May 11, 2012

From NEHJ: That old stinking feeling

By Jesse Connolly

As sports fans residing in a place that has become known as Title Town over the past decade, it’s no secret that we’ve all become a little spoiled by the success of our local pro teams. 

The Bruins salute their fans at TD Garden after losing Game 7. (Elsa/Getty Images)

What eluded us until June 15, 2011, of course, was a Stanley Cup. On that very night, the Boston Bruins ended a 39-year drought, giving all four major sports teams a title in a record span of just six years.

So when the 2012 NHL playoffs began, it certainly was understandable if even the most diehard fans of the Black and Gold admitted they wouldn’t be devastated if Boston failed to repeat. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons once wrote an article called “Rules for being a true fan” and highlighted how fans should treat their favorite team in the post-championship era.

“After your team wins a championship, they immediately get a five-year grace period,” Simmons wrote. “You can’t complain about anything that happens with your team (trades, draft picks, salary-cap cuts, coaching moves) for five years. There are no exceptions.”

Of course, not all Bruins fans were on board with this line of thinking.

“Now they have to prove that they’re still as good as last year,” said Chris Nardi, a lifelong Bruins fan entrenched in Montreal, on the eve of the playoffs. “In all honesty, if the Bruins lose in the first round, I’ll probably be far more disappointed in them than if they’d lost early last year, simply because I know what the team is capable of, and I know what the end result should be for a team that is extremely similar to the one that won the Cup last year.”

That sense of even greater disappointment probably hit Nardi and many other Bruins fans like a ton of bricks April 25, as the Capitals came into TD Garden and earned a 2-1 victory in Game 7, capped off by a goal from Joel Ward at the 2:57 mark in overtime.

The entire Hub of Hockey was gearing up for another lengthy playoff run by the Bruins, and with good reason. Nearly all of the key cogs who led the Bruins to glory last spring were back and ready to help keep the Cup in Boston. The Bruins finished second in the conference, had balanced scoring, dependable defense and a goaltender in Tim Thomas who put on one of the greatest individual performances in NHL history during the previous postseason.

But what could have — or as many believed, should have — been a wild two-month ride filled with many a magical moment came to a screeching halt a dozen days in. In their quest to nail down 16 wins and bring the Cup back home, the Bruins flamed out after victory No. 3.

The sting of first-round futility should feel painfully familiar to Chris Gorski, a fan in Suffield, Conn., who had become accustomed to the B’s bowing out of the postseason prematurely.

“The facts are the facts: Boston entered the playoffs as the defending Stanley Cup champions,” Gorski said before Boston’s opening-round series began. “It’s not something that’s ever happened in my lifetime. It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve expected them to achieve anything more than the one-round-and-done routine, which became the norm during the Harry Sinden/Mike O’Connell era. I’m just hoping something awful doesn’t happen if the Bruins are eliminated before the finals.”

Sure sounds like the same old Bruins, doesn’t it? Like they have countless times, the Black and Gold built up the hopes of their faithful fans, only to squash them in emphatic fashion.

As a writer willing to admit he has a rooting interest in the Bruins, I told myself during the intermission prior to overtime that, should something bad happen, nothing could erase what happened last year. Yet when Ward found the back of the net, Thomas vacated the crease and the Capitals jubilantly celebrated, nothing could prevent me from experiencing that familiar, sinking feeling. This one stung just as much as when Scott Walker scored in overtime of Game 7 in 2009 for the Hurricanes, and when Flyers forward Simon Gagne tallied late in Game 7 in 2010 to make the Bruins the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead.

For the third time in the past four years, I’d been forced to bear witness to the Bruins blowing it in a Game 7, at home, from high above the ice in the ninth-floor press box at TD Garden. In the moment, all of them felt equally as soul-crushing.

While the sense of dejection prevailed in the days following the loss (even from a purely professional standpoint of wishing there was more Bruins hockey to cover), the big picture — in a way — began to come back into focus.

“Winning the Cup once takes a titanic effort,” Gorski said. “The players spend so much energy during the playoff run that it inevitably affects their performance the next season — the infamous Stanley Cup Hangover. Repeating as Cup champions must be so much more difficult under those circumstances.”

As tough as this year’s early exit is to swallow, Gorski is right. We probably should give them a break and remain appreciative after what they gave us all last season.

As for giving them Simmons’ five-year grace period, if the Bruins hope to retain their burgeoning legion of fans, they better come a heck of a lot closer to capturing the Cup again before 2016 than they did this spring.

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

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ