No NHL team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since 1998, but this was never really about winning consecutive championships. It was about trying. It was about maximizing the opportunity. And at the moment, the Bruins are not even coming close.
Extending a malaise now measured in months, the Bruins were embarrassed by the Tampa Lightning on Tuesday in a game that wasn’t nearly so close. The Bruins twice changed goalies in this game, the recently acquired Marty Turco turning in the kind of effort Bruins fans have not seen since Roberto Luongo took to the TD Garden ice during the Stanley Cup finals last spring.
Even then, Turco lasted roughly half as long as Luongo did.
“You can sense fatigue in our club,’’ Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters following the debacle. “That’s our biggest challenge right now. We’re not playing well and fatigue’s creeping in. We have to find a way to right the ship.’’
Do they ever.
Or they won’t make it past the first round of the playoffs.
If you didn’t witness any of the Bruins’ pathetic performance on Tuesday, let’s put it into perspective for you this way: it was the kind of game that could get a coach fired. Claude Julien isn’t going anywhere, of course - nor should he be - but if a team other than the reigning Stanley Cup champions suffered the kind of ignominious defeat the Bruins did against Tampa Bay ... amid this type of prolonged slump ... at this time of the season ... well, heads might roll.
The Bruins of Tuesday were the Bruins of the Dave Lewis era, minus the repeated transgressions for having too many men on the ice.
At the moment, after all, the Bruins don’t seem to have enough.
Lest anyone pin this all on injuries, stop. Certainly, the Bruins are banged up. But since winning a game at Phoenix on Dec. 28, the Bruins are now 16-17-2, a pace that would produce a mere 80 points over the course of a full season. Last season, there were only five teams in the entire NHL to finish with a lower point total, which should give you some indication of just how far the Bruins have fallen in the relative blink of an eye.
The Bruins, quite simply, have gone from the best team in the NHL to one of the absolute worst in less time than it takes to ice the puck, and it suddenly seems as if they have no intention of making the journey back.
Really, isn’t that the issue here? The Bruins have talent. At the very least, they have enough to put forth something better than a 2-5 record in their last seven games, a period during which the Bruins have allowed an astonishing 27 goals, 21 of them in 5-on-5 play that is supposed to be the team’s greatest strength. Defense, too, is supposed to be perhaps this team’s greatest core value, but the Bruins suddenly look about as disciplined in their own end as the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The $64,000 question: why? Is this solely an issue of fatigue? Are the Bruins merely disinterested by a regular season that has clearly had little value to them for some time? Did they exhaust whatever energy they had in November and December proving that they would not suffer from the dreaded Cup hangover?
Or is this exactly what the Cup hangover is, a collection of issues that pile up on a team in March following a season that extends into mid-June?
Indeed, in recent Boston sports history, the end of championship droughts have come at a price. In 2002, after winning their first Super Bowl, the Patriots went a mediocre 9-7 and missed the playoffs altogether. The 2005 Red Sox qualified for the postseason, but they were swept in the first round. The Celtics of 2008-09 broke down and got bounced in the second round by the Orlando Magic, and we justified a Game 7 blowout loss by saying the Celtics merely ran out of gas.
Now the Bruins are in an indisputable flat spin, looking like a team that has no energy - and no real desire - to defend its title.
If you are among those who believe that was all an inevitability, you certainly would have your right to that opinion. Hockey is a physical and demanding game. Last season, for the most part, the Bruins remained remarkably healthy. They won with depth, which remained relatively intact over the course of a season in which they ultimately played 107 games.
This year, particularly of late, the injuries and ailments have piled up at an alarming rate. Nathan Horton. Rich Peverley. Andrew Ference and Tuukka Rask. Johnny Boychuk. Daniel Paille. Benoit Pouliot and Adam McQuaid. Patrice Bergeron took yet another shot off the left leg against Tampa Bay, and he might not have been out there at all had the Bruins been in a better predicament.
“It’s a tough position because you want to be in the right spot for the playoffs, and you want to be as fresh as you can be,” Julien said when asked about Bergeron. “But we’ve got to win games in order to get there right now.”
The good news? The Bruins still have time. They still hold the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and they have 13 games to play. The Bruins could get healthy and amp up their level of play just as the calendar turns to April, when their Stanley Cup will be formally put up for grabs.
But right now, it certainly feels as if the wheels are coming off.