light potentially calling it a career, Tom Brady's blindside is currently in question, with or without Gallery and Nate Solder. As for the defense, one can only hope the Patriots are planning to be aggressive in the draft, where they have two first-round selections and two second-round selections.
Could that be at least part of the reason the Patriots asked Brady to restructure his contract and free up even more salary cap space?
* We all have every right to criticize the Red Sox and question their character in the aftermath of last season, but let's not get silly. The Red Sox are not going to go 83-79. From May 13 through Aug. 31 of last season, the Red Sox went 66-32, a .673 winning percentage that translates into a 109-win pace over a 162-game schedule. There is plenty of talent to win. What this all comes down to is attitude and health, both of which are legitimately in question.
But talent? The Red Sox have plenty. In fact, they still have far more than most.
* Given Bobby Valentine's recent remarks about criticizing his players, can't help but wonder when Valentine said Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn't very "courteous" in pulling the plug on Thursday night's tie game, was that a fact or an opinion?
* Maybe it has something to do with the preponderance of people in this business from the Newhouse School of Communications, but does anyone else find Syracuse alumni to be disproportionately annoying? We're not saying Syracuse folks have quite entered the arena of Boston College, Duke, and Notre Dame folks, but for a school and program that has been smeared by a succession of scandals of late, Syracuse alums ought to be more red faces and fewer of that unsightly orange clothing.
* The New Orleans Saints got what they deserved, plain and simple. Placing prices on the heads of opposing players is disgraceful to begin with, and lying to cover it up is just as bad.
But as long as Drew Brees stays in uniform, the Saints are going to be a huge factor in the NFC South, especially when New Orleans' out-of-conference schedule features the AFC West.
Of course, New Orleans also has to play the NFC East.
* Peyton Manning immediately makes the Denver Broncos the favorite in the pathetic AFC West, but Denver's schedule in 2012 in hardly a cupcake. Thanks to its first place finish, Denver will face New England and Houston this season. Additionally, the Broncos have both the NFC South and the AFC North on their schedule, which means meetings with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. New Orleans and Atlanta, among others.
* We all know that Jose Iglesias probably is not quite ready to hit consistently in the major leagues, but many of us believe the Sox should give Iglesias the nod to start the year with the big club. The Sox can carry one fewer pitcher in the early going, anyway, and the team would benefit a great deal from having a young potentially dynamic player on its roster -- even if Iglesias is only dynamic on defense -- to start the season.
Think about it: when was the last time the Red Sox had a rookie everyone could truly get excited about? Jacoby Ellsbury certainly comes to mind, but that was four years ago. When the Atlanta Braves were at the peak of their reign during the `90s, the Braves liked to integrate about two new starters every three years, turning over the stock and keeping the team infused.
Particularly in the wake of last year, the Red Sox could use the positive energy and bounce Iglesias would bring. The team has too many overpriced veterans to begin with. If Iglesias proves overmatched offensively, the Sox can subsequently send him down to the minors, still leaving open for the possibility of a return late in the season.
What would be wrong with that?
Truth be told, the first three quarters told us nothing, too.
The Pats are 9-3 this morning and once again possessors of the top seed in the AFC, but they have very little to gain in the final weeks of the 2011 season. New England should encounter some resistance in the final four games of this season - at Washington, at Denver, both Miami and Buffalo at home - but there should be nothing to prevent the Patriots from going 13-3 and earning a first-round bye when all is said and done.
That said, two questions endure from yesterday's affair.
First, is it really necessary for the fans at Gillette Stadium to boo Adam Vinatieri? (Weak.)
Second, is it really necessary for Bill Belichick to have the Patriots throwing out of the no-huddle offense holding a 31-10 lead with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter?
In the latter instance, nothing Belichick can say justifies the decision. Belichick likes to answer every question about his strategic choices by saying that he is "just trying to win a game," but throwing out of the no-huddle with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter was downright stupid and indicated no such thing. At that stage of the game, the Patriots should have been trying to milk the clock. Instead, Brady took a needless hit on a third-and-13 play that led to a Patriots punt, after which the Colts scored.
With the score then 31-17, Brian Hoyer entered the game. Does that all make any sense? Up 31-10, Belichick subjected Brady to a needless hit. Up 31-17, he put Hoyer in. That certainly suggests that Belichick recognized the error of his ways, but he never should have had Brady throwing at that stage of the game in the first place.
Sometimes, the man's ego just gets in the way.
Let's hope the Bobby Valentine acquisition does not prove to be the Red Sox' biggest move of the offseason. With the manager now in place entering the winter meetings, the Red Sox have needs to address on their pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Presumably, there will be a substantive acquisition in there somewhere.
Under the circumstances, with closers going at inflated prices, one can only wonder if the Sox might be far better served to put their money in a starter, specifically Mark Buehrle. If relievers like Heath Bell and Ryan Madson command three- and four-year deals, the Sox would seem far better off committing three years and even $45 million to someone like Buehrle, who has a picturesque delivery and a long history of health.
In any case, here's what you shouldn't want to see: trepidation. So the Sox have made some bad free agent signings. So what? Does that mean they're all bad? If the Red Sox can pull off a trade for a young, healthy pitcher, so be it. If not, they need durability on that staff, and Buehrle is about the closest thing to a sure bet on the market.
The Red Sox don't need to abstain from the free agent market, folks. They just need to make more prudent decisions.
I mean, in retrospect, was giving John Lackey five years just utter foolishness or what? The man had a history of elbow problems. And everyone knew it.
Let's all pump the brakes on the Bruins for a moment. As extraordinary as this 13-0-1 run has been, this is still just the regular season. Roughly a year ago at this time, the Bruins were struggling enough that Cam Neely came out and seemed to put Claude Julien's job on the line, at which point the Bruins awoke and began playing with greater urgency.
Of course, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. And while that title has changed everything with regard to the perception of the team and organization, let's not put these bruins in the same discussion with the Bruins of the late '60s and early '70s just yet. Those Bruins were stacked with Hall-of-Fame-caliber talent, and we simply do not know whether this club has quite the same staying power.
That said, the Bruins certainly are positioned to have one of the great eras in their history, which is something we said a year ago. (You can look it up.) The signing of David Krejci further stabilizes a deep and talented roster that can skate, hit, score and play defense, meaning the Bruins can play any style of game, against basically any opponent, anywhere and anytime.
Still, tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins bears close watching, for obvious reasons. These are two of the last three Stanley Cup champions and, currently, the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. The injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last year meant the Pens were absent from Boston's path to the championship, and we still do not know if the Bruins can defeat the Penguins when it matters.
Of course, we also don't know if the Penguins can defeat these Bruins, who seem fortified and emboldened by their Stanley Cup championship.
With all due respect to the most loyal Celtics fans, the window closed in Game 7 against the Lakers in June 2010. Anyone who believes the Celtics can win the title this year by simply adding some small pieces around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo is missing the point. The Celtics are getting older and slower while the Bulls and Heat are getting better and deeper, which is why Danny Ainge must act aggressively.
Nobody ever said Rondo was a bad player. The question isn't even whether he's a great player. The question is whether he's a franchise player, the kind an organization can build around the way the Celtics built around Garnett, the indisputable centerpiece of the Celtics' latest championship runs. And it is difficult to think of Rondo in those terms when he is a career .622 shooter at the free throw line coming off a season in which he shot .568.
As a result, Ainge owes it to himself -- and, more importantly, the Celtics -- to explore any and all deals for Rondo, who remains his best bargaining chip. If Ainge can get something closer to a franchise player back, even for the short term, he must consider it. The Al Jefferson-for-Kevin Garnett swap was built on a similar principle, and nobody has complained about the loss of Jefferson for quite some time now.
Granted, Garnett is still here, albeit in a reduced capacity.
But is there anyone who still wouldn't have made that trade?
Catching up for lost time on a number of issues now that the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs have finally turned the page …
- Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington ended up in roughly the same place, but they arrived there on very different paths. So while the message from Fenway Park yesterday sounded eerily similar to the one under Epstein – same vocabulary, same speech patterns – there is one significant difference between the last two full-time general managers of the Red Sox.
Simply put, Epstein was groomed in the front office from the very beginning, then exposed to traditional baseball methods (read: scouting) to fill out his development. Cherington was groomed in the traditional baseball world as a scout, then exposed to the front office. How that all manifests itself remains to be seen, but we shouldn’t necessarily assume they are the same.
As any chef will tell you, after all, the order of ingredients can be very important.
- Of all the dialogue that came from Chicago and Boston yesterday, among the most interesting came when Cherington was asked about the Red Sox’ failures in free agency. Cherington made reference to the Red Sox’ belief in using both “objective” and “subjective” analysis – an obvious reference to sabermetrics and scouting. He then stressed that the Red Sox must “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” in employing that philosophy, which cannot help but make one wonder.
Have the Sox been getting a little lazy with how they have scouted free agents in recent years? Have they relied more on the data than the scouting? Or have they relied more on the scouting than the data? Whatever the truth, Cherington’s comment suggests the Sox have not been as comprehensive in their analysis as they should have been.
And wouldn’t that be proof of the complacency that has seemingly set in at Fenway Park over the last few years?
- In his career against the Pittsburgh Steelers, including both regular season and playoffs, Tom Brady is 6-1, with the only loss coming at Pittsburgh on Oct. 31, 2004, the game that ended New England’s record regular-season winning streak. Brady has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,008 yards (an average of 287 per game) with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.
In his last two games against the Steelers – including last year’s 39-26 win at Heinz Field - Brady is 62 for 87 (71.3 percent) for 749 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions and no sacks.
Here’s another way of looking at it: since the start of the 2001 season, his first year as a starter, Brady has a quarterback rating of 104.8 in all games against the Steelers. During that same period, the rest of the league has a quarterback rating of just 74.3 against Pittsburgh.
For a superb Pittsburgh defense that is annually among the best in football, Tom Brady is Kryptonite.
- Did the math -- at his current pace, Tyler Seguin is on pace for 92 points, a number that would have placed him fifth in the league last year. The Bruins have not had a player finish in the top five in scoring since 2002-03, when Joe Thornton (101 points) finished third behind Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund.
- If I’m the Red Sox, here’s one of the things I try to do this winter: I try to get Aramis Ramirez to play third base, then part ways with David Ortiz and make Kevin Youkilis my designated hitter and backup corner infielder. Youkilis has missed 128 games over the last three years, so this is a way to protect him some (while providing the flexibility to sit Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez without much of a defensive drop-off) and improve the full-time defense at third base.
On top of it all, with Ramirez replacing Ortiz, it helps solve the problem of the Red Sox being a little too lefthanded.
But I only do it if Ramirez can be secured at a reasonable cost.
- Dennis Seidenberg is a minus-4 through the first eight games of the regular season. Is anyone else worried about this? Seidenberg logged a preposterous amount of ice time last spring (an average of 27:38 per game, one second less than Zdeno Chara) and was arguably the Bruins’ second most valuable player in the postseason behind Tim Thomas.
That smells like a Stanley Cup hangover, no?
- The insightful Kerry Byrne of “Cold Hard Football Facts” reminds us that in the entire history of the NFL, no statistic has been a better barometer of postseason success than defensive passer rating, which effectively measures defensive efficiency against the pass. For example: the Green Bay Packers last season held opposing quarterbacks to a 67.2 rating, best in the league; the Packers won the Super Bowl. A year prior, the Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints held opposing quarterbacks to a 68.6 rating, third best in the league.
So how does this relate to the Patriots? During the seven-year period from 2001 to 2007, the Patriots ranked second overall in the NFL in defensive passer rating at 72.5; the Pats won three Super Bowls and participated in a fourth. Since that time, the Pats have dropped to 20th in defensive passer rating and have not won a playoff game.
This year, among the 32 NFL teams, New England currently ranks 25th.
- During his press conference yesterday, Cherington admitted that the bulk of talent in the Red Sox minor league system is at the Double-A level or below, which means the Red Sox probably won’t be getting much help from their system from anyone other than Ryan Kalish in 2012. This means Cherington likely must find starting pitching from outside the organization if the Red Sox are to address their greatest on-field problems.
So what should Cherington do? More than anything else, the Sox need durability, which means they should look into signing someone like lefthander Mark Buehrle as a free agent. Beyond that – and only if the Sox can get huge return – Cherington must consider moving Jacoby Ellsbury (who will be a free agent in November 2013) for a legitimate ace. No one is suggesting that the Red Sox need to blow up their roster, but reliable starting pitching will be tough to find this winter, which means the Sox must consider trading for it, particularly if they decide to cut ties with Josh Beckett. Ellsbury is one of the few assets the Sox possess with major value.
- All of this brings us to John Lackey, who is now effectively out for next year amid the news that he will need Tommy John surgery. For all of the criticism and questions concerning the Carl Crawford signing, the Lackey acquisition is equally as puzzling. Prior to signing Lackey, the Red Sox were extremely cautious with free agents in their 30s, let alone 31-year-old with a history of elbow problems.
The point? The fact that Lackey needs Tommy John surgery was predictable enough then that the Red Sox argued for protective language in the contract. Nonetheless, they guaranteed him $82.5 million over five years, the biggest contract they have ever granted a pitcher, including Pedro Martinez.
The point? Thanks to John Henry’s recent admissions, we at least know some of the story about the internal discussions on Crawford. But what’s the real story on the Lackey signing? Who wanted him and who didn’t? Lackey defies Sox philosophy just as surely as Crawford does, which cannot help but make one wonder about the real reasons he was brought to Boston.
Nailing down thoughts on the local teams while taping the windows and bringing in the patio furniture ...
Weeks like this cannot help but make you wonder if the Red Sox could have sacrificed five prospects for Adrian Gonzalez and still felt he was a steal. Beginning with his last at-bat on Wednesday, Gonzalez homered on three consecutive pitches during the Red Sox’ impressive series win over the Texas Rangers. Not games or swings. Pitches. With 32 games to go, Gonzalez is now on pace to bat .348 with 29 home runs, 127 RBI, 111 runs scored and 226 hits.
Here’s the best part: only once this season has Gonzalez gone more than two games without a hit, that coming in a recent three-day stretch (August 16-18) during which the Sox played four games thanks to a doubleheader. The word consistent does not begin to describe him. As the last two days have proven, Gonzalez’s definition of a “slump” is a period during which he does not homer. In the 39 games from July 8-August 22, Gonzalez hit one home run. He batted .323 with a .397 on-base percentage and an .803 OPS.
At the moment, Gonzalez is the only player in the majors to rank in the top five in both batting average and OPS.
What a beast.
* * *
We all have seen the same things with regard to the Patriots, their depth and their philosophical change on defense thus far, though the picture will certainly come into sharper focus following the cliché that is the third preseason game tomorrow night in Detroit. Nonetheless, we all know that the Patriots now have something to prove in the postseason, where they have lost three straight, including the last two at home, and gone winless since the start of the 2009 season.
That said, take the time now to review the Patriots schedule again. It’s a beast. The only indisputable doormats may be Buffalo (Weeks 3 and 17) and possibly Washington (Week 14) and/or Denver (Week 15). You might add the Raiders (Week 4, 8-8 last year) to that list, too, though, like the Miami Dolphins, they probably fall more into the class of mediocrity.
The rest of the field? San Diego, the Jets (twice), Dallas, Pittsburgh, the Giants, Chiefs, Eagles and Colts. All of those teams were in either in the playoffs last year or underachieved based on their talent level, which makes any and all talk of another undefeated season (and we’ve all been hearing some) pure poppycock.
Still, barring any major injuries, what’s worst case for this team? 12-4? And if the Patriots play the kind of aggressive defense we think they are preparing to play, they will be wildly entertaining to watch.
* * *
Anyone else catch that Matt Cooke story in the Pittsburgh papers? What a ruse. Sadly, Cooke’s wife was ill last year, but there was at least some connection drawn between his off-ice concerns and his continued on-ice recklessness. Of course, Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard took place roughly a year before his wife fell ill, which suggests that her health and his lack of respect for other players are hardly related.
While Cooke went out of his way to say that he was not making excuses for his head-hunting tactics, then why did he agree to the story at all? If he wasn’t making excuses, he wouldn’t have allowed his wife to be put out there at all. He’s the one in the public eye. She isn’t.
* * *
Lest we all fall victim to the philosophies that derailed George King and LaVelle Neal, Justin Verlander deserves serious consideration as Most Valuable Player of the American League. As of today, he may even be the leader in the clubhouse. The Verlander of 2011 might be every bit as valuable to the Tigers as the Pedro Martinez of 1999 was to the Red Sox, particularly when you consider that Verlander ranks 35th among the qualifying 46 American League pitchers in run support.
Despite that, Verlander is 19-5, which should serve as evidence that wins do mean something on a pitcher’s resume. (Compare this with Felix Hernandez last year.) In five of his last six victories, Verlander has left the game with a one-run lead, which speaks to an ability to pitch to the score. When he has failed to record a decision this year, the Tigers are two games under .500, which puts them in the same class as teams like the Pirates, Rockies, Dodgers, White Sox, Indians, Nationals, Mets and Blue Jays.
Instead, they’re contending with the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Phillies, Brewers, Diamondbacks and Braves for the World Series.
* * *
The Mike Flanagan story is so sad and tragic it goes well beyond words. The same is true anytime someone feels so desperate as to resort to suicide. This should serve as a reminder to all of us that professional athletes, executives and broadcasters are no different than anyone else, susceptible to the pressures, issues and flaws that dot every human life from the moment we all set foot on the planet.
Can we all stop with the notion that professional athletes somehow lead a dream existence? They don’t. Much of who they are has been determined before they go to the first grade.
What this all speaks to, really, is the frailty of the human composition, be the issues physical, psychological, chemical, professional or environmental. If you’re a baseball fan or follower, this story absolutely, positively had to resonate with you. I didn’t know Flanagan at all, but I know many people who did know him in the same way that I know others in the game. As a result, I have great compassion for him, his family, for others burdened with the same type of desperation he felt.
If only we could fix that.
Logan Mankins and the other plaintiffs in the NFL antitrust lawsuit may no longer be requesting special consideration, but that hardly means they were wrong to ask for it. In the case of Mankins, especially, it is difficult to find a player more victimized by the terms of the NFL bargaining agreements, old and new.
First, because of an uncapped season resulting from the owners’ decision to opt out of the last CBA, Mankins has now twice lost his right to become an unrestricted free agent. Along the way, he was saddled with the franchise tag. Now he may end up with nothing more than a one-year deal, albeit for greater than $10 million, still only that half the guaranteed money he might receive in a long-term deal.
Meanwhile, Mankins has never missed a game to injury and has been elected to three Pro Bowls.
Last year, in their first eight games – Mankins joined them for the eighth – the Patriots averaged slightly more than 107 rushing yards per game. After Mankins returned, the number increased to just under 140 yards per game. That number is even more impressive when you consider that the Patriots’ second-half schedule included the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and New York Jets, teams that ranked a respective first, second and third in the NFL in rushing defense.
And people still think Mankins would have been selfish to hold up a labor deal?
Love Tiger Woods or hate him – and many now choose the latter – golf needs him back. The last 12 major championships have produced no repeat winners and the list of recent major champions now includes Y.E. Yang, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl and Schwartzel. Foreign players now have won the last six of the majors and seven of the last eight.
Meanwhile, as Tiger deteriorates, so, too, does the PGA.
In the 2005 draft, the Red Sox had five selections in the first round or sandwich round, using those choices on Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden. Four of those players are still with the organization and all four have contributed in the major leagues this season, suggesting all have value to the franchise either on the roster or as a bargaining chip.
In the four subsequent drafts, from 2006-2009, the Red Sox had nine selections in the first round or sandwich round. Only one (Daniel Bard) now has any value to the organization. And while the Sox used many of those picks to acquire players like Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez – good deals both – one cannot help but wonder if this all means that the club must now protect many of its more recent, higher selections in the draft.
Translation: don’t expect any blockbusters at the deadline, no matter what you read or hear. The Sox have invested a great deal in this team, both financially and otherwise. Theo Epstein should add some depth before 4 p.m. on July 31, but his emphasis on the player development system suggests he will now guard his prospects more closely.
Of course, if Clay Buchholz has a more severe injury than the Sox are letting on, all bets are off.
By the way, when the Red Sox and Indians were negotiating the Martinez deal in 2009, Buchholz and Lars Anderson (remember him?) were among the names discussed. Cleveland officials privately indicated at the time that the Red Sox were overhyping Anderson, and Indians officials also were concerned about Buchholz’s durability.
Since the start of the 2009 season, Masterson now has pitched nearly 100 more innings than Buchholz. He also currently ranks among the American League leaders in ERA.
With all due respect to the United States women’s soccer team, they sound like a bunch of excuse-makers in trying to justify their choke job against Japan in the World Cup final. For men and women both, the standards are the same on this sort of thing.
If it looks like a choke, sounds like a choke and feels like a choke, it’s a choke.
Just a reminder that the Patriots open on Monday night, Sept. 12, against Dolphins in Miami. That means you’ll have to wait longer than most to see another NFL game involving your home team.
The good news? You won’t have to wait as long as the folks in Denver and Oakland, the teams that play the later game on Monday night.
If you’ve already seen the Bruins championship DVD, you are encouraged to post a review at the end of today’s blog. Please refrain from things like, “It’s awesome!” or “I got chills!” or “I almost cried!” Please offer constructive criticisms about what may have been lacking, what worked, and what didn’t.
As good as the Red Sox have been of late, they are still in a virtual dead heat with the Yankees. As of this morning, the Sox and Yankees are separated by one game in the loss column. Boston and New York each have outscored their opponents by precisely 114 runs, and the clubs have strikingly similar records at home and on the road.
Remember that the next time you start rambling about how the Yankees are old, or that they lack depth in the starting rotation, or that they have bullpen issues.
By the way, for what it’s worth, Adrian Gonzalez last night grounded into his 21st double play of the season, second most in the major leagues. Given that the only player to have grounded into more double plays that Gonzalez is Albert Pujols, this is hardly something to worry about.
But it does indicate, if nothing else, that Gonzalez is not perfect.
Catching up on happenings in the sports world after the black hole that was the NHL postseason...
- Even after the black hole that was 0-6 and 2-10, the Red Sox are on a pace to win 98 games, a number that have achieved only twice in their history since 1946. The first occasion came in 1978, pre-wildcard, when the sox won 99 games and missed the playoffs. The other came in 2004, when the Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Beginning with a sweep of the Yankees at New York in May, the Red Sox have won 11 of 12 series and gone 26-8.
- Rory McIlroy is off to a terrific start in 2011 and in his career, but any comparisons to Tiger Woods at this stage are completely and utterly ridiculous. Even at a young age, Woods never collapsed in a major championship the way McIlroy did at the Masters earlier this season.
- By the way, comparing McIlroy to Tiger Woods at this stage is a little like comparing Andrew Miller to Randy Johnson. Miller has terrific raw ability and will make his Red Sox debut tonight against the San Diego Padres, but let's see if he can throw consistent strikes in the big leagues before we turn him into a multiple Cy Young Award winner.
Especially when Miller has heretofore been closer to Nuke LaLoosh.
- Don't look now, Celtics fans, but your beloved team has slipped to No. 4 in the local power rankings. And if we were to factor in projected future performance of our four major teams, the Celtics would also have the bleakest outlook.
- In this market, at least, the NFL picked a good time for a labor dispute. But with the usual start of training camp now rapidly approaching, how much longer can this go on before Patriots fans really start to get agitated?
- Now this is the kind of year Jacoby Ellsbury deserves a great deal of credit for -- and for an array of reasons. Ellsbury currently has the highest OPS of his career and is on pace for 18 home runs, 82 RBI, 166 runs and, yes, 55 stolen bases.
Oh, and did we mention that he's played in every game?
- In this market, one of the major drawbacks of the Bruins' title run was that we did not get to fully celebrate the failure of the Miami Heat in general and LeBron James in particular. Talk about irony. While the Bruins were winning a title as a team, LeBron was explaining another disappointing end to a season by repeatedly using his favorite letter in the alphabet.
Of course, that would be I.
- Yes, I'm biased, for obvious reasons. But since the Red Sox started giving Tim Wakefield a regular turn in the rotation, he's 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in six starts.
- By the way, can people in this market stop talking about the Yankees as if they're ready for the senior tour. Fine, the Yankees are old. They still have the second-best record in the American League and are 1.5 games out of first place.
If you are a Red Sox fan, the Yankees should still be your biggest concern in the American League.
- The Bruins will soon be onto the business of the offseason, so let's all agree that Tomas Kaberle should go and the Bruins should consider bringing Michael Ryder back at a reduced rate. Other than that, priority No. 1 in 2011-12 is for the Bruins to put Tyler Seguin in the best possible position to succeed.
- By the way, purely for the record, the Vancouver Canucks were 2 for 33 on the power play in the Cup final, a paltry 6.1 percent. The Bruins, by contrast, went 5 for 27, a far more respectable 18.5 percent.
For the entire postseason, the Bruins were 10 for 88 (11.4 percent) on the power play, which included a 5 for 61 performance (8.2 percent) before the final round.
- Adrian Gonzalez is on pace for 230 hits, 34 home runs, 55 doubles and 146 RBI.
Sounds like a formula for MVP, no?
- We all love David Ortiz and what he has given the Red Sox over the years, but the truth is that the Yankees should have plunked him a long time ago given the damage he has inflicted on them over the years. In 2009, the in head-to-head play, Yankees pitchers hit Red Sox batters on 14 occasions while Red Sox pitchers plunked the Yankees only seven times. During that season, before a game at Fenway Park, one uniformed member of the Red Sox warned Derek Jeter that if Yankees pitchers didn't start behaving themselves, the Red Sox would retaliate.
And they would retaliate, he said, by going after Jeter.
- I still bet the Cleveland Indians will finish below .500.
- Silver spoon update: In this millennium, in the four major sports, that is now 13 trips at least the semifinals (Patriots 5, Red Sox 4, Celtics 3, Bruins 1) and nine trips to the championship round (Patriots 4, Red Sox 2, Celtics 2, Bruins 1) with seven titles, including the proverbial Grand Slam, accomplished in slightly more than six calendar years.
Will it ever end?
I mean, the end of last season was disappointing. But the Pats did go 14-2 with a generally young roster and seem positioned to make noise again in 2011.
Sorry, I meant 14-3.
Unburdened of their past, the Bruins now may focus squarely on their future.
And so as the duck boats are prepped and parade plans finalized, here is the only question that matters for this franchise as the Bruins celebrate their first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years: was this the end of a destructive famine, or was it merely the start of a fruitful harvest? The Bruins are young, stable, and hard-working. And as recent Boston history has taught us, a second title may not be far behind a first.The Patriots? They almost immediately followed their first Super Bowl win with two others, winning three titles in four years. The Red Sox, after winning in 2004, won again in 2007 and reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2008. The Celtics won in 2008 and went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals last year -- and they did it with a roster built for the short term, not the long.
The Bruins, of course, are entirely different, largely because they possess a deep and relatively young roster that generally will remain intact. Michael Ryder, Tomas Kaberle and Mark Recchi are the only notable unrestricted free agents on the roster, Recchi having already announced his retirement. Brad Marchand is a priority as a restricted free agent. But beyond that, the Bruins are still young and developing, and they have a goalie-in-waiting (Tuukka Rask) tucked behind the incomparable Tim Thomas.
Next month, Patrice Bergeron will be just 26, the same age as Nathan Horton. David Krejci is 25, Milan Lucic and Marchand 23. Adam McQuaid is 24. Beyond Zdeno Chara, Thomas and, if you'd like, Marc Savard, the "old" players on the Bruins are Dennis Seidenberg (soon to be 30), Chris Kelly (30) and Rich Peverley (soon to be 29) as well as Johnny Boychuk, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell (all 27). All of those players are under contract through at least next season, and none of them include a cast of potential contributors like Steven Kampfer, Matt Bartkowski or Jordan Caron.
And then, naturally, there is Tyler Seguin, the 19-year-old phenom whom the Bruins selected with the No. 2 overall pick last summer and who has the potential to be their best player since ... well ... who? (Lest we forget, the Bruins also have the No. 9 pick in this year's draft courtesy of the Phil Kessel trade, the gift that keeps on giving.)
Wednesday's Game 7 win over the Canucks was not an end so much as it was a beginning, if for no other reason than the fact that the Bruins are in position to make it so. If you want to credit general manager Peter Chiarelli for that, feel free. He certainly deserves his share of praise. Mike O'Connell gets a piece of the pie, too. Rosters are usually built over the span of several years, not a few, and the impact of key decisions is not often felt until years after the fact.
Ask Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick about this. For that matter, ask Dan Duquette and Theo Epstein, too.
Amid all of that, here is what else the Bruins deserve credit for, as forward Shawn Thornton so aptly noted in the aftermath of Wednesday's victory: they have altered the culture here, which is not easy to do. Changing history is far more difficult than continuing it. As a rookie in 2007, Dustin Pedroia never had to answer questions about 1918 because the demons had been exorcised. He was raised in a far healthier environment. The same is true for Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Daniel Bard, among others, and there is simply no way to measure the impact of something like that.
Meanwhile, in Foxboro, while players were not only groomed in a far more productive setting, others were attracted. Corey Dillon and Randy Moss wanted to come here because of what Parcells and Belichick built. Even after the disappointment of a January loss to the New York Jets, the Patriots have a new core built around people like Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo. Belichick and Tom Brady are still here. New England remains one of the elite franchises in the NFL, even without a title in six years, and it would take years of neglect to damage that.
Back to Seguin for a moment, if for no other reason than he is the future of the franchise. Because of Wednesday, Seguin will never have to answer questions like the ones Bergeron did when he arrived here several years ago. Back then, Bergeron spoke of the history of the history, of restoring the luster to the spoked B, of Orr and Esposito and Bucyk. Now he is part of the group that has done it. Seguin will never have to deal with that kind of negativity because, in his very first year as an NHL player, he had the privilege of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Already, it seems, the pressure is on Taylor Hall in Edmonton. One can only wonder what was going through Hall's mind as Seguin and the Bruins celebrated two nights ago.
Here, in Boston, we have led a charmed existence over the last 10 years. If the puck hadn't deflected off Chara's skate ... or if officials had blown the tuck rule ... or if Dave Roberts had been out ... or if P.J. Brown, of all people, had missed a 10-footer ... well, who knows. But the Bruins indisputably have a seat at the table now, and champions never have to apologize for winning.
Rather, they can look forward and focus on what they must do to win again.
Tonight, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, I believe the Bruins will win because they have come too far to lose, because they possess championship-caliber makeup, because they have won every game this season that the schedule has demanded them to win.
I believe the Bruins will win because Tim Thomas is a better goaltender than Roberto Luongo.
And because Thomas is a better teammate.
And because he is, in short, a better man.
I also believe, naturally, that Thomas has far more air in his tires.I believe the Bruins will win because they have more dignity than the Canucks, more character, more resolve and more downright likability, and that because of all that the Bruins have the support of the entire United States, most of the hockey world and even some of Canada.
And I believe the Bruins will win because they are tougher.
I believe the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup tonight because no team in NHL history has ever won three Game 7s in a single postseason and because, sooner or later, most every silly statistic like that gets disproved.
Because there are lots of ways to win and because every team is different.
And because this Bruins team is different, too.
I believe the Bruins will win because over the last 10 years, from the Patriots to the Red Sox to the Celtics, we have had the privilege in this town of learning what champions must possess and because the Bruins indisputably have it.
And because I still believe the Canucks do not.
I believe the Bruins will win because Dennis Seidenberg is built like Ray Bourque was, with legs like Roman columns, because I now understand just how much the Bruins missed Seidenberg a year ago.
And because that makes me realize, too, how much the Bruins also missed David Krejci.
I believe the Bruins will win because Brad Marchand is an antagonistic little menace who would do just about anything it takes to win, from treating Daniel Sedin like a speed bag to Roberto Luongo like a shooter tutor to Christian Ehroff like an overgrown weed.
And because, amid all of that, Marchand has scored nine goals in this postseason, bringing his 2010-11 contribution to the Bruins to an even 30.
And because, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, he still has not bitten anyone.
And because of that, I believe the Bruins have changed.
I believe the Bruins will win because Zdeno Chara deserves a title, because he was the concrete block on which this Bruins renaissance was built, because he was willing to come here in the first place.
And because he will continue to envelop Henrik Sedin as if he were a human Snuggie.
I believe the Bruins will win because Marc Savard and Nathan Horton will be watching, because Horton and Savard deserve to be remembered for what they have given the Bruins this season and in others, because that is the true definition of sacrifice.
I believe the Bruins will win because, as Pierre McGuire so aptly put it, Adam McQuaid is one “mean hombre.”
And because the Canucks have proven they will turtle when confronted by him.
I believe the Bruins will win because head coach Claude Julien is anything but a self-promoter, because he seeks no credit while being dealt blame, regardless of whether either is justified.
I believe the Bruins will win because Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille are among the most unsung heroes of this series, having been a big reason the Canucks are just 2 for 31 on the power play for the series, numbers that mean the high-powered Canucks have converted on a measly 6.5 percent of their chances with a man advantage.
And because, as the Bruins would be among the first to tell you, that is utterly inept.
I believe the Bruins will win because the Phil Kessel-for-Tyler Seguin trade has the potential to go down as axis on which Bruins history turned, because Seguin will be one of those rare players in history who will know nothing but success.
And because Kessel must be watching this now with a better understanding of what the Bruins were trying to tell him, show and teach him during his time in Boston.
I believe the Bruins will win because, over the last three years, the Bruins have now played eight playoff series and because, in the previous seven, Milan Lucic has combined for five goals and four assists in the final game.
Which is to say that Lucic finishes strong.
I believe the Bruins will win because Patrice Bergeron should be the first player all parents cite when trying to teach their children how sports should be played, on both ends of the arena, and how they should act beyond the lines and whistles, too.
I believe the Bruins will win because Mark Recchi really wants to retire and because, as he told us all at the end of the regular season, a title would make the decision easy.
I believe the Bruins will win because Shawn Thornton believes in honor, because he wears an NHL uniform with pride, wherever he plays, and because he wears the spoked B with as much dignity as anyone.
I believe the Bruins will win because Johnny Boychuk will stop pinching and keep on hitting, because collisions involving Boychuk often look like car accidents, and because Boychuk suffers more than his share of body damage.
I believe the Bruins will win because, pound for pound, Andrew Ference is one of the toughest little SOBs in the NHL.
And because Tuukka Rask, despite being pushed back to the bench this year, continues to greet Tim Thomas after every victory with a smile on his face.
I believe the Bruins will win because they have taken on the personality of their team president, Cam Neely, who routinely played as his team has been playing throughout these playoffs.
And I believe, finally, that the Bruins will win because their fans deserve it, because Boston has been in nothing more than a hockey coma for much of the last 15 years, because all the Bruins and their fans needed was a serious jolt of hope and because a Cup would put the final touches on one of the greatest runs in American sports history.
And because, in the end, a Stanley Cup would complete the set.
The building truly belongs to them now, not solely in ownership, but in pure essence. The Celtics are gone for the summer. The Bruins are returning for a final night. And the only real question concerns whether the Bruins will be hanging a banner when they unpack next fall.
After all, the Bruins will be first to return next season.
First in, last out.
“I look at our resolve during the season and different times when we have had to come up large, whether it's Game 7 in the playoffs or whether sometime during the season when we needed certain wins,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters yesterday. “Our guys have always responded well and I have a lot of confidence in our team. The reason we're here is because those guys have delivered and I don't expect that to change.”
The coach is right, of course, recent Bruins revealing an environment at the TD Garden that cannot help but make one wonder just how much things have changed in the last several weeks. Since dropping Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens this postseason, the Bruins have gone 9-1 on their home ice, losing only Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In their last four home playoff games, the Bruins have outscored their opponents 16-2. Goalie Tim Thomas has been virtually impenetrable. And the Bruins have played with great passion before a crowd that has bordered on bloodthirsty.
But then, why should that be a surprise? The Bruins have not played a game of this magnitude in Boston in 33 years, since Game 6 of the 1977-78 Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins lost that game, 4-1. The entire Bruins franchise has since spent the last 33 years trying to get back to this point, to a place just two wins from a championship, all during a period when the Celtics spent time as the primary Garden resident.
But now, tonight and perhaps beyond, the building belongs to the Bruins again. Tonight especially. Tonight, the Bruins need the Garden to be everything it has been in recent weeks, to be what it has been during the home wins over the Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning and Canucks, four playoff teams who have been outscored by a 40-18 margin in the last 10 Garden games.
During this stretch, the Bruins have become everything they have wanted to be (short of champions) during the last several decades. They have become a difficult team to play again, a team virtually impossible to beat, a team with grit, spirit and fight.
“I remember right near the end of the year, we were pleased with our road record but we talked about establishing ourselves as a better home team,” Julien said. “That was in the last month and a half or so. We started doing that in the regular home season and we've carried that into the playoffs. So if there is a time to be good at home, it's certainly [in Game 6], and we intend to keep that streak going.”
Indeed, for all of the talk about the relative meaninglessness of home ice advantage in the NHL playoffs – at least relative to other sports – recent play in the Stanley Cup Final has suggested something altogether different. Since the start of the 2005-06 postseason, home teams are a stunning 29-7 in play during the Stanley Cup Final. In this series, the home team has won all five games. Thoroughly beaten up by the Bruins in Games 3 and 4, the Canucks returned to Vancouver for Game 5 and, with the home crowd behind them, belted the Bruins all over the ice en route to a 1-0 victory that pushed the Bruins to the brink.
Just like that, the Bruins turned back into the team they were in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
And tonight, presumably, they are just as capable of turning back.
Beyond the Garden ice, the Bruins may have other factors in their favor for Game 6 – at least through the eyes of their most optimistic fans. Julien will have the benefit of last change. Certainly, the Garden surface seemed to play slower than that in Vancouver. And while the Canucks have the advantage in the only area that ultimately matters – the series scoreboard – the Bruins can take some solace in the fact that they have had the chance to win all five games. The Bruins have outscored Vancouver in the series and led for a far longer period of ice time, elements that suggest they have been far more competitive and beyond.
Will the building matter again? Will home ice hold true? That obviously remains to be seen. In the biggest hockey game to be played in Boston since the Jimmy Carter administration, the Bruins are relying, at least in part, on their building and their fans to pull them through, all with the idea of a final, return trip to Vancouver.
Tonight and beyond, the building belongs to hockey.
Only time will tell whether the Bruins and their fans elect to give it back.
“Anybody that knows the story of Tim Thomas, he's taken a real bumpy road to get to the NHL. He's had so many obstacles in front of him that he's overcome, it makes him a battler, it makes him the perfect goaltender for our organization because that's what we are. We're a blue-collar team that goes out and works hard and earns every inch of the ice that you can get.”
- Bruins coach Claude Julien after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final
Hockey’s quest for the Holy Grail will resume in Vancouver tonight with Game 5 of this Stanley Cup Final, and let there be no doubt now as to the most striking matchup of this series: the goalies are front and center. Thomas and Luongo simply could not be more different, stylistically and otherwise, sharing only the scrutiny that comes along with a position unlike any other in perhaps all of professional sports.
Don’t you see? Thomas and Luongo were both cheered as they came off the ice in Game 4 – the roars of approval for Thomas echoing throughout the TD Garden, the mocking jeers for Luongo coming all the way from Vancouver. Luongo was asked about the response from his fan base after being unceremoniously pulled from Game 4, the embattled goaltender dismissing the inquiry far more effectively than he turned away any pucks.
“Next question,” Luongo said.
Actually, Roberto, it’s the still same question:
Is Luongo a potential weak link on these Canucks, a gifted regular season goalie who cracks at the most critical moments?Thomas knows all of this too well, of course, the questions about him and his “battlefly” style having followed him since, well, forever. Thomas was 32 before he became an NHL starter. He has been described as everything from unorthodox to unconventional to unable. That last criticism came with regard to his ability to lead a team to a championship, a long-standing question given an, er, acrobatic style prompting the sternest traditionalists to wonder whether he plays with enough control.
Sure enough, when Thomas lunged at Alexandre Burrows and took himself out of position to help facilitate Burrows’ overtime winner in Game 2, the questions began anew, assuming they ever went away at all.
“I have a pretty good idea of how to play goalie,” a defiant Thomas answered. “I'm not going to be taking suggestions or advice at this time. I'm just going to keep playing the way I have.”
Then Thomas went out and held the Canucks to one goal combined in Games 3 and 4 at the TD Garden, turning away 78 of 79 shots with a combination of steady and spectacular saves that have brought the Bruins right back into this series, placing them two wins away from their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
Tim Thomas answered, as he always has.
Which is what Luongo needs to do now.
Of course, professional sports are spotted with players lacking that magical it, a competitiveness, tenacity or poise that is impossible to measure. Ask Alex Rodriguez about this. Or LeBron James. Or Peyton Manning or Brett Favre. Each is among the most physically gifted players in the history of his game, but the winning (if there has been any at all) has never quite been quite in line with the ability. This is the class that Luongo has been placed in, the curse that comes with being a supremely talented player chosen high in the draft.
Then there are the ones like Thomas, sixth-round draft picks regarded as the runts of the litter. Those players have no choice but to learn how to fight.
On a broader level, the same is true of these Canucks and Bruins, the former a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and led the NHL in everything this year, the latter a club that must support its talent with physical play, grit, desire. Not a single player on the Bruins possesses the skill of Daniel or Henrik Sedin, whom the Canucks chose with the second and third overall selections of the 1999 draft. David Krejci was a second-round choice, 63rd overall. Brad Marchand was a third-round choice. Even Patrice Bergeron was a second-round pick, the kind of player whom the Bruins refer to as “responsible.”
Behind all those men stand Luongo and Thomas, the first-rounder and the sixth-rounder, No. 4 overall versus No. 217. They are now the poster boys for this series. Both men will be back in goal tonight for Game 5, the questioners still following them, albeit far closer to Luongo now than to Thomas. And the team that wins this Stanley Cup Final may very well be the one with the goalie who can most effectively function amid the doubts and whispers.
Thomas is fueled by those voices, it seems.
Tonight, all of Vancouver and the Canucks wonder whether Luongo can do the same.
So what was that, exactly, on Monday night? Was it a reprieve, a temporary stay of execution? Was it an outburst of emotion after days of teeth-clenching anger? Was it nothing more than a relative fluke, a reminder that any team can throttle any other on any given night?
Or was it, perhaps, the axis on which the Stanley Cup Final turned, the Bruins revealing cracks in a Vancouver Canucks team that now has been punctured?
We get our answer tonight, in Game 4, when the Bruins and Canucks resume their icy play for Lord Stanley’s cherished cup at the TD Garden. Nathan Horton is out. Aaron Rome is out. And a Bruins victory tonight would put Boston right back in the thick of this series, placing the pressure squarely on Vancouver to win a championship it is supposed to win.
“I think a lot of our success has been to eliminate carryover, positively or negatively, to turn the page - in a big picture, game to game, [in a] small picture, period to period,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ferrence told reporters yesterday. “It's a clean slate. But they have a 2-1 lead. We know we have to do our job at home to stay in the series. It's important for us to just go at it.”
Actually, it’s vital.
Yes, it’s a different sport. Yes, no two circumstances are entirely alike. But like those Celtics, one of the biggest potential weapons for the Bruins in this series is the self-doubt buried in their opponent’s psyche, the kind of thing that can lead teams to, well, choke.
As inspiring as the Bruins’ Game 3 victory was, it will ultimately mean nothing without Game 4. The Bruins made that so by dropping Games 1 and 2 in Vancouver last week. The moment Alexandre Burrows scored his wraparound 11 seconds into overtime of Game 2, the Bruins needed to win both Games 3 and 4 because their best chance in this series, from the very beginning, was to batter Vancouver and get inside the Canucks’ heads.
A win in Game 4 accomplishes that because the questions would then shift to Vancouver, where the best team in hockey this year would be peppered with doubt.
Do you feel like you’ve let a golden opportunity slip away by losing Games 3 and 4? Mustn’t you win Game 5? Are the Bruins tougher than you and do they simply want it more?
Give the Bruins credit for this much: for the first time in the series on Monday, Boston outhit Vancouver, no matter what the official statistics indicated in Games 1 and 2. From the second period on, the Bruins initiated the contact and play. The Canucks entered Game 3 looking like a supremely confident and even cocky team, and they exited looking a little battered, humbled, beaten. The final score of 8-1 had as much to do with the Canucks quitting in the final minutes of play more as it did with the Bruins pouring it on in wholesale quantities.
The Canucks dominated the third period in Game 1 of this series. They controlled the third period and overtime of Game 2.
But in Game 3, Vancouver got positively spanked in the final 40 minutes, the Bruins finding their legs while the Canucks lost theirs.
“Obviously, they kept putting the pressure on. The game was pretty much out of reach for us,” Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo told the media yesterday. “I don't know. I mean, they obviously were not satisfied with 5-1 and kept pressing. We started maybe taking our attention away from our game plan, started worrying about physical aspects of the game, which we shouldn't be doing at this point.”
Indeed, the Canucks were looking over their shoulders. The trick now for the Bruins is to ensure that the Canucks keep doing so, at least until Vancouver begins to look within.
Admittedly, the loss of Horton is a rather sizable blow to the Bruins, who possessed very few matchup advantages to begin with. The Canucks are faster. The Canucks are more skilled. The Canucks are every bit as deep, if not deeper, and they are better on special teams. Aside from goal scoring, Horton has played the majority of these playoffs with an intensity, physicality and edge that the Bruins need in these finals, especially, and that is something Tyler Seguin simply cannot replicate, at least at the moment.
Still, against these Canucks, ask yourselves this: are the Bruins better off playing stylistically as they did in Games 1 and 2, with Horton? Or are they better off playing stylistically as they did in Game 3, without him? In this series as much as any other, the physical play is absolutely essential for them. The effect on Vancouver’s defense corps is now noticeable. From a purely physical standpoint, the longer this series goes the better it is for the Bruins, who must remain relentless in pounding away at Vancouver’s air of invincibility.
All of that brings us to Game 4 with the Canucks still holding a 2-1 edge in the series. As Luongo himself pointed out yesterday, the final score of Game 3 now means nothing. Total goals count for zero. In that way, playoff series are like match play in golf, where the scoreboard resets and the participants trade shots, one attempting to put pressure on the other.
And so by late tonight, if the Bruins can build upon the momentum of Game 3, there will be no doubt about the direction in which this Stanley Cup Final is headed.
Roughly 18 seconds remained in Game 1. In overtime, a mere 11 seconds elapsed in Game 2. Add it all up and you get 29 seconds that have separated the Bruins from the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final, which returns to Boston tonight for the first time since 1990.
Admittedly, that is a relatively simplistic – and optimistic – way of looking at things, but what real choice do the Bruins have now? For all intents and purposes, the Bruins face a must-win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden. Though the Vancouver Canucks twice compiled four-game losing streaks during the regular season, the Canucks are not likely to do so now, with a championship at stake, with the Bruins on the ropes. Any chance at a Bruins comeback in this series must start tonight, and the Bruins must convince themselves all that stands between them and the Canucks at the moment is those 29 seconds.
They still have a chance.
Perhaps it is their only chance.
“You could use that to look at it as a way to say that you've been right there in the games, but the reality was you lost two games,’’ Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas told reporters yesterday. “It doesn't really matter if we were down with 18 minutes left in the third and still lost by one goal, we still lost.”
And yet, the Bruins must believe in those 29 seconds, need to believe in those 29 seconds, because to do otherwise would be to admit that the Canucks are simply a better team.
That, too, is indisputably true at this juncture, though it hardly means that the Stanley Cup Final has been decided yet. It just means the challenge is greater. Vancouver led the NHL in just about everything during the regular season, and the Canucks have been the faster, more skilled, more physically imposing team in Games 1 and 2. From the beginning, the Bruins’ best chance in this series was to puncture Vancouver’s confidence, get inside the head of Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, put the burden of expectation squarely on the shoulders of the team that is supposed to win.
Instead, the opposite has happened. The Canucks can now play freely in Game 3 and, perhaps, Game 4. Vancouver can lose both games in Boston and still have home-ice advantage. The Bruins have actually held a lead in this series for a longer stretch of time than the Canucks have – 18:02 for Boston, 17:06 for Vancouver – and yet Vancouver holds a sturdy 2-0 series edge all because of those 29 backbreaking seconds.
“Obviously, we’ve got to find a way to play for the whole 60 minutes and plus - if we go in overtime,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. “Obviously, they're a good team and when they do have room, they're going to make some plays, so we have to make sure we stay tighter.”
On the flipside, the Bruins need to make some plays, too, their inability to generate good scoring chances the obvious and most glaring deficiency throughout the first two games of this series.
In retrospect, for all of the talk about Vancouver’s speed and skill, hasn’t that been the biggest problem for the Bruins in this series thus far? Boston’s only goals in this series essentially came from crowds in front of the net, the first by Milan Lucic off a rebound, the second deflecting off Mark Recchi on the power play. Overall, the Bruins have had relatively little space to operate. Their only goals have come from a combination of will and brute force (the first), and from good fortune (the second). Too often, the unspectacular Luongo has been able to drop into his butterfly, looking like a chunky hen sitting on its eggs, pucks all but disappearing into a pile of feathers.
In that way, the first two games of this series were akin to the first two games of the Montreal series, a seven-game affair in which the Bruins came back to win after dropping the first two.
The differences in this case, of course, are that the Canucks are a better team than the Canadiens were – and that the Bruins are now returning home rather than having to venture to Montreal. Since those first two playoff-opening defeats to the Canadiens, the Bruins are 7-1 at home in the postseason, dropping only Game 1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. Backed by the home crowd in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, the Bruins turned in a performance for the ages, controlling play from start to finish in a truly complete-game performance.
Now, against the better Canucks, the Bruins need another complete game. In fact, they need two. They have positively no margin for error. The Bruins created openings for the Canucks in Games 1 and 2, and Vancouver struck swiftly on both occasions. Any chance at a Stanley Cup celebration must begin now, must begin with Game 3, because their chance at a championship depends on it.
And because, as we have learned in Games 1 and 2 of this series, the Bruins do not have a second to spare.
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.
"Exhausting. I haven't been that tired for a long time. I haven't slept for three days afterward."
- Boston Bruins owners Jeremy Jacobs in the aftermath of last week’s Game 7 between the Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning
Fortunately, for Jeremy Jacobs and everyone else, it was a long weekend. Together, all of New England took a very deep breath following one of the more glorious victories in Boston sports history, all as the Bruins gathered their belongings and headed west for the start of the Stanley Cup finals. But before we turn our attention ahead to Vancouver and the possibility of yet another celebration through the city neighborhoods and nooks – regardless, we continue to roll here in the Hub – a final moment to reflect.
Was that a whale of a game on Friday night or what?
For the moment, stop and ask yourself this question: what member of the Bruins played poorly in Friday’s epic 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning during a true seventh game for the ages? Short of finishing a few scoring chances – and goalie Dwayne Roloson had something to do with that – the Bruins played a virtually perfect game in dispatching the pesky Lightning and seemingly smug coach Guy Boucher, turning in the proverbial full 60 minutes from end to end of the TD Garden ice with a combination of skill, system, smarts, and steely resolve.
From top to bottom, the Bruins – yes, the Bruins – were positively brilliant in this game, delivering the kind of effort and execution that should make any follower, well, proud.
Let’s say that again.
If you are a Bruins fan – a long-suffering, emotionally traumatized Bruins fans - Friday’s victory should have made you as proud as ever, particularly after the Bruins so suffocated the Lightning in the final minutes that Tampa Bay had difficulty pulling its goalie.
Five-on-five, straight-up, our best against your best.
And the better team won.
For the Bruins, unfortunately, all of that may place even greater emphasis on their special teams play – particularly their oxymoronic power play – because, with the possible exception of Philadelphia, there is not another team they have faced this postseason with the capacity to neutralize Boston in 5-on-5 play.
And lest anyone forget, the Flyers played the large majority of the series without defenseman Chris Pronger.
Nonetheless, there is no overstating what the Bruins have done here, particularly during an era in which they have been overshadowed by each of Boston’s other three primary sports franchises. Until now, starting in 2002, the Patriots have been to four Super Bowls and five AFC Championship Games. The Red Sox have won two world titles and played in four American League Championship Series. The Celtics have won a title and been to the Eastern Conference finals on three occasions. The Bruins have been not merely the red-headed stepchild during this era – they have been rather red-faced, too.
But now? Now the Bruins are playing in the finals, all at a time when the Celtics appear to be deteriorating and the Patriots are stuck in the midst of a work stoppage toting a three-game postseason losing streak. The Red Sox are, at the moment, an afterthought. Boston is an indisputable hockey town again, and we assured of such through at least June 8.
That’s right, hockey in June.
For those of us under the age of, say, 50, this is all a relatively rare phenomenon, perhaps more so than many of us realize. In our lifetimes, since the 1972 Stanley Cup championship that many of us do not remember – not really, anyway – the Bruins have been to the Stanley Cup finals on five occasions and won a grand total of five games. They have won just one finals game since 1978. Boston's last two postseason trips into the finals paired them against a historically good Edmonton Oilers team that all but wiped the ice with the Bruins – the final game count in those series was Edmonton 8, Bruins 1, a collection of games during which the Oilers outscored the Bruins by 21 goals.
For what it’s worth, these Canucks were dominant during the regular season, leading the NHL in goals for and goals against while posting a league-best goal differential of plus-77. (The Bruins were second at plus-51.) Vancouver suffered just 19 regulation losses all season, almost half of them (nine) by just one goal.
Of course, one of those defeats came against – you guessed it - the Bruins, who posted a 3-1 victory at Vancouver on February 26, though it should be noted that the Bruins' final tally in that affair was an empty-net goal by Patrice Bergeron.
Beginning tomorrow night, the Canucks will get their chance at retribution beginning with Game 1.
The Bruins, meanwhile, will have their eyes on a well-earned chance at redemption 39 years in the making.
I like the Bruins.
So that is what it comes down for your beloved Boston Bruins, a team that has been rebuilt and revived in recent years: a de facto flip of the coin. Tonight at the TD Garden, in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins will play their 100th game of the 2010-11 season, and there is as much reason to believe that the Bruins will win as there is that they will lose. According to a chart in today's Globe, the Bruins have played a seventh and deciding game in precisely 20 series during their considerable history. The results are exactly what one would expect.
And so on we go, again, to the deciding game.
Recent Boston sports history should remind us that every chance at a championship should be maximized. Tom Brady got hurt in the 2008 season opener after the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLII and New England has not won a playoff game since. The Celtics lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Lakers last year and now seem on their way to assisted living. Beginning with their Game 7 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Red Sox have not won a single postseason game.
You just never know when these chances are going to come, no matter how promising the future looks. Winning takes talent and coaching, smarts and guts. Even then, there is a required amount of luck, particularly in a sport where a season can be decided by the bounce off a defenseman's skate.
Ask the San Jose Sharks about this. Or, for that matter, ask the Bruins, who won Game 5 of their first-round series against Montreal in overtime only after a seemingly certain, decisive goal by the Canadiens deflected off the skate of an unknowing Zdeno Chara.
The NHL postseason being the grueling the triathlon that it is, the Bruins' postseason run thus far has been nothing short of exhausting for participants and observers alike. After Game 2 of this series, the Lightning elected to fly home immediately after the game, a decision that may have contributed to their heavy-legged performance in Game 3 (a Bruins win). Maybe that is part of the reason the Bruins elected to fly home yesterday after their Game 6 defeat, choosing to get two reasonably good nights of sleep before the game that will perhaps decide their season.
"We’ve worked all year to win in front of our fans," Patrice Bergeron told reporters yesterday, all but reminding the team's anxious, beaten-down fan base that the players need their full support. "We’ve got to forget about the first six games — it’s all about one now. It all comes down to one game. I think pressure is on both teams, and we shouldn’t allow pressure to get in your head. You’ve got to go out there and play your game."
Indeed, for as much as the focus here is on the Bruins, the same variables apply tonight for a Tampa Bay team that was every bit as good as the Bruins during the regular season. The Lightning have won a Cup more recently, to be sure, but they are assured of nothing.
During the regular season, the Bruins (246) and the Lightning (247) scored a virtually identical number of goals. During this series, the count is 21-20 in favor of Tampa. Overall, in the postseason, the Lightning and Bruins have identical records (11-6) and scored essentially the same number of goals (59-57 for Tampa) while allowing virtually the same number, too (44-45 for Tampa).
From the start, everything about this series screamed for a seventh game.
Tonight, for the Bruins especially, the line between victory and defeat is as fine as ever. In the wake of a Game 6 loss during which Tampa Bay scored three power play goals, the Bruins must stay out of the penalty box. Simultaneously, they must play aggressively. Striking a balance between those two truths could tip the series one way or the other, the outcome kicking off a weekend that will be nothing if not memorable.
Bruins-Lightning, Game 7 tonight, winner playing the Vancouver Canucks for the coveted Stanley Cup.
So who do you like?
So whaddaya think?
"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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