In a series that is suddenly all about emotion, the Boston Bruins must recognize their time is now.
Not Game 6, not Game 7, but now. They are two wins from crowning themselves Stanley Cup champions, two wins from erasing the agonizing futility of the past 29 years. If they trek cross country to Vancouver and steal Game 5, their dreams of hoisting Lord Stanley's opulent hardware are all but certain to materialize.
If not, the astounding turnaround of the past five days will be for naught.
Boston goalie Tim Thomas has stolen the spotlight from the opposing "skill" players who have yet to dent his aura of invincibility. He claims he has isolated himself from the "Hockey Fever Grips Hub!" headlines that have captured our region.
If so, he's missed quite a Bruins resurgence. This town hasn't been bleeding black and gold like this since the days of Orr and Espo and Pie and Cheesy. The puck heads and casual fans alike have sprung to life with the kind of unabashed devotion normally reserved for names such as Brady and Bird and Ortiz. You know that's true when the spoked B jerseys are flying off the shelves as the Red Sox rack remains strangely untouched, even as they rip off five wins in a row in the Bronx.
The Bruins can't take what has just transpired for granted. Momentum can be a fickle thing. One minute she's sitting in your lap, stroking your cheek and blowing kisses in your ear, and the next she's slugging you in the jaw and knocking you on your keister.
Coach Claude Julien has pushed all the right buttons in this Vancouver series. He sat fan favorite Tyler Seguin in Game 3 in favor of enforcer Shawn Thornton, and Thornton proved to be the ideal catalyst, providing a physical and emotional lift in the wake of the horrifying Nathan Horton injury.
Julien had a decision to make on who to replace Horton with on his top line for Game 4, and he selected Rich Peverley, who promptly scored two goals and submitted his best performance of the postseason.
With his team en route to another punishing win, Julien rested his stars and got his fourth line some ice time, benefitting both parties for Game 5.
So now the coach must continue to build on his own personal good karma. Unlike the previous series, in which he blundered by publicly declaring his team needed to win only "one out of two" to close out Tampa Bay, it is paramount that Julien make it clear to his players that they MUST win Game 5 in Vancouver. This is no time to point out they need to get only one out of the two in the other guy's building.
If there was ever a time to stress a sense of urgency, this is it.
Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, pulled in the third period of Game 4, is under the microscope again, his past playoff failures being dredged up in the wake of his giving up 12 goals in the past two games. If the Bruins can score first (and quickly) in Game 5, as they have in the past two outings, that will only increases the pressure on Luongo, further planting seeds of doubt that were beginning to sprout in the Vancouver dressing room after Game 4.
Thomas has been all but untouchable the past week, but he can expect a flurry of offensive chances coming his way in this next game. Vancouver's frustrated scorers have spoken openly about going home, regrouping and exposing Thomas as overrated. Kevin Bieksa claimed Thomas was prone to "leaky" goals. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault suggested Thomas was vulnerable.
Whether it was gamesmanship, frustration or an honest take on Thomas' body of work over his career, it matters little. The Bruins should not expect their goaltender to stand on his head every night.
"You're right," defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "You don't want to always rely so much on Timmy.''
The winning formula for the Bruins is simple: keep implementing the physical style they've demonstrated the past two games. Canucks star Ryan Kesler hasn't been the same since Johnny Boychuk dropped him in Game 2. Christian Ehrhoff was drilled by Seidenberg, then all but called it a day. The Sedin twins, branded "Thelma and Louise" by former Bruins coach (and player) Mike Milbury during the telecast Wednesday night, find themselves hopelessly miscast when the game turns into a contest of grit and guts and fists and checks. They have two points combined in the series.
Obviously a return to familiar surroundings benefits the Canucks. They will find comfort in their own homes, their own beds, their own fans. When he's on, Luongo is a Vezina-worthy goalie.
Bobby Orr won't be roaming the concourse waving Nathan Horton's banner Friday night. When the Bruins feel a lull coming on, no one will be flashing Horton's mug on the giant video screen to re-energize them.
Forget about leather-lunged fans singing the national anthem as loud as humanly possible. Rene Rancourt and his glitery gold bow tie will be left behind, along with the growling bear and the signature horn to signal another seminal Bruins moment.
Yet there are reasons besides the friendly confines of the Garden why the Bruins suddenly have been scoring goals like Hart trophy winners. The loss of Dan Hamhuis (with an undisclosed injury) combined with the suspension of Aaron Rome for his blindside hit on Horton has left the Canucks with not only a depleted defensive corps, but the challenge of re-pairing their remaining defensemen accordingly. And when the Bruins are aggressively fore checking, the Vancouver defensemen are struggling to break free and advance the puck to their fleet-footed snipers up front.
The challenge for Game 5 is for the Bruins to match the urgency and emotion that coursed through their veins each time they thought about Horton lying on the ice, his eyes rolled back, his arm dangling helplessly aloft, his body far too still. Do you think it's a coincidence the Bruins have outscored the Canucks 12-1 since that hit?
Do you think it's happenstance that Vancouver's power play is 0-for-13 in that same time frame?
So here's what Claude Julien needs to tell his men: Seize that anger, that resolve, that fire, then cram it into a plastic bottle that's 3 ounces or less (oh wait, no need, the team is flying a private charter) and carry it on the plane with you. Hold it, feel it, memorize it. And if you find the edge is wearing off, have Brad Marchand come by and jiggle it back to life for you.
History tells us that in 21 times a Game 5 was necessary in the Stanley Cup finals, the winner went on to capture the Cup 71.4 percent of the time.
These Boston Bruins have said they want to make history.
Friday night is their moment.
Leaving it to another day is a chance they can't afford to take.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.