The nature of hockey, often full of curious endings, crazy calls, nutty bounces, and pinball justice, is that teams are often left with less than they deserve.
That is not the case with the 2011-12 Bruins. The defending Stanley Cup champions wrapped up their season at the Garden Wednesday night, bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the first time since 2008, and they were never really close to being the team that last June won its first Cup in 39 years.
In a series that saw all seven games decided by one goal (an NHL first), four of them in overtime, the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals consistently were that little bit better, shift after shift and night after night - and that in the end added up to being the team that now stands 12 victories from winning the Cup this year.
The Bruins, failing for a sixth time in franchise to history to repeat as a Cup winner, were let down in a number of crucial areas, including:
■Their best players weren’t their best players.
“That’s part of the issue, for sure,’’ noted coach Claude Julien, his club flat out of the gate in Game 7. “We needed more out of some players.’’
That was especially true of Milan Lucic and David Krejci, who combined for but one goal and six points over the seven games. But overall, as a group, the forwards failed to put sustained pressure on rookie goalie Braden Holtby, be it with good first shots or follow-up, rebound attempts.
■The power play, 0 for 3 Wednesday night, finished 2 for 23 in the series. The Bruins won a Cup without a power play last year, which in itself was an astounding accomplishment, and the man-advantage again struggled not only to score but to mount much in the way of a serious threat.
They proved in 2011 it’s possible to win without a power play, then returned this season to underscore just how amazing it was last year, even after letting power-play killer Tomas Kaberle leave via free agency.
■Their inability to get a lead. The Bruins scored the first goal in only two of the seven games, and one of those was delivered by Chris Kelly in Game 1 when he struck for the 1-0 winner in OT.
In seven games, they never carried a lead into the third period. In seven games, they amassed a lead time of 44:13. Catch-up hockey became their norm, leads virtually impossible.
■The goaltending of Tim Thomas, though very good most of the time and even excellent at others, was not the Tim Thomas goaltending of 2011. Let’s not forget, it took him the first round last year against Montreal to really to get his act in gear, and when he did, he dominated the playoffs, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP.
This year, well, like the cabbie in his TV commercial, we were left to say, “You’re not Tim Thomas . . . this is Tim Thomas,’’ as we leafed through pictures of last year, when he was the No. 1 reason the Bruins won their first Cup since 1972.
“I thought if we could get past this first-round hurdle,’’ mused Thomas, “that we could pick up some energy and momentum. I mean, I had the picture in my head of holding the Cup again this year.’’
■Their fight just wasn’t there. We’re not talking fisticuffs, but will, the desire to dig for pucks, especially in the slot and around the net. Rarely did they muster the nastiness or determination that they built last season, gaining momentum in their series vs. the Flyers, Lightning, and finally the Canucks.
With a chance to be the first team to repeat since the Red Wings in 1998, they looked either satisfied or spent. They certainly didn’t look hungry. All that said, they could have won, because bounces often have a way of masking uneven performances.
Just as the Capitals needed a bounce to go their way to win it, Mike Knuble taking off down the left side with a puck gained from Benoit Pouliot, it could have been a similar play that advanced the Bruins.
All of the above would have been true, but it wouldn’t have much mattered, and the Bruins would have spent Thursday and Friday preparing for their sixth playoff series in two seasons.
What do they do now?
The next few weeks and months will be full of that speculation, much of it centered around Thomas, whose no-trade clause expires July 1. He could be dealt, but his salary drops to $3 million next season and he is still a very good goaltender. It is also no guarantee that his primary understudy, Tuukka Rask, is prepared to be the franchise goalie. For a discount price and for lack of an unknown future, the bet here is that he stays.
“At the end of the series,’’ assessed Julien, “you look at their team, and you look at ours . . . and they were the better team. They had more guys going than we did, and they played us tough.’’
More guys going. Better effort. Much better puck management in front of their goalie. In the end, it all added up. The Capitals were off to another date. And the Bruins were headed home, where, in this case, they belonged.