It was 80 summers ago that Boston Bruins fans were celebrating their club’s four-game sweep in the Stanley Cup Final over the Detroit Red Wings in April to capture the franchise’s second Cup in three seasons, and the third in the Bruins’ 17-year history.
Little did fans of the Black and Gold know then, but it would be another 29 years before Bobby Orr would score the Cup-winning goal on Mother’s Day 1970, clinching Boston’s fourth Stanley Cup. Like the previous incarnation, that Bruins team also won championships twice in a three-year period, even though it felt like that ultra-loaded squad — Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, et al. — should have won a lot more Cups than just those two, especially in a 14-team league.
But back in 1972, it felt great to be a Bruins fan, until the decades wore on and there were no more silver chalices to roll onto the Boston Garden/FleetCenter/TD Garden ice. Ray Bourque came and went, Cam Neely came and went, Adam Oates came and went, and yet none won a Stanley Cup in a Boston uniform, even though each one is an NHL Hall of Famer.
But then 10 glorious summers ago, the Davids of the 2011 NHL postseason — the Bruins — knocked off the mighty Goliaths, the Vancouver Canucks, in seven games to return Lord Stanley’s Cup back home after 39 long years. It was the Bruins’ sixth franchise championship, and alas, its last, as the 2021 Bruins have again been eliminated from the postseason, this time in six games by the New York Islanders, a team that finished behind Boston in the division standings, after closing the regular season on a 5-5-3 skid, which included three straight losses to the Bruins by a combined score of 10-3.
Perhaps Bruins fans should have been realistic heading into this postseason. After all, Boston only finished third in its division, a year after winning the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular-season team, but after knocking off the division’s second seed, the Capitals, the Bruins were fortunate to have not the division-leading Penguins to contend with, but instead, the fourth-place Islanders, and with home-ice advantage to boot.
And after trouncing New York, 5-2, in the series opener, local fans were already looking ahead to the final-four matchup against either the Hurricanes or the defending Cup champions, the Lightning.
Eleven days later, the conference semifinal pairings were settled, but instead of Boston getting a playoff rematch against Tampa Bay a year after getting dispatched in five games in the Toronto “bubble,” it was the Islanders who figured out a way to turn the tables on the Bruins, and finished them off in just six games, including two of the last three played on TD Garden ice.
It brought a harsh reminder of just two seasons ago, when Boston saw the Eastern Conference Cup favorites get knocked out early, and found its path to the Cup Final going through only the fifth, seventh, and eighth seeds in the conference. When the Bruins inevitably reached the final matchup, awaiting them were none of the top four seeds in the West, but instead, the fifth-seeded St. Louis Blues, a franchise that was still waiting for its first championship in 50 years of existence.
After easily handling the Blues in Game 1, the Bruins lost in overtime in Game 2, and eerily similar to this past playoff matchup with the Islanders, things went downhill after that, with St. Louis taking three of the four games at the Garden to capture the Cup in seven games.
It’s hard to be critical of the Bruins, because they did give us that Stanley Cup a decade ago, along with two other trips to the Final, which both ended up in frustrating fashion.
But since that magical summer of 2011, Boston has had the second-best record in all of the NHL (behind Pittsburgh), and yet has won no championships since. One could also, as I often do, point to the fact that had Boston not won all three overtime games against the hated Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of that 2011 postseason, we might now be talking about a Cup drought of 50 seasons, along with another disturbing stat: even with the 2011 championship, the Bruins franchise has won only three Cups in 80 seasons.
Since Boston won its fifth Cup in 1972, the Patriots and Celtics have each won six championships, while even the Red Sox, with their new-millennium flourish, have four, all while the Bruins sit on their lone 2011 title.
Overall, the Bruins have six championships since they started play in 1924, nearly 100 years ago, and most fan bases might kill for six Stanley Cups, but as we finish another season that’s come up short for the Boston icemen, it’s painful to know that the Bruins have played in the Cup Final 14 other times, and lost — and let’s not talk about the first- or second-round playoff exits (or DNPs) in 25 of the past 28 Bruins seasons.
The Bruins lost this postseason because their offensive production effectively dried up after Game 1 against the Islanders. The top-line firepower provided by Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak accounted for 11 of the team’s 17 goals scored in the series, and the second line chipped in four others, including newly acquired Taylor Hall — a wonderful addition at the trade deadline — scoring his lone series goal, an empty-netter in Game 1.
The third and fourth lines? Inept and ineffective, while the Islanders’ grinders were key contributors to their team’s advancement to the conference final against the Bolts.
And what to make of goaltender Tuukka Rask? The veteran netminder went 4-1 with a 1.81 GAA and a .940 save percentage against Washington, but was 2-3 with a 2.86 and .897 save percentage against the less-talented Islanders, and announced Friday that he had been playing the entire postseason (and perhaps the entire regular season as well) with a torn hip labrum, which will require offseason surgery. Why he was even playing in the do-or-die Game 6 on Thursday is mystifying on many levels, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Tuukka has his name engraved on the 2011 Cup, but mainly as a backup to Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, who led the Bruins past the Canucks. A year earlier, Rask had been staked to a 3-0 opening-round series lead against the Flyers, only to be in goal for the next four losses in the team’s historic 2010 collapse. Three seasons later, he was in goal with the Bruins on the precipice of forcing a Game 7 in the Cup Final against the talented Blackhawks, but he surrendered a pair of goals late in the contest, just seconds apart, and Chicago stole the Cup from what would have been a “Boston Strong” fairytale in the spring of 2013.
A season after that, the Bruins lost in seven games in a second-round matchup against the Canadiens, who had finished 17 points behind Boston in the regular standings. Leading the series, 3-2, the Bruins lost Game 6, 4-0, and Game 7, at home, 3-1.
That was not necessarily Tuukka’s fault, but it makes clear that then, and subsequently, Rask has yet to win the big one, and while the Bruins have come close a few times, his career is not one littered with big-game performances in championship games, but of usually falling short, or not showing up at all (see: Bubble, 2020, regular-season finale, 2016, and Winter Olympics semifinal, 2014). Fair or not, the Bruins made their postseason run in 2011 with someone else in net, and ever since then, they have lost, even when the odds were in their favor.
So it’s another summer of discontent for Bruins fans, and the team will have some decisions to make, particularly regarding its unrestricted free agents, which include Rask, David Krejci, and Hall, while also addressing its shortcomings on the blue line, which were exposed when reliable D-men Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller were lost to injury during the Islanders series.
It might not take a significant overhaul to get the Bruins back to where they want to be, but when you’ve won one championship in 50 seasons and just six in nearly a century, the franchise’s enduring legacy is one of underachieving, rather than the alternative.