Talk about a punch in the gut. Before the Bruins cup defense really could even begin they were eliminated by the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night 2-1 in overtime in front of a stunned and angry Garden crowd. Somehow, a team that managed to play itself up to the 2 seed dropped three of their four home games in the series and couldn't solve the complex defensive system of Dale Hunter's Capitals as they went whimpering out the door.
Frankly, I'm not stunned. I'm really not stunned at all. The Capitals from the get go were a terrible matchup for the Bruins and I said as much when I wrote my preview for the series that while I expected the Bruins to win in 7 games (and I fully believed they'd win the other night), I would not be surprised when the Capitals pushed us the distance and I wouldn't even be shocked if they upset us. It is not a coincidence they beat us 3 out of 4 times during the regular season. The Capitals and their skilled offensive forwards simply don't need much to generate offense which makes it all the more frustrating that guys like Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward were responsible for the Bruins demise.
The Bruins had an opportunity weeks ago to avoid all this when they played Ottawa at the end of the regular season and simply could have rested guys with the division clinched which had Ottawa earned even 1 point, would have locked the Bruins into a first round matchup with a Senators team whose number they've had for quite a while. Still, no sense in playing the what if card at this point. The Bruins had every opportunity to win this series and move on and...well...when you can't win two of your four home games, you really don't deserve to move on.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Bruins short stay in the playoffs this postseason is the belief at least from me, that the first round matchup was as tough as it would get. While the Rangers, Flyers and Devils all finished ahead of the Capitals in the standings, I think the Bruins matched up much better with any of the remaining teams and the Bruins would have gotten a Flyers team who they beat 3 of 4 times this season had they moved on (albeit 2 in a shootout). Regardless of the net traffic concerns, Ilya Bryzgalov looked absolutely miserable in round 1 and if you'll recall, Tim Thomas didn't truly start playing his best hockey till the later rounds of the playoffs last year as well. So yes, as disappointed as we all are and we'd like to move on, it's REALLY hard to not wonder what could have been with one more win.
Some questions to address coming out of this series:
1) What happens with Tim Thomas?
It's the first question on everyone's tongue when analyzing this Bruins team and where they go from here. At this point there should be no questions that Tuukka Rask is ready to assume the starting position when that time comes. As a restricted free agent, it is hard to imagine the Bruins won't work out a deal with the young netminder as insurance for whatever they decide to do with Thomas. Thomas obviously is approaching the expiration date at 38 years old and is under contract for next season becoming an unrestricted free agent. Frankly, unless there is truth to the endless rumors of a locker room divide with him then I'd like to see him back next season. Thomas has proven to be one of the elite goalies in the league and even in this series, the Bruins only scored more than 1 goal in one of their four losses. Goaltending was not an issue this series or season. As good as Tuukka will likely be, you can almost never have enough great goaltending. Let Thomas finish out his contract.
2) Where did the intensity go?
Was there a more disappointing player in the first round than Milan Lucic? The burly power forward was just about invisible in the first round, recording only 3 assists and not having the punishing physical impact we're accustomed to. But piling a ton of crap onto Lucic's plate would be selfish. We're taught as children to share and sharing we shall do. Tyler Seguin will duck a lot of criticism because of his play in the last two games and while that's understandable, it's easy to wonder if the B's close the Caps out in 5 or 6 if they got anything from him in the early games. Brad Marchand had a knack for big goals a year ago and ended the postseason with 2 points and a -1 +/-. Bruins writers spent more time talking about his seemingly increased theatrics than they did his play. The list can go on quite a ways if we really wanted it to. End of the day, the intensity just wasn't there this year and maybe that's just a result of having won the cup and taking some things for granted, but no question the more gritty team won.
3) Effect on Claude Julien
It's crazy we even have to address this but yes, the coach-police have made a reappearance after the first round exit. After the blown 3-0 lead vs the Flyers two years ago, many were ready to run Julien out of town if the team flopped again last year. Honestly, management probably would have been looking to make a change as well if things hadn't gone well, but with the Stanley Cup title that likely gave Julien some security for a while with Neely and Chiarelli. However, that is not the case with some Bruins fans who feel Julien isn't tough enough and have voiced their displeasure with him. Frankly, if you think Julien deserves to lose his job because of this season, I have very little respect for your judgment of hockey coaches. The Bruins have been a steady playoff team recently that has made the playoffs the last 5 years, won their division the past two seasons, and won a Cup. They've been a contender the last 3 seasons and anyone who remembers the Bruins before Julien should be grateful for what we've been under him.
It stings. It really does. The Celtics are an outside contender and the Sox's slow start has many questioning their World Series abilities with this rotation. The Bruins seemed to represent the best title chance for the city of Boston until the Pats start up again. With that said, it's not all that bad. Repeating as Cup champs has proven to be quite the daunting task and odds were stacked against the B's even if they did advance. With all the young talent on the roster and Nathan Horton, Andrew Ference and Tim Thomas representing the only 3 Bruins who aren't signed through 2014 or restricted free agents after next year, the B's will have this core in place for a few more years. Management has done an exceptional job of building a contender now while also setting the franchise up for the future. There's a lot to be proud of and excited about with this Bruins team. It's always a gauntlet and nothing can be taken for certain, but it's perfectly reasonable to think another black and gold parade is coming to the city in the next few years.