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The end of this year’s hockey season saw a team dressed in black and gold hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup above their heads in triumph. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, it was not Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, or Tim Thomas lifting sports’ most storied trophy; instead, it was Sid “the Kid” Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins who raised hockey’s Holy Grail closer to the rafters.
After taking the Montréal Canadiens to seven games in the opening round of last year’s playoffs, many expected the Bruins to be one of the top teams this season. With big bodies, quick skaters, and the “We Want It As Bad As You” passion, the Bruins certainly proved the prognosticators right.
The B’s finished the season a single point out of the President’s Trophy for the best NHL record, advanced a round further in the playoffs than they had the year before, and cleaned up at the NHL Awards Show, winning every award for which a Bruin was nominated (four total; Chara won the Norris Trophy for Best Defenseman, Thomas won the Vezina Trophy for Best Goaltender, head coach Claude Julien won the Adams Award for Coach of the Year, and Thomas and backup goaltender Manny Fernandez won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed). So with so much improvement seen at the Garden, and so much hardware brought back to Boston, is it fair to say that, in light of their second-round playoff exit, the 2008-2009 campaign was a disappointment?
The regular season, at least, was a dream. After finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference in 2007-2008, the Bruins finished first in 2008-2009, posting a 53-19-10 record – good enough for second overall in the league. A twenty-two-point improvement in the standings from the previous year is hardly a disappointment, especially considering it was a forty-point improvement from the year before that. Advancing in the playoffs one round further than they did the previous season was also a sign of improvement for the Bruins, who went from three playoff victories to seven. And the four individual trophies that the Bruins brought back to Boston on Thursday are one short of the total number of individual awards the Bruins had garnered in the previous twenty years combined. In that sense, the Bruins’ regular season was certainly not a disappointment- far from it. They met and, in most cases, exceeded expectations. But the playoffs, as we all know, were not the same.
Before the regular season began, few imagined a Stanley Cup run; the fans simply wanted to build upon last season’s strong foundation. However, after the amazingly successful regular season – finishing first in the Eastern Conference, destroying any semblance of a rivalry with the Canadiens, and refusing to coast into the eighty-second game – the expectations were suddenly much higher. Anything less than a Finals appearance, if not winning the entire show, would be a disappointment.
Unfortunately, regular season success does not always produce post-season results- just ask the San Jose Sharks (especially former head coach Ron Wilson), or, if you’d prefer something closer to home, the 18-1 New England Patriots. The Bruins’ second-round exit at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes was heartbreaking. Not only did the B’s lose in overtime in Game 7, but the series-winning goal was scored by the sucker-punching Scott Walker, a player who, if Commissioner Gary Bettman knew how to spell c-o-n-s-i-s-t-e-n-c-y, would’ve been suspended for the series. (Just to twist the knife in our hearts a bit more, let’s not forget that the Carolina Hurricanes are the incarnation of a former division rival, the Hartford Whalers.) Watching the defense collapse after sweeping the Canadiens in the first round was a microcosm of the season as a whole: continued dominance, and an abrupt end.
So does regular season success outweigh post-season disappointment? When it comes to professional sports, the answer is always no. The ultimate goal is to win it all, no matter what sport you’re playing. Regular season records are excellent, necessary even to make the playoffs, and individual accolades are certainly welcome. But consider what Jean-Sebastien Giguere said when he was awarded the Conn Smyth Trophy (Playoff MVP) after leading the seventh-seeded Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to a seven game Stanley Cup Finals loss: “I would give that one [the Conn Smyth] up to get the other one [the Stanley Cup]. The other one is much nicer and much bigger.” I’m sure Chara, Thomas, Fernandez, and Julien feel the same.
So do we.