Playoff payoff is extra sweet

BOSTON -- After finishing as the top team in the Eastern Conference a year ago, it's been a difficult and trying 2009-2010 season for the Boston Bruins.

As frustrating as it has been, the Bruins still found a way to earn a spot in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs. Boston's 4-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday at TD Garden cemented a postseason berth.

If there could be one microcosm of the entire season for the Bruins, it came three minutes into the third period against the Hurricanes on Saturday. With Boston hanging onto a 3-2 lead, there was a delayed penalty on Carolina when Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask headed for the bench for the extra attacker.

The puck then ricocheted off the center wall and headed toward Boston's empty net. It was clear the puck had plenty of steam and was heading right for the center of the net. If it goes in, the game would be tied.

Enter Patrice Bergeron.

The Bruins' assistant captain raced back in pursuit of the six ounces of runaway vulcanized rubber. It was just about to cross the goal line when Bergeron swiped it out of the crease, saving a possible game-tying goal. Boston eventually added an empty-net goal and the Bruins had their victory and postseason berth.

It's been that type of hustle and determination by key players this season, team pugilist Shawn Thornton stated after Saturday's game, that somehow has helped the Bruins reach the postseason again.

But it was never easy.

"When the puck hit the boards at center ice, my first instinct was, 'That looks like the perfect area for it to go in the net,'" said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "Then you look and there's a defenseman missing, but it was a good second effort by Bergy. At that point you say, 'I hope we're not that snakebit that it's going to go in.' What a great effort by Bergy to shift into gear and save that for us."

After the victory, Bergeron was able to laugh about the play.

"There's the 'Not top 10' plays on ESPN and I just didn't want to be on there," he said with a smile.

On a serious note, he knew that if the puck went in, it could have possibly changed the entire outlook for the game and the season because there were still too many scenarios in which the Bruins would not make the playoffs if they had lost this game.

"The puck actually took on some speed," he said. "It was going pretty fast and as soon as I turned around I realized it was probably going to go in. It was going right for the net, so I started going as fast as I could."

He stopped it. The relief could be felt all over the Garden when the sellout crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Boston has battled a ton of adversity, especially down the stretch with injuries to key players, including top playmaker Marc Savard (concussion) and defensemen Mark Stuart (hand infection), Andrew Ference (groin/hernia) and Dennis Seidenberg (lacerated forearm tendon). Even Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is playing with a broken nose he suffered Monday.

There's very little margin for error these days.

Boston's power-play unit has been anemic of late, which hasn't helped matters. With the Bruins 0 for their last 22 on the man advantage over the last seven games, it was the penalty-killing unit that stepped up on Saturday.

With Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick in the box to start the second period, Boston's Daniel Paille, Blake Wheeler and Steve Begin all netted short-handed goals in a span of 1:04 during the same penalty kill.

It's been that type of effort during critical times that has helped Boston reach the playoffs.

"We knew it was going to be a dogfight to the end," said Wheeler. "We put ourselves in that position earlier on, so we've had the mentality that it's been a playoff game pretty much for the last few weeks. We really thrived under that mentality and we've been playing some pretty good hockey of late."

It will need to continue.

In a bit of an ironic twist, it was the Hurricanes who defeated the Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year at the Garden, so beating them to clinch a playoff spot also meant something for Boston.

"Excitement is what I sense in [the locker room]. The guys are pretty excited," said Julien. "Obviously we were pretty mad coming in after the second period because we had given them two goals, so there was a sense of urgency. We seem to be more comfortable playing tight games than with games with a little bit of breathing room."

The music was blaring from inside the Bruins' locker room because the players know that anything can happen in the playoffs.

"We're happy, but we haven't reached our potential," said Chara. "We can surprise a lot of people and we can even surprise ourselves. We just have to play the way we are capable of and once we do that, anything is possible."

With one game remaining in the regular season, it doesn't matter what the Bruins' final record will be for the 2009-10 season. All that matters to them is they reached the playoffs despite all the roadblocks this season.

"I'm being sincere here," said Julien. "I don't think I ever had doubts. What I did have, I knew it was going to be a real uphill climb. We've had inconsistencies and we've had everything happen this year, so just to stick with it and lately we've played with more energy and more focus on the task at hand. There's been more urgency and determination and that has really helped our team through this."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.