May 10, 2012

From NEHJ: Early exit brings Bruins' run to shocking halt

By Jesse Connolly

If you had to sum it up in one word, maybe it was shock or perhaps disbelief, but the look on the faces of every fan on hand at TD Garden, every Bruin on the bench and those unlucky enough to have been on the ice when Joel Ward scored and the Capitals jubilantly celebrated their 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7 said the same thing: This wasn’t how the season was supposed to end. 

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara shakes hands with former teammate Dennis Wideman after the Capitals' overtime win in Game 7. (Getty Images)

Coming to grips with the fact that the Bruins fell so overwhelmingly short in their quest to defend their title and repeat as Stanley Cup champions is a tall task for a multitude of reasons.

Unlike so many defending champs, the Black and Gold entered the 2011-12 season having experienced very little turnover. They still had Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas between the pipes and perennial

Norris Trophy nominee Zdeno Chara anchoring their band of blueliners. Their dynamic depth up front, led by skilled two-way center Patrice Bergeron, second-year stud Tyler Seguin, bruising winger Milan Lucic and playoff heroes in Brad Marchand and David Krejci, remained intact.

After watching the Bruins overcome the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and fight their way through a midseason slump to finish as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, fans eagerly buckled themselves in, fully prepared to go on a long playoff ride that promised to be just as riveting as last year’s.

Unfortunately, the car stalled before it really even left the driveway, as the Bruins were abruptly bounced in the opening round by the seventh-seeded Capitals.

“Yeah, well, you have to believe it. We’re here,” defenseman Andrew Ference said of dealing with the sense of shock on breakup day, as the Bruins gathered to clean out their lockers and head their separate ways.  “I never really pictured losing. It just isn’t an option. I just kind of had a blank stare when they scored because it’s just not part of the plan. It’s really tough.”

Much like the rest of his teammates, Ference recognizes just how big of an opportunity the Bruins missed. While every NHL player comes into the season with his eyes on the big prize, Boston deservedly was considered a strong threat to repeat or, at the very least, make it out of the East and advance to the finals for a second consecutive spring.

“There’s years when it’s your goal to win the Cup and you say all the right things at the start of the year,” Ference said. “But after last year, where we did it and we came back with the same personnel and had a very similar team, winning was a reality and it was a very real feeling. We knew it was something we could’ve done. That’s what makes it a tough pill to swallow.”

But if everyone recognizes the Bruins were fully capable of repeating, then why didn’t they even come close to doing so?

In looking at the small picture, it was obvious that the Capitals were the better team throughout the series, as Boston got far too little production from far too many players.

“The better team always wins,” Ference said. “It’s a seven-game series. It’s one thing if you’re playing in the Super Bowl and it’s a one-game thing and weird things can happen, but over the course of seven games, the better team wins. They played better at the times when it mattered. The bounces sort themselves out over time, with good luck and bad luck and all that stuff. I don’t think we played up to our potential as a group, and they played great hockey.” 

As Ference alluded to, what was so alarming was the fact that the passion, the drive, the limitless will to win and outwork the opposition that the Bruins relied upon to end their 39-year championship drought a year ago was nowhere to be found.

“I think we could’ve wanted it a little bit more,” Marchand admitted. “We weren’t there to play every single night. If we just would’ve been a little more prepared to put our best effort every night, then maybe it could’ve worked out differently.”

Dennis Seidenberg echoed Marchand’s sentiments and drew comparisons between their opening round series this year with their first-round matchup against Montreal last season, which Boston won in overtime of Game 7. 

“For whatever reason, we just didn’t have that desperate part of us,” the defenseman said. “It always seemed like we played a good game, but not a game that made them want to quit. Last year we kind of started out the same way. We kind of struggled throughout the first series, but we got the bounce. We almost had it this time again, but it went the other way and now we’re done.”

There’s no denying what an incredibly taxing grind the past 18 months have been for the Bruins. From their season opener in Prague, Czech Republic, against the Coyotes on Oct. 9, 2010, through their Game 7 loss against Washington, the Black and Gold played in a whopping 196 games.

Throw in a short, celebratory summer that saw them pass the Cup around throughout North America and Europe, endless plane rides shuttling from one city to another during road trips, autograph signings, community events, speaking engagements and hundreds of practices, and you can’t help but marvel at the fact that these guys had an ounce of energy left heading into the playoffs.

But as much as all of that may have worn down the Bruins physically, Marchand admitted that the bigger hurdle was on the mental side of things. It’s hard enough playing in nearly 200 games in such a short time span, but harnessing the same drive to lay it on the line every night and every shift proved to be difficult. The feisty winger said finding a way to get better at that was his biggest takeaway from the season.

“I think it’s just how you have to make sure you prepare,” Marchand said. “There’s different ways to get up for games and when you’re not as excited or able to get up for games, like we were able to last year during the playoffs and stuff, it can be a little tough.

“You have to be mentally tough enough to be able to prepare yourself each and every night. It’s a tough job to do. It’s a tough job to prepare for every single game and play your best every night, but that’s what you have to learn to do, being a pro.”

For Ference, mental preparedness was a non-issue.

“Well, that’s an individual question, I guess. Everyone is different with how they prepare themselves,” he said. “That was a non-factor for me. It’s such an awesome time of year. It doesn’t get any more exciting in the building. The excitement of what can be is just awesome. I don’t think it’s possible to not get up for the playoffs.”

As one might expect, Ference wasn’t among those ready to nod in agreement when asked if it was a relief to get a physical and mental break after enduring such a daunting workload over the last two seasons.

“Not really, no. Physically it was one of my shortest summers, but I had one of my healthiest years and I felt great all the way up until right now,” the veteran defenseman said. “I don’t think the two correlate, necessarily. I mean mentally, I hope it doesn’t take anybody that long to get prepared. Even if you have a couple months of summer, that’s still a couple months to get your head around things. That’s a convenient excuse.”

While their opinions may have differed on the notion of being burned out, the Bruins all were on the same page when it came to expressing what it felt like to be demoted to playoff spectators.

“Watching the game last night (Panthers-Devils, Game 7) was a weird feeling, knowing that you’re out of it and knowing you don’t have the chance to play for (the Cup) anymore,” Dennis Seidenberg said. “But the one positive you can take out of it is that everybody has a chance to recover, relax and come in ready for next season again.”

But regardless of the length of their offseason, be it a brisk two months like it was last summer or the five-month layoff they embarked on in April, getting over that nagging feeling of what might have been won’t be easy.

“It’s a little bit of a shock,” Marchand said. “Realizing we’re done and it’s still very early on (in the postseason), we want to be playing. We had a really good opportunity to go deep in the playoffs, and it’s a really bad feeling knowing we could’ve gone far with the team we have.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and the editor of hockeyjournal.com.
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