April 8, 2011

Ultimate goal remains, but Bruins have plenty to be proud of

by Jesse Connolly

Gregory Campbell congratulates goalie Tim Thomas after a Bruins victory at TD Garden. (Getty)

BOSTON -- For the Boston Bruins, just like any other team in the National Hockey League, no season ever goes exactly as predicted.

While many foresaw the Black and Gold ranking among the top clubs in the Eastern Conference, their spot atop the Northeast Division was far from set in stone at the onset of the campaign.

From the reigning winners in the Buffalo Sabres to the Montreal Canadiens -- a team that surprised many by reaching the conference finals last spring -- the competition was stiff. But here they are, with just two games left, right in the very spot where many thought they'd wind up.

"Yeah that was just the hope," goalie Tim Thomas said. "You don't know exactly how it's going to go. I thought we'd make the playoffs for sure. But winning the division, I didn't know we were going to accomplish that."

There's no counting the various ways in which the Bruins season could have easily been derailed, but injuries certainly come to mind first, an area in which the B's -- shy of Marc Savard's woes -- have been a bit lucky.

"Injuries are one of the factors," said Thomas, who is all-too familiar with that fact after battling a hip injury last season.

"There's a lot of different factors. If there was an easy formula to figure it out, we'd know who was going to win in advance. I think we've been fairly fortunate with injuries -- knock on wood [knocks on locker-room stall] -- compared to most teams."

Coach Claude Julien believes the Bruins have reached this point by establishing goals for the campaign early on, while keeping focused on them throughout the season.

"I think the one thing you do is set a goal of making the playoffs," said Julien. "You evaluate your team at the start of the year and certainly set some goals. You can do a lot of those things and it can all be with good intentions, but things throughout the year -- like injuries -- happen that you can't control. You've got to be realistic and not over-think it."

While the Bruins bench boss undoubtedly would have liked to have grabbed the top spot in the East, he knows playing perfect hockey is utterly impossible over 82 games. To be as consistent as Boston has throughout the year, however, is a major accomplishment.

"Everybody is going to tell you we would've liked to have finished first in our conference," said Julien. "We're only a few points away from that and we could look back and say we could have won this game or that game.

"When I look at other teams, we've done pretty well. We've had some small downs but they haven't lasted very long and we've kept climbing the hill. Overall, looking at what's been expected of this hockey club, we've been pretty consistent."

For Julien and his troops, the accolades are all fine and dandy but the No. 1 goal atop their list still remains.

"There's satisfaction in certain things," he said. "But the biggest thing is the ultimate challenge (winning the Stanley Cup) and we're not there yet."