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Black and Golden opportunity was lost

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 16, 2009
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Scott Walker's shot, the one that so abruptly and emphatically ended the Bruins' season, went high into the net behind Tim Thomas at 11:22 Thursday night, and it took all of about 90 seconds for the vast majority of the sellout crowd to bolt the building on the west side of Causeway Street. It had to be our city's record for arena evacuation, stuff that could encourage Homeland Security to partner with NESN to produce a tape on effective crowd management.

Talk about the granddaddy of buzzkills. In that one smack of Ray Whitney's looping and tumbling rebound, the Bruins went from would-be Stanley Cup semifinalists to crushed second-round tomato cans. The near-silence in the TD Quickdrain Garden added an eerie, almost haunting backdrop to the harsh reality that 2008-09 would be yet another season to end Cup-empty in the Hub of Hockey.

And though it's hard enough for an organization to pack bags after an unfulfilled season, it was all the more difficult for the Bruins and their fans, given that they made it to Round 2 this year and then, for a variety of reasons, exited the action with the added disappointment that they made the very least of a very good opportunity.

"Absolutely," agreed a blunt Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins' general manager, chatting on the phone yesterday afternoon from his home in the 'burbs. "Obviously, you always look for a silver lining - you've gained experience and you've learned lessons. But at the same time, in this business you know that opportunity doesn't come around too often. I'm confident that we have a good foundation here, and we'll succeed in the future, but at the same time it's a business and you want to seize all the opportunities possible - and I don't think we did that."

In the next few days, Chiarelli and his front-office cognoscenti, including coach Claude Julien, will code and finalize the complete list of their May 2009 failures, while making note, along with the rest of the hockey world, that the Hurricanes weren't all that bad. However, for a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, its success rooted in the league's best defense and a prosperous offense (No. 2 to Detroit), the second-round dismissal was both rude and jarring for a franchise that began to believe it could win its first Cup since 1972.

Were the Bruins truly Cup capable? Obviously not. No matter how spunky, speedy, and surprising ly savvy th e Canes were, the Bruins should have beaten them. The fact that they lost is proof enough they lacked the kind of roster depth, fortitude, and talent it takes to succeed over four grueling rounds, by far the most demanding postseason test in professional sports.

At the same time, Boston's loss was not a fluke, or something to be explained away or justified by, say, the dazzling work of Cam Ward in the Canes' net. Ward was good, not great, in large part because the Bruins didn't mount the kind of offense over seven games that asked much of Carolina's young 'tender. In fact, no player on the Carolina side put a stranglehold or deep thumbprint on the series. They dispatched the heavily favored Bruins not so much by power, force, or skill, but by state-of-the-New-NHL go-kart hockey, quick to transition pucks out of their end and then smack the puck around long enough in the other until an increasingly worn-out Boston defense made enough boo-boos to give up a goal.

"Last year we lost," noted Chiarelli, thinking back to the first-round loss to the Canadiens, which also went to a Game 7 after the Bruins pushed back from a 3-1 series deficit, identical to this year's series with the Canes. "Yes, I was disappointed in our first period in Game 7, but at the end of the Montreal series I was like, 'OK, hey, we came back.' And part of me was satisfied. But no part of me is satisfied today."

Picking up on a baseball analogy, Chiarelli added, "We felt like we didn't get our three cuts at the plate."

So what went wrong?

The losses along the way of injured defensemen Andrew Ference and Matt Hunwick cut dramatically into the club's effectiveness and success. Without those two, the Bruins were at a loss to match Carolina's quick-trigger transition game. The Canes' forecheck, while not overly daunting, too often maintained offensive-zone pressure and containment with Ference and Hunwick out of the mix. It put way too much pressure on Dennis Wideman as the No. 1 puck carrier and distributor. It also left the small Canes wingers to freewheel in the Boston end, something rarely seen during the regular season.

But Boston's biggest bugaboo had to be its somewhat mystifying mind-set. These weren't the bold and snarly Bruins who ditched the Habs in four straight in Round 1. Not even close. The Bruins came out meekly in Game 1, which they won, thanks mostly to the Canes arriving in a mental mince after a seven-game upset over the Devils. Refreshed after an offday, the Canes then rattled off three straight victories, with the Bruins bottoming out in Games 3-4 in Raleigh. The Bruins too often handled the puck poorly, even sheepishly, and in both games had great trouble gaining the offensive zone and even more trouble maintaining it. For that stretch of three games, they looked as out of synch, if not clueless, as the Habs did in Round 1.

"I think we dug ourselves too deep a hole," said Chiarelli. "I haven't figured out all the reasons yet, but in Game 1 we weren't that good. In Game 2, it looked to me like we underestimated our opponent [following the easy win in Game 1]. And in Game 3, that's where our overall lack of experience showed most. We have some experience, but we didn't show the level of play that is required in the playoffs. It's not that we were without emotion, but we didn't have enough of it in those middle games. And when you don't have that, it trickles down to every part of your game. It looks like you're skating in quicksand. It's nerves. It's lack of urgency. It that's whole mental package. We were nervous, and it impacted how we played."

According to Chiarelli, the roster contained a great number of injuries, too, which affected performance. He would not go into detail about individual injuries. Both Marc Savard and Mark Recchi were clearly hurting by the end of the series.

"Recchi had serious issues," noted Chiarelli. "He really strapped it on . . . the guy's a warrior."

Chiarelli will meet with the media Monday afternoon, after the players clear out their lockers, and said he would reveal more about the number and severity of the wounded.

"You'll be hearing about some surgeries in the near future," he said.

Time again to turn off all the ice-making machinery on Causeway Street. The distant sons of Eddie Shore, Milt Schmidt, John Bucyk, and Terry O'Reilly will go home again, this time at least with one playoff series victory to show for their efforts. It will be a season remembered for some significant gains, but also questioned for its lackluster finish.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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