So now the Eastern Conference finals have come down to Game 7, as so many of us forecasted they would, and what do we know about this Boston Bruins team as it prepares for yet another test of its mettle against an elimination backdrop?
With a trip to the Stanley Cup finals hanging in the balance, the Bruins remain a perplexing group. They have alternately exhibited both resilience and reticence. They have proved they can exorcise some of their past demons, only to embrace them again at the most inopportune moments.
A team that beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 with superb penalty killing turned around and lost Game 6, in part because it could not replicate that same effort a man down.
The top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic left us scratching our heads for various junctures of this series, including Game 5, when they managed only four shots among them, yet Boston still managed to win that game by the slimmest of margins. In Game 6, when that top line unleashed some of its trademark firepower, it wasn't enough to nail down a victory and close out the Lightning.
Tampa Bay's cadre of snipers were so flummoxed by redoubtable goalie Tim Thomas that wily Lightning coach Guy Boucher referred to him by name as "the enigma." The Lightning shattered the Thomas mystique in Game 6 by peppering him with five goals. Thomas certainly wasn't the reason Boston lost that game, but he wouldn't have been the reason it won, either, as he was in Games 2 and 5.
(Give me a choice in Game 7 and I'll take Thomas over Dwayne Roloson nine times out of 10. The numbers tell you Roloson is a perfect 7-0 in elimination games. My gut tells me Thomas will return to form in the biggest game of his professional life.)
There have been some constants in this series, and one of the regrettable ones for the Bruins has been their anemic power play. A 5-for-61 success rate is, to put it bluntly, appalling.
That leaves us to ponder whether Boston coach Claude Julien, who has steadfastly (or is it stubbornly?) stood by his veterans while their futility on the power play mounts, is ready and willing to make a change.
Any hockey fan can appreciate the body of work Mark Recchi has submitted throughout his decorated career. Yet it's time to recognize the oldest player in the league is no longer a viable option on the power play. In 17 postseason games, Recchi has yet to register a point, never mind a goal, in a man-advantage situation.
Julien was predictably defensive regarding his team's power-play woes, insisting Thursday, "I don't think it's right to point the finger at one area.''
Au contraire, Claude. If the Bruins lose this series Friday night, it will be because they have failed to make the necessary adjustments to increase the productivity of their power play.
The decision to plant Zdeno Chara in front of the slot was a creative one, but don't stop there. Take a deep breath and tell Recchi it's someone else's turn. Ditto for Tomas Kaberle. It's admirable to back your veterans, but there comes a time when it's counterproductive. That time is now. Throw your rookie Tyler Seguin out there and let it fly.
If Boston wants to play for the Stanley Cup, it needs to crash the net and force the issue offensively. It cannot afford to lapse into the "uh oh" Bruins who build a lead, try desperately to protect it by sitting on the puck, then wring their hands when it all goes awry.
As Chris Kelly succinctly noted, "You want to leave the ice feeling you have no regrets."
The Bruins know all about regrets, of course. Their past will continue to dog them until they win a Cup, much like the Boston Red Sox until they won it all in 2004. I'm sure the Bruins are tired of hearing they had blown four straight Game 7s until they outlasted Montreal back in April, which seems a lifetime ago now.
I'm sure they would just as soon forget the epic collapse of one short season ago, when they coughed up a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 edge to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Whether they like it or not, those scars won't fade until new memories wash away the hurt. That's just how Boston's twisted, tortured sports psyche works.
Julien turned heads when he announced before Game 6 that his club had two chances to win one game. It was a startling statement. That kind of thinking is generally sports taboo, the antithesis of a killer instinct.
In 2006, Pat Riley took his Miami Heat basketball team to Dallas with his club ahead 3-2 in the NBA Finals.
He instructed his players to pack only one suit.
"We're winning in six games," he told them. "Don't bother to get on the plane if you don't believe it."
Riley forced each player to empty his bag before he allowed them on board.
They all brought one suit.
They won in six games.
In Game 7, when anything can happen, it's all about the mindset. Do the Bruins have the proper one? Julien claims they do.
"Our players are confident," he said. "They're not discouraged. They're disappointed. As I've said throughout the playoffs, the past is in the past. Think about what's ahead."
"Look," Chara said, "if someone told us before the season that we would be one game away from the [Stanley Cup] finals, we'd be excited."
The Bruins should be excited. They've had a remarkable year. There has been much to celebrate.
And here's some good news for Game 7. Take a look at Boston's top four scorers in the 2011 postseason. Only one of them -- Patrice Bergeron -- was on the ice for the Flyers debacle. Krejci was out with a broken wrist, Horton was skating for the Florida Panthers and Brad Marchand was still a Providence Bruin.
Julien is right: The past is the past. But the future is a lot more palatable when it involves winning the big one.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.