There was a time when an air of fatalism framed the expectations of Boston sports teams headed into the playoffs. There was the expectation, a fatalistic resignation, that in most cases a championship-worthy team would find a way to fall short. Kids, ask your parents about these unfathomable days of yore when championships weren’t served up with the ease of candy bars in a vending machine.
The Celtics were mostly immune from this doom and gloom attitude. Winning 17 NBA titles will do that. But their arena-mates, the Bruins, were not. A 39-year Stanley Cup drought (1972 to 2011) will do that.
So, it’s a little peculiar that as the Bruins prepare for the Stanley Cup playoffs and a Game 1 date with the Detroit Red Wings Friday at TD Garden that many are heeding the words of fabulous Bruins radio play-by-play voice Dave Goucher after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 — they’re getting the duck boats ready.
If the Bruins’ past first-round history is a harbinger of hockey to come then this pucks showdown with the boys from Hockeytown won’t be a free skate.
Hold off on the parade-planning because getting through the first round isn’t a fait accompli for any NHL club, not in the most competitive and most egalitarian playoffs in major professional sports. The Bruins have gone to overtime of a Game 7 three consecutive years in the first round. They’ve won two out of three, including last year’s miraculous comeback against the Maple Leafs. But a few bounces of the puck and they could be 0-3 or 1-2.
“It just seems to be the biggest battle for us and the hardest one to get through,” winger Milan Lucic told reporters. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different heading into this series.”
The Red Wings, even with a bunch of AHL kids and ostensibly without Henrik Zetterberg — at least to start the series — are a formidable challenger. They also happen to have won three of the teams’ four regular-season meetings.
But it has become an article of faith that the 2014 Bruins, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since 1990 with an NHL-best 117 points, are going to defeat Detroit. It’s hard to find many experts or sports talk radio Spoked-Believers who are picking against the Black and Gold. It’s Everything is Awesome on Ice.
ESPN’s Scott Burnside called the Bruins a “playoff fortress” in his piece explaining why the Bruins were the network’s consensus pick to win the Stanley Cup. The lone voice of dissent in the Globe was inimitable assistant sports editor Jim Hoban, who picked the Red Wings in seven games. The other three Globe hockey experts picked the Bruins to win the Cup.
Canada’s estimable National Post picked the Bruins to beat the St. Louis Blues and lift Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice. Another Canadian staple publication, the Globe & Mail, only offered first-round predictions. It picked the Bruins to beat the Red Wings in seven games, just like all 12 ESPN experts who proffered predictions on the first-round matchups.
I understand the love.
The Bruins were a buzzsaw after the Olympic hiatus. They authored a 12-game winning streak and went 15-1-1 in March. They look like a deeper, more diversified team than last year’s squad, which was 77 seconds from forcing a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
This version of the Bruins is like a fully-loaded luxury car — they come equipped with every possible option.
The Bruins have two 30-goal scorers in Jarome Iginla and understated superstar Patrice Bergeron. They have a playoff-proven goalie in Tuukka Rask.
You know a Claude Julien-coached club is going to surrender goals with parsimony, but the Bruins averaged the third most goals per game in the NHL (3.15). The Bruins have six players in the top 11 in the NHL in plus-minus. The Boston power play, once an exercise in futility, was ranked third in the NHL this season in conversion percentage (21.7 percent).
However, this is a different role for the Bruins, the role of presumptive rulers of the ice. They were not prohibitive Cup favorites in 2011, when they had to prove they could advance past the second round, nor 2012, when they were dispatched in the first round by the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals. That year it was about trying to prove that 2011 wasn’t about historic goaltending and lightning in a Nathan Horton-carried water bottle.
Last season’s memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks started with the Bruins as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Being anointed the consensus favorite in the Stanley Cup playoffs doesn’t mean much, just ask the Penguins.
“I think I heard that stat [Tuesday], 40 percent of the underdog teams have won the first round,” said Julien. “That’s a pretty high number in the first round. That means there’s a lot of upsets going on. So, it’s not just us. It just means that when you get into the playoffs you’ve got sometimes one of the top teams playing against a team that has nothing to lose.
“It just goes to show you what pressure does vs. ‘We have nothing to lose and everything to gain; let’s just go out there and play.’ That mind-set can have a real good effect on your team whether it’s favorable or nonfavorable.”
How differently would we view the Bruins’ system, which has now reached Patriot-like levels of reverence and glorification, if they had been eliminated in the first round last season?
They were 51 seconds away from such a fate before they staged their own Miracle on Ice in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, who folded like an origami crane, blowing a two-goal lead in 31 seconds.
That’s not meant to detract from the Bruins’ obvious playoff pedigree. It just reflects the reality of the razor thin line between success and failure in the NHL playoffs, where there are no sure things.
Why would this postseason be any different?