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.