If one member of the Boston Bruins is capable of connecting the dots between what his team has accomplished over the first two-plus months of this suddenly magical season and the success of previous versions in the not-so-distant past, it is P.J. Axelsson. The 33-year-old forward is the lone remaining player on the current roster who was here the last time Boston finished atop the Eastern Conference standings (2001-02) and emerged victorious from a playoff series (1999).
Asked to compare the quietly growing, electric fervor in town over this still mostly unknown group of players and fan devotion to the star-driven team from earlier this decade — a squad featuring All-Stars Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov, Glen Murray, and Bill Guerin — Axelsson is at a loss for words.
“I don’t know,” he said following a workout at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington last week. “It’s such a long time ago.”
It is certainly a familiar refrain as far as the Bruins are concerned: “A long time ago.” Consider that over a nine-month span from October 2007 through June 2008, the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics all found themselves in their sports’ title games. The Bruins, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series in nearly a decade, and the Stanley Cup drought is approaching Over the Hill status — 36 years and counting.
But these days, the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins (19-4-0-4, with a conference-best 42 points heading into Wednesday night’s game at Washington) are not only proving themselves an emerging force waking up non-believers by the day. They have awakened a fan base hungry for relevance. The Garden is packed. TV ratings are up. And Bruins fans, kicked to the curb for so many years, have gotten behind their team with more enthusiasm than they’ve shown in many years.
“There’s a lot more talk out there,” Axelsson said. “You hear it when you go out and buy coffee or anything like that. It’s a lot more hockey talk. That’s nice to hear.”
Memo to those still waiting to invest their faith in this team, still stinging from promises of the past that only led to disappointment after repeated playoff bounces: If you haven’t hopped on for the ride just yet, coach Claude Julien welcomes you aboard.
“Our bandwagon is pretty big,” he said. “We can take as many as we want to have on it.”
Back in Black (and Gold)
It wasn’t much, really. Just a couple of additional TV crews — one from Boston, one from Maine — last week at Ristuccia, but even that relatively small jump in attention to the local hockey team drew notice in the locker room, where a small collection of beat writers is the norm.
“It’s a good situation,” Julien said. “Especially with the competition that’s in this city with the successful sports teams, it’s great to be part of it.”
Still, in comparison to the attention devoted to the other teams, it isn’t even on the same scale. Approximately a dozen or so media members hovered in the Wilmington locker room, a number dwarfed by the reception relative unknown Junichi Tazawa received at Fenway Park two days later.
In a town where you’re now judged by the number of rings on your hand, the Bruins had been relegated to secondary status among casual fans. In terms of the Big Four — Five if you include the New England Revolution — they have spent much of this decade bringing up the rear, even in a town that they used to own back in the days of Bobby Orr.
That’s a big reason the fringe fans won’t catch on until the playoffs roll around, too afraid of devoting themselves to a team bound for another first-round exit. But the diehards are ecstatic, head-over-blades excited. They’re popping up everywhere, emerging from a long slumber and tossing their weight around town, excited about a team with an energy that hasn’t been reserved for anything Black and Gold in this region for quite some time.
“I think there have always been a lot of diehard Bruins fans, but they don’t necessarily want to bring up the subject to Patriots fans or whatever,” Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. “Now that we’re doing so well, it’s giving them a chance to be proud of their team.
Yes, indeed. They can come out of the closet. The Bruins are back in a big way. But, the question will linger well past the first pitch on Opening Day: Are they for real?
A quiet sensation
You have by now, no doubt, seen the team’s slogan for the 2008-09 season, plastered on billboards across the city — “We want it as bad as you.” That poor English grammar may be the worst transgression by the franchise this season. Julien’s even-keeled approach has almost seamlessly translated to the product on the ice, where the Bruins are offensively and defensively as balanced as any team in the NHL. In his second season, Milan Lucic has done nothing to quiet comparisons to Cam Neely. Phil Kessel continues to emerge as a one of the league’s most dominant goal-scoring threats.
And the goaltending … well, what can you say? For so many years the biggest question mark surrounding this franchise, it has been nothing short of dazzling this season.
After all, if there is a First Star for this Bruins’ team it very well might be Thomas, who headed into Wednesday night’s game in the top three in the NHL in goals-against average. Along with Manny Fernandez — winner of his last seven starts — he is just half of a netminding duo that gives Julien the most wanted problem a head coach can face: Is there a clear-cut No.1?
It all has message boards, pubs, and the Garden buzzing, if not local sports talk radio, where the Bruins remain the only team in the Big Four not financially tied to the big boys in town. But that’s part of what makes this story so remarkable. In a city where WEEI dominates daily discussion of the local teams, the Bruins have emerged as the best story in town, yet they remain a quiet presence at the forefront of popularity.
But the message is spreading, and the Bruins, in turn, are starting to notice the emerging attention.
“We just have to make sure that we stay focused on doing our job here,” Julien said. “It’s important not to get caught up in it as a player, but it’s also important to see people jumping in and wanting to be part of it, because that’s what it’s all about.”
That’s seemingly a good message for Bruins fans too, lest they be disappointed with anything other than a June parade around the Garden ice with Lord Stanley’s Cup. It is perhaps easy — or at least convenient — to forget that just six years ago, the Bruins started a similar 19-4-3-1, yet went on to win just 17 more times that season and lost to the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs. The 2001-02 team should serve as an eminent reminder that despite regular-season success, until the Bruins win a playoff series, their dominance this season will go mostly unnoticed among the local doubters.
“We’ve got to take it in baby steps,” Thomas said. “I don’t think we want to start comparing this team to teams of yesteryear yet.”
It is indeed a long road for that kind of talk, no matter how tantalizing it is for Bruins fans to start talking Cup. But the bandwagon is open and taking names. Welcome aboard.
Eric Wilbur writes the Boston Sports Blog on Boston.com (www.boston.com/sports/columnists/wilbur/)