By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins went to the bubble in Toronto. Did anything good come from it?
After a Presidents’ Trophy-winning regular season many moons ago, the answer is without a doubt no. Nothing.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that had the season played out like normal in the spring, the final result of a 4-1 series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning would have taken place anyway. The Lightning did win three of four games against Boston during that regular season, including a high-intensity, playoff-like showdown in what turned out to be Boston’s penultimate game of the season.
In that sense, the Bruins — who failed to make up for their lack of size up front and failed to develop any semblance of a third line — made it about as far as they could have. Fair enough.
Add in the loss of their Vezina Trophy finalist netminder in Tuukka Rask, and it would be disingenuous to try to make this gentleman’s sweep out to be a massive underachievement.
Still, after an up-and-down showing through 13 games in the bubble, it’s difficult to not feel as though the Bruins never quite recaptured whatever it was that made them the Bruins from October through March.
Given all that the world has been through since March, it’s easy to forget just how dominant the Bruins were. They won 44 games, more than any other team in the NHL. They amassed 100 standings points, six more than the next-closest team. They had a 13-game point streak from mid-November into early December, picking up 22 of a possible 26 points.
They had the league’s leading goal scorer in David Pastrnak. They had the league’s best goaltender and the best goaltending tandem. They had Patrice Bergeron, who is just the best, generally speaking.
They were a team that won big and won close. They responded to challenges, shook off their skids, and stormed back from late deficits. With their veteran experience, the best line in hockey, and the completion of the passing of the torch from Zdeno Chara to Charlie McAvoy, the Bruins were a complete hockey team. Or at least they appeared to be.
What they displayed in Toronto over the course of the past month-plus was anything but.
Much (or all?) of that can be attributed to circumstances. How else can it be explained that the regular-season top seed in the West (St. Louis) didn’t make it out of the first round?
The Capitals (third seed in the East during the regular season) likewise didn’t make it past round one, getting eliminated by the Islanders in five games. Those same Islanders — who were barely in the playoff picture in March — are on the cusp of eliminating the Flyers, who earned the top seed in the East during the round robin.
Bubble hockey has been weird hockey — and that’s for teams that didn’t abruptly lose their Vezina-caliber goaltender in the middle of their first-round playoff series. The Bruins seemed to manage the emotional impact of that loss in impressive fashion. Eventually, though, the talent gap between Rask and Jaroslav Halak showed itself, and it became a part of the insurmountable climb to get an upper hand on Tampa. (Though, averaging just 1.3 goals per game in their final three losses had nothing to do with the loss of their own goaltender.)
The overall bubble experience for Boston? It wasn’t great. They essentially punted on the round robin, save for 20-30 minutes of good hockey vs. the Lightning. The double-OT win over Carolina provided a long overdue thrill, and the third-period comeback to stun the Hurricanes in Game 4 provided some good, clean excitement. But an overtime loss in Game 2 and a gut-punch 7-1 loss in Game 3 drained any and all life and enjoyment out of this particular postseason run for a team that had Cup aspirations, one that even robbed much of the drama from Monday’s double-overtime contest. Even if the Bruins did sneak a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy, was anybody really going to believe the Bruins could use that to beat the Lightning on back-to-back days later this week?
“It’s a very disappointing finish to … we had a great year,” Brad Marchand said once it was all over. “We have a hell of a team, and we expected better out of this year. We thought we had a chance to … I mean, Tampa’s a great team, don’t get me wrong. … Just, the way things were rolling throughout the regular season, we thought we were going to go all the way.”
The “All The Way” mantra involved an outright dismissal of the round robin games, in which they went 0-3-0 to land the fourth seed in the playoffs. Whether or not that approach ultimately hurt them can’t be completely quantified, and it could be debated. But right now … it really doesn’t matter much, because the Bruins showed that they weren’t the best team in hockey during this iteration of the 2020 season.
“It’s a huge sacrifice to come here and guys had to really dedicate a lot of time and effort to be here. And it’s kind of a waste of time now,” Marchand lamented. “We spent the last three months getting ready for this. Being here, and we walk away without anything to show for it. It’s tough, and you never know how many opportunities you’re going to have to win a Cup. We don’t know if we’ll back in the Finals again or even in the playoffs again. So every opportunity missed, it hurts.”
Again, Tampa Bay does seem like the superior team from a roster standpoint. But the mark of the Bruins for the past decade-plus has been an ability to overcame any type of talent deficit with a trademark level of tangible passion that bled out on the ice.
And again, it’s not as if the Bruins buzzed through the regular season, only to completely flatline once the playoffs began. Like every team, the Bruins had their season abruptly halted, unable to even skate for three or four months before trying to ramp up in the middle of summer before heading to a bubble. The entire season got thrown in the blender, and that didn’t help the Bruins one bit. So it’s hard to look at these Bruins as the same team as those Bruins from however many months ago.
Nevertheless, for the second straight year — albeit in vastly different circumstances — the Bruins had to skate off the ice as losers of a playoff series where they weren’t the bigger, badder, more physical team. Heading into the series, one could have easily believed that the Bruins, by virtue of having made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final one year ago, would be able to draw upon their experience to beat the Lightning, who were one of the greatest disappointments in sports history last year.
Yet the Lightning were clearly the better team, the more determined team, the team more willing to sacrifice, the smarter team, the more disciplined team, the team with better goaltending and the team with the coach who was more in tune with the series.
We may all understand how and why the Bruins’ Presidents’ Trophy-winning season is now over. We may accept that the Lightning proved to be far and away the better hockey team. We understand the unique circumstances of playing hockey in empty arenas with fake crowd noise during a pandemic, with players kept 500 miles away from their families for six weeks.
That doesn’t help make any of what happened in the bubble for the Bruins feel like anything but a tremendous disappointment. From October through March, the Bruins had one of the best seasons in their history, and now they have nothing to show for it.