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Outside looking in

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff October 30, 2008 05:58 AM

In this decade of Boston sports dominance, you don't have to go too far back to recall the last time most of the locals won a playoff series or advanced in the playoffs.

The Patriots beat the San Diego Chargers in the AFC title game on Jan. 20.

The Celtics finished off the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 17.

The Red Sox advanced to the ALCS by virtue of a Game 4 ALDS win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Oct. 6.

The Bruins …

Well, yes, it has indeed been a long time since we’ve witnessed the Black and Gold advance past the entry level of the Stanley Cup playoffs, hasn’t it? The streak will hit 10 years next spring: The Bruins beat the Carolina Hurricanes in the 1999 Stanley Cup quarterfinals, a matter of which die-hard Bruins fans need little reminder.

All that’s happened in these parts since then is a half-dozen other titles, courtesy of the remaining trio of Boston’s Big Four. The Bruins haven’t even made the playoffs that many times over the same stretch. Forget being a bridesmaid. They manage to find the church from time to time, but the doors are always locked, their fans pounding on them in a desperate plea for Lord Stanley, like Ben Braddock’s final cry for the younger Robinson.

As far as Boston’s most recent playoff streaks of futility go, this one still has a few years to go before it matches the Red Sox’ 13-year stretch between 1986 and 1999, when Boston dropped five straight playoff series, including losing 13 games in a row between ’86 and ’95. But in a town where you’re now judged by the size of your ring finger, that’s little solace to long-suffering Bruins fanatics.

For a team that used to be king in this town, the past decade and a half or so has been unkind, as puckheads have watched hardball, pigskin, and roundball fans line Boylston Street in celebration. Which raises the question, where do the Bruins ultimately fit in? And how far can they reasonably be expected to climb into the heart, never mind the wallet, of the Boston sports fan?

To suggest that the Bruins have risen from the ashes of a crowded professional landscape this season wouldn’t be quite accurate, if only because the blazing-white embers they left behind in a memorable first-round exit to the Canadiens last spring still glow. In Game 6 of that series, the Bruins overcame three one-goal third-period deficits in a 5-4 win at a raucous Garden, rivaled in furious excitement only by the place’s other tenants’ circumstances less than two months later.

It was, to many, the best hockey game ever witnessed in person, the kind of contest that reminded us of the hold the team once had on New England. To think, if only it had been Game 7.

Last Saturday night, we saw both reasons to be thrilled with the prospects of this year’s edition and reasons for lingering concern over its overall status in the NHL. Milan Lucic, who is on the popularity scale what Kevin Youkilis is to the Red Sox, scored his first career hat trick in a not-so-pretty win over Atlanta, a victory that came on the heels of perhaps the team’s worst effort of the season Thursday night against Toronto. The Bruins’ penalty-kill unit, which ranked third-worst in the league last season, allowed the Thrashers to find the net on three of their four power-play opportunities, prompting coach Claude Julien to call his team out before its current West Coast Canadian swing.

It is nearly impossible to define a team based on two October road wins, but what has happened this week north of the border is encouraging nonetheless. On Monday in Edmonton, Tim Thomas firmly established himself as the No. 1 goaltending option in a dazzling 1-0 overtime win over Edmonton, earning the start the next night. On Tuesday, Thomas turned away 31 Canucks shots for yet another sole-goal victory, the first back-to-back shutouts by a Bruins goalie in — why, yes — a decade. His 1.77 GAA makes him second in the NHL only to Buffalo’s Ryan Miller (1.60).

In each game, the Bruins’ penalty-kill unit was a crisp 3 for 3, no doubt aided by the brilliant work of Thomas in net.

Still, if the Bruins are to depend solely on Thomas stopping everything in sight, stormy waters lay ahead. Marc Savard, Phil Kessel — whom we saw mature seemingly overnight during last season’s playoffs when Julien lit a fire beneath his rear — and the rough-and-tumble Lucic are proving to be among the finest scorers in the league. But Boston has yet to hit upon a way to consistently find the back of the net. Its 2.62 goals per game rank in the bottom half of the league, and players other than the aforementioned trio have scored only 12 of the team’s 27 goals.

The return of Patrice Bergeron has boosted the hopes of a club that can only imagine where it would be now if it had had his services in April, but Marco Sturm (one goal, four assists) has been a major offensive disappointment thus far, and defense leader Zdeno Chara is currently a minus-3, worst on the team.

But lingering questions aside, this is still a Bruins team built on speed, skills, and toughness, a combination imperative to success in the NHL.

Not that there hasn’t been regular-season reason to be excited over the past 10 years, despite postseason disappointment — most notably when the Bruins were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference following the ’01-’02 season, only to be ousted from the playoffs by the Canadiens. But to make the leap into the hierarchy of Boston sports is going to take more than the club can accomplish over the first 82 games, and we’re still a long way from a possible playoff run.

But if you need a reminder of what the Bruins can be in this town, where they can be expected to rank among champions, look no further than April’s Game 6, 20 minutes that left no doubt that the team’s pulse in Boston is ready and waiting to pump through the veins of downtown.

Eric Wilbur writes the Boston Sports Blog on Boston.com.

19 comments so far...
  1. Good summary of this year's club, but I'm peeved at how quick everyone is to label guys like Sturm and Ryder a "disappointment" when we're not even out of October yet. If not for Sturm that game 6 would have ended in a Habs OT win. Another issue that needs to be addressed is whether this new management regime is truly committed to not just "putting a competitive team" on the ice, but to doing whatever it takes to win it all. Will they deal at the trading deadline if the B's appear playoff bound? Why are they still making stupid moves like shelling out $5 M for a goalie (Manny) who's not nearly as good as the guy they already have on the cheap (Thomas) when they could've spent the $ on a sniper, which is what they need?

    decisions like

    Posted by Mitch W October 30, 08 10:22 AM
  1. Nailed it...that is all

    Posted by jimmyD October 30, 08 10:23 AM
  1. I was at Game 6 last year, and you're right- it was the best hockey game I've ever seen in person. I've been a Bruins fan all my life (I'm 22), just as I've been a Sox fan, a Patriots fan, and a Celtics fan. Having played hockey myself, the B's always had a special place in my heart, and I honestly think it's more exciting to watch a team grow and change. It's a shame the games are so expensive. Hockey takes somewhat of a backseat in this town, especially amongst people my age. I think it's a sport more people need to discover. It's fast, exciting, and the skill level of the players is outstanding. Watch the games, because one of these nights Phil Kessel is going to put on a clinic. Just wait.

    Posted by Andrew October 30, 08 11:55 AM
  1. I LOVE IT FINALLY SOME RESPECT ...........LETS GO BS

    Posted by SILL A HUGE FAN October 30, 08 12:09 PM
  1. I can't speak for the rest of New England but the Bruins have ALWAYS been #1 with me...and I'm sure I am not alone. If you are wondering when all the "front runners" get on the Bruins bandwagon well that will be as soon as they win something. Boston is a city of front runners.....always has been. I remember when the Patriots used to get 20,000 to most games.....As for Game 6..yes that was a great game but there have been many great games in the last 30 years. You were probably just too busy watching the Red Sox to notice.

    Posted by kevin October 30, 08 12:36 PM
  1. Excellent piece of writing. I have been a Bruins fan since the 70's and remember even in the 80's they were hardest tixs to get in town. The pats had 5k a game and fenway always had seats. The celtics, were, well the celtics and filled up with out of towners with good business contacts. I stick to my guns, when I say New England is a hockey town and a baseball town. This isn't Texas or Oklahoma, wait to the pats lose a few years in a row, everybody will bail on that team. This surely isn't Chicago, La or Detroit. Its NEW ENGLAND, Miracle on Ice, Orr, Bourque, Schmidt,, Neely and so on.

    Posted by Billerica Native October 30, 08 12:48 PM
  1. In my mind as a Bruins fan, I know that they have a very bright future with guys like Phil Kessel, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krechi, Dennis Wideman, Vladimar Sobotka, Petteri Nonokelinan and Tukkaa Rask. I believe that the Bruins are on the right track to winning their sixth Stanley Cup with a great coach by the name of Claude Julien, GM Peter Chiarelli and Vice President Cam Neely. Hockey is a lifestyle here in New England. I love the Bruins and the game of hockey and I can't wait to see the Bruins win their sixth Stanley Cup. I've seen the Patriots do it three times, the Red Sox twice and the Celtics win their 17th NBA title. Now we I want to the Bruins do it......GO BRUINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by Will DeFlorio October 30, 08 01:33 PM
  1. Agree with Mitch. We overpaid for Manny when we should have gone out and got a goal scorer. I think what we really need is a star--a start personality and a star scorer. Can you imagine how amazing it would be if we had an Ovechkin/Crosby/Iginla/Malkin type star? I know, we had Jumbo Joe, but...

    I haven't given up on Ryder, but I'd love to have his $3M and Manny's $5M and budget that for one of the leagues top scorers.

    All that said, the past two games have been amazing! But someone has to step up on offense. I think Ryder and Marco will get going soon, and Patrice will hit stride second half of the season.

    Posted by Williamstown Bs Fan October 30, 08 01:36 PM
  1. The Bs are #2 for me, but then again, I also live in Detroit where the Red Wings have to be #1 or you get lynched :) But I was born and raised over there in Boston, so the Bs have always retained a special place in my heart. With the few Bruins games I'm actually able to watch, one thing becomes absolutely clear to me, especially compared to the Red Wings.

    The Bruins seem to be in desperate need of a solid defense corps that can make those bullet passes out of the zone, not this hit-dump-and-chase game that leads to turnovers. Now, I might be off base because I get so few chances to see the Bs on TV, but again, from what I've seen, good puck-moving offensive defensemen are sorely lacking on the blue line, which leaves the forwards under-utilized, and Chara just looking more like the stationary wall that he seems to be.

    Posted by Boston Boy @ Heart October 30, 08 02:36 PM
  1. I can honestly say that when it comes to sports in this town, I'm ten times more devoted to hockey than anything else. I enjoy football on TV but I didn't grow up caring about the Patriots(or BC, for that matter). I've never cared very much about basketball(the Celtics should have had their own building by now), and my desire to watch baseball has declined, despite the ramping up of "Red Sox Nation" in recent years. When it comes to hockey, I play the sport year-round, I'm a Bruins diehard despite the headaches(always tuning in even during the latter stages of bad seasons) and I'm a 15-year season-ticket holder at B.U.

    Posted by Chris October 30, 08 02:44 PM
  1. Well written, good sir! It's about time that the Bs get some praise. Go Bruins!!! I'll be there on Saturday for ya!

    Posted by Mike October 30, 08 03:01 PM
  1. The Bruins need to figure out how to beat the Canadiens - they always seem to jump to an early lead, then smother the B's. 0-7-1 last year and already an OTL this year. They stack up well against the rest of the East, just need to get over the MTL hump and playoff wins will follow. This town is starving for a competitive B's team, if they keep winning the excitement will build and fans will come back in force.

    Posted by Dan October 30, 08 03:02 PM
  1. I'll never understand the Manny Fernandez deal either. What a waste of money.

    Posted by postman October 30, 08 03:07 PM
  1. Ditto on the writing... a quick and positive view on the state of the Bruins. There is a lot of potential with this young team. Management has made its mistakes, but look at Philly, the same can be said of their management. Lastly my daughter attended game three of last year's playoff. She and her husband had a blast! The sixth game was better, but, they gained at huge fan during that game. Kudos for the future....

    Posted by Carson October 30, 08 03:27 PM
  1. What Thomas didn't solidify the number one goalie job when he MADE THE ALL STAR TEAM LAST YEAR and had the one of the best, if not the best, Save Percentage for the first part of the season last year. You Boston guys . . .

    Posted by gschaefs October 30, 08 03:46 PM
  1. maybe we should see if dougie keans can come out of retirement and join the squad for a playoff run?

    Posted by James Stephens October 30, 08 04:14 PM
  1. This is the year y'all...

    Posted by Tricky Dicky Hambone October 30, 08 05:28 PM
  1. Dont all of you find it pathetic that the Bruins greatest achievement in the last 10 years is yet another first round playoff loss!

    All of you should be ashamed to the depths that Jeremy Jacobs has lowered your expectations!

    Posted by Rich Parento October 30, 08 07:52 PM
  1. I love the B's, but they are still recovering from the Thornton trade. I didn't have a problem with him getting traded, especially after his 0-0-0 showing in his last playoff series, but we got a paltry return for one of the top 3 forwards in the game. Just a month prior, Heatley was traded for Hossa. The Bruins should have waited for a similar deal to develop instead of panicking and settling on 3 role players. I think Chiarelli has this team heading in the right direction and will continue to support the Bruins in force.

    Posted by Dan October 30, 08 08:05 PM
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