The Bruins hit the playoff road Saturday night in as good a place as they could have hoped after a truncated NHL season. Backed by the momentum of a late-season surge, buoyed by the magic of their midseason additions, and built for the high stakes that start in Game 1 against the Capitals, they are Boston’s best hope for returning another crown to Titletown.
In the words of Charlie McAvoy, “Why not us?”
Why not, indeed.
These Bruins should have enough gas in the tank for a long run. They have a stalwart and even-keeled goalie in Tuukka Rask, and a rising young backup in Jeremy Swayman who seems ready should Rask run into any back trouble. The trade acquisition of former league MVP Taylor Hall couldn’t have gone better, giving the Bruins two top lines to give defenses headaches, forcing them to choose their poison against an offense that finally found its five-on-five scoring touch.
They are more physically prepared than past years to deal with the Capitals, even with their former captain, Zdeno Chara, on the other side of the ice, and they are calm in the shadow of current captain Patrice Bergeron.
Bring on the Stanley Cup, since the Super Bowl, World Series, and NBA championship feel so far away.
“It’s not really something that really crosses my mind, sizing us up to the other sports franchises in Boston, that’s not something I do or anybody else does. I worry about our team, worry about myself,” McAvoy said. “There’s only so much you can kind of fit in that head. I worry about the team, and we have a great team. I love this group. I feel really great about us — it’s kind of, ‘Why not us?’
“If we can get hot in the playoffs, that’s all it takes to get on a run.”
McAvoy’s outlook spoke to that special brand of anticipation that fills the days leading up to the opening game of a team’s first playoff series, when all is new and a fresh start beckons. It’s a heady mix, equal parts hope and belief tinged with just enough worry to keep it real. The space between looking back at a regular-season job well done and looking forward to the postseason job still to accomplish is replete with challenges both mental and physical, demanding that a team allow itself just enough contented reflection to remind it how it got here, without forgetting how to keep on going.
The Bruins spent the better part of a week in that magical joy, the accomplishment of earning a No. 3 seed in the East Division bringing all the smiles. The dose of reality comes courtesy of their heavy-hitting opponents, but the second-seeded Capitals aren’t the only hurdle. Time is another foe, ticking down on the core of the Bruins’ roster, a real threat to rob them of many, if any, more chances at repeating the 2011 Stanley Cup victory or their more recent, heartbreaking near-miss against the Blues. Bergeron is 35, Brad Marchand is 33, and heading into free agency are David Krejci (35) and Rask (34).
Invaluable leadership for sure, with the core knowing and understanding what comes next. But they also understand that as many second, third, and fourth chances sports are likely to hand out, the well eventually runs dry. So fill the Cup before that happens.
“Right now we’re not getting into a lot of rah-rah stuff. We have a veteran group,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Some of our veteran guys know you don’t have a chance to be there every year. I think our guys really believe in this team. Sometimes you get here and you think, ‘We’re just not ready yet,’ but I think our guys believe we have a lot of the components that winning teams have.
“For us it’s a little more tactical, keeping guys even-keeled, no matter what happens [in Game 1], win or lose, the series goes on and you’ve got to get better for Game 2.”
The lesson might hit hardest for Hall, whose paltry 14 career playoff games are the reason he accepted the trade from Buffalo. For him, this is all about opportunity, about being part of a bigger whole, about hopping on board and enjoying a ride he has rarely gotten to take.
“Every team in the playoffs has a chance and we’re no different, obviously,” Hall said. “I feel like it’s a pretty legitimate shot, and you don’t have these opportunities every year. You can’t take it for granted you’re going to be in the playoffs. Obviously, I’m a pretty good example of that. We have a lot of skill, a lot of leadership, a lot of experience, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
All of New England joins him.
It wasn’t all that long ago, even if it feels like a lifetime, that the Bruins were poised to keep dreams of a clean sweep alive in New England. While they stood a win away from a title, hosting Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 7, 2019, their fellow TD Garden tenant Celtics were prepping for Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals the following night. At the time, the Red Sox were still the reigning World Series champs, and the Patriots were still basking in the glow of a Super Bowl win over the Rams.
But the Bruins lost, the Celtics were eliminated the next night, and the Boston sports world spiraled. The Sox fell to the basement amid the Alex Cora/Astros mess. The Patriots said goodbye to Tom Brady and found themselves in a rebuild. Then came COVID-19, with all its upheaval, including last year’s NHL bubble that never seemed to suit the Bruins, who bowed out in the second round to eventual champion Tampa Bay.
But here we are, with the world slowly reapproaching normal, and the Bruins still contending for some pretty special hardware. Time is ticking, but the hourglass isn’t empty yet.
Why not them?