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...PERHAPS IT WOULD BE THE MAPLE LEAFS ... OR THE RANGERS ... OR THE PENGUINS PLAYING IN THE MADHOUSE ON MADISON THIS WEEK ...
... BUT ON MAY 13, 2013, HISTORY WAS HIP-CHECKED BY THE BRUINS, SETTING THE STAGE FOR AN ORIGINAL SIX CLASSIC
Shortly before 1 a.m. last Saturday, Zdeno Chara was still lifting weights inside TD Garden, about two hours after his Bruins had completed a sweep of the vaunted Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals—the fruits of victory, apparently, still requiring an iron supplement. The postgame sessions are routine for the Norris Trophy--winning 6'9" defenseman, who is usually one of the last players to depart the arena after a home game. "Our workout room is pretty small, so I wait until everyone leaves before I start," said Chara. "A hockey game makes you use some muscles more than others, so this keeps the body level."
In the victory over Pittsburgh, Chara and his Boston teammates had used every ounce of muscle and sweat to construct arguably the most impressive defensive performance in Stanley Cup playoff history. The Bruins never trailed in any of the four games, and they limited the Penguins, the NHL's most explosive team—Pittsburgh scored 47 goals in its first 11 postseason games this spring—to two goals in almost 14 periods of play, including a 2--1 double-overtime win in Game 3. Boston did not yield a goal to the league's top power play and held superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a point. Tuukka Rask, the Bruins' underappreciated goaltender, popped out of the shadow of Tim Thomas and put up video-game numbers (0.44 goals against; .985 save percentage). He faced 21 shots from Malkin, 13 from Crosby, 20 from winger James Neal and 16 from defenseman Kris Letang, and stopped them all. In Boston terms, it was as if Thomas Gage and William Howe had had their muskets pulled right off their shoulders.
The Bruins' dominance was so thorough, so bloody ruthless, that it's easy to forget last month's dance with brinkmanship. There is a tissue-thin difference between glory and ignominy in the Cup playoffs—24 games (and likely counting) have required sudden death—but no team has skated a more perilous path than Boston. You may recall the night of May 13, when the Bruins trailed the Maple Leafs 4--1 with less than 11 minutes to play in Game 7 of the opening round. Boston was still losing by a pair with less than two minutes remaining when it pulled off the Hub version of the Miracle on Ice. "It's like the 70-year-old patient who is very sick," says Boston forward Jaromir Jagr, who's only 41. "He is waiting for the worst news, and the doctor walks in and says, 'You're cured, you can go home tomorrow.' You really appreciate a new life. After that Toronto game, now we're not afraid to make mistakes; we just play really free, like in the playground."
The Bruins' penchant for skirting the abyss was born in the 2010 postseason when they fell into it and blew a 3--0 series lead over the Flyers in the conference semis. Ahead 3--0 in the first period of that Game 7, Boston eventually lost the game and the series to become only the third team in league history to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games. Rather than cleaning house after such a humiliating defeat, however, general manager Peter Chiarelli only did some light remodeling, retaining 15 players from the 23-man roster. "[My decision was] part loyalty, part philosophy," says Chiarelli. "The number of reasons you could have [dismantled the team] all put together didn't convince me an overhaul was in our best interests."
"The process of learning how to win is more complicated than you think," says forward Milan Lucic. "It wasn't just a loss, I mean it was a shock.... Losing so badly helped us win."
Nothing fortified this theory more than the club's run to the Cup the very next season, when the Bruins twice came back from two games down and won three seventh games. "The fact that they didn't blow up the team [after the 2010 playoff loss to Philadelphia] gave us real stability," says forward Shawn Thornton. "Guys have wives, kids, some are playing for contracts. When you know that's safe, I think you play better."
The Bruins had already squandered a 3--1 lead in this year's opening round against the Maple Leafs to face yet another Game 7. When Nazem Kadri scored to put Toronto up 4--1 with 14:31 left, Boston president Cam Neely, assistant G.M. Jim Benning and Chiarelli, seated in a booth high above the ice, stared glumly into the fog of a wasted season. "I was thinking to myself, When are we going to have our exit meetings?" Chiarelli recalls. Under the stands, defenseman Andrew Ference, out with a foot injury, sat in the video replay room next to Jeremy Rogalski, the team's video analyst. "When you're not playing," Ference says, "you need to be able to kick a chair or two, and I didn't want cameras around." Several assistant coaches and other scratched players shuffled in and out of the room, but Ference kept the choice spot next to Rogalski's screen. "There's no 10-second delay on it like other places in the building," Ference explains. The room is nearly soundproof, and the only clues about what's happening on the ice come from the faint sound of the foghorn that blows whenever Boston scores. Ference could hardly bear to watch, but he also couldn't turn away.
From behind the Bruins' bench, coach Claude Julien was doing the math, trying to figure how many shifts he would give each line in the remaining minutes. On the bench Chara spotted Lucic glancing up at the scoreboard and told him, "Don't look at it. Not yet. Let's get one first." Nearby, winger Brad Marchand, ever chirpy and yammering, was unsettled by the uncharacteristic quiet of the bench and the building. "Hell, yeah, I felt panic!" he says. Boston had come back from three goals down once before this season, on Feb. 12 against the Rangers, scoring three times in the third period, including twice in the final 1:31, to gain a regulation tie. (They would go on to lose 4--3 in a shootout.) Still, no team in NHL history had rallied from a three-goal deficit in the third period to win a seventh game.