On June 24, it’s possible that Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron could win the Vezina, Norris, and Selke Trophies in Las Vegas to reflect regular-season excellence at their respective positions.
They are not the trophies the three most important Bruins intended to chase in June.
Winter is over. The Bruins lost to the Canadiens in Game 7 on Wednesday, 3-1. Their playoff beards are two rounds thinner than they intended.
The Canadiens deserved to win the series and advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers. The Bruins did not.
That Rask, Chara, and Bergeron are eligible for individual hardware underscores the disappointment of the Bruins’ failure.
The three players at the three most critical positions — goalie, defenseman, center — were at the peaks of their powers in 2013-14. The Bruins’ complementary players were just as good.
They had a rumbling first line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Jarome Iginla. Their third line, namely the pair of Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson, was as good as any No. 3 unit in the league. They went two units deep on the power play. It was possible that Dennis Seidenberg, once feared lost for the season because of a shredded right knee, could have been available against the Rangers.
Their core players had lifted the Stanley Cup and suffered the below-the-belt kick of losing four straight to Philadelphia the year before. They’d climbed Mount Everest and tumbled into the Grand Canyon.
The 2013-14 Bruins were built to win another Cup. They fell nine wins short of their pursuit. They couldn’t settle into their game — getting leads, protecting their net with layers, cycling the puck in the offensive zone by picking up speed in center ice — for any regular stretches of the second round.
What a waste.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Johnny Boychuk said. “We have such a good team. To even think that our season is over right now — you’re just trying to process it — we had such a good team that it shouldn’t be.”
This team didn’t believe it had many weaknesses, if any. It closed out the regular season with an exclamation point. It won the Presidents’ Trophy.
After a Game 1 throat-clearing against Detroit, the Bruins rolled off four straight wins to march into the second-round showdown against Montreal.
The Canadiens never let the juggernaut flex its muscles.
“We just beat the best team in the league,” said Montreal coach Michel Therrien.
The Bruins helped Montreal do just that. The Bruins backed themselves up to the edge of the cliff. All the Canadiens needed to do was give them a push to send them tumbling away.
The Bruins’ Game 7 experience (4-4 since 2008) should have helped them off the puck drop. Instead, the Bruins played scared from the start. They didn’t manage the puck well. They skated into trouble. They wanted no part of the puck instead of controlling it.
There was nowhere to hide on Montreal’s opening goal.
Gregory Campbell won a neutral-zone faceoff back to Matt Bartkowski. The defenseman tried to send the puck deep. But Bartkowski floated his clearing attempt into Andrei Markov.
Shawn Thornton tried to seal off Markov before he gained the red line. But Markov crossed center ice and sent the puck toward Rask. The goalie sticked it into the corner, where Brandon Prust beat Boychuk.
Although Prust won the race, Boychuk had him contained. Campbell made a hasty decision to join the fracas and target Prust. As Campbell closed, Prust delivered the puck to Daniel Briere in the area the fourth-line center vacated. Bartkowski was caught in no-man’s land in front of the net. Bartkowski leaned to the left. But Dale Weise was open to his right. Weise hauled in Briere’s feed and tapped the puck past Rask at 2:18 of the first.
They were small mistakes. But they added up. It was like one driver checking a text, another changing the radio station, and a third reaching for a beverage. The result was a chain-reaction pileup.
“That first goal definitely sucked the energy out of us,” Bergeron said. “It was hard to get it back.”
For the fourth time in the series, the Bruins were caught chasing. For the fourth time, the Bruins lost. The Canadiens were good all season at winning when scoring first. That didn’t change in the playoffs.
Weise’s goal magnified the Bruins’ deficiencies. They believed they had enough depth to make a championship run. The coaching staff had trusted the fourth line for four seasons. Management believed the defense — specifically the left-side position on the No. 2 pair — was stable enough not to require a major upgrade at the trade deadline.
They were wrong. Bartkowski played frightened at the wrong time. The fourth line, which had misfired for most of the playoffs, couldn’t replicate its 2011 touch.
Depth matters. Especially when the go-to players go nowhere.
The first line had chances. Iginla ripped off eight attempts. Carey Price turned back four of them. A third-period backhander bonked off the left post.
Before the game, Julien noted the 2011 Bruins had good luck to accompany their Cup run. They didn’t have any of it against the Canadiens. Throughout the series, especially in Game 1, the Bruins piled up good scoring chances. They clanked pucks off iron. They whiffed on open opportunities. If some of those pucks went in, the Bruins’ beards could still be growing.
Call it bad luck or an absence of finishing. But the bottom line for the top line was that it came up short — three goals in seven games — when it mattered.
“As a top centerman, if you don’t put the puck in the net, then you didn’t help the team win the game,” Krejci said.
The Canadiens’ best players were their best players. Price (29 saves) was a difference-maker. P.K. Subban (four goals, three assists) played like his pants were on fire in all three zones. Therrien made two important moves in Games 6 and 7 by replacing Douglas Murray with Nathan Beaulieu and putting Briere back in for Travis Moen. The team that played better is moving on.
“I don’t think we deserved to win today,” Rask said. “We made defensive mistakes and it cost us the game.”
It shouldn’t have been this way. This is the Bruins’ best window in which to chase Cups. There’s no guarantee that Chara, who faded in Games 6 and 7, will return to his strongman self in 2014-15. It’s possible that their forwards will not enjoy the same good health they had this season.
The Bruins were really good this season. Just not when it mattered.