Bruins have found new identity

BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins are dead!

Repeat: The Boston Bruins are dead!

It's over. You can forget all about them.

The organization that a generation has known as choke artists, a team unable to win on the biggest stage in hockey, has officially been covered with lime and buried six feet under.

Forget the many collapses. Forget the multiple too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties. Since the Bruins' most recent Stanley Cup win in 1972, Boston has lost in the Cup finals five times. These Bruins are playing like there won't be a sixth.

No matter which team earns the right to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2011, a new and improved version of the Boston Bruins has been born this spring.

With a solid 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night at TD Garden, the Bruins knotted the series at two games apiece with Game 5 at Rogers Arena on Friday night.

The hockey scene in this region has become vibrant once again. The Bruins have always been popular, but the fan base went dormant for a while. That's not the case anymore.

This team has found its identity, and the fans can relate on many different levels.

"You don't get to where you are without going through adversity, whether it's in past years or whether it's through seasons. That's how you grow," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "When you've been through a lot of different things, you're capable of learning from those things and growing through those things."

In his four years behind the Boston bench, Julien has experienced a lot. There were times when his job was at stake, times when the team had a great chance to advance in the postseason but could not get past the second round.

"We've been through some tough times in the playoffs or the regular season," Julien said. "We've had our ups and downs. You have to battle through those moments. When you do that, you certainly become a better team."

The lessons are showing this season, and the Black and Gold are on par with the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics in the hearts of Boston fans.

"I remember when I played in Providence and I was called up a few times, it wasn't sold out. There were many empty seats," Bruins forward David Krejci said. "Other sports -- baseball, basketball and American football -- were basically No. 1, all on the same level. But in past years, we've gotten even with them, and we can feel the support. We have our fans behind us, and hopefully we can come back for Game 6 with a chance to win the Cup."

Fan favorite and pugilist Shawn Thornton has been with the Bruins for the past four seasons and has seen the hockey landscape intensify.

"Definitely," he said. "The last four years, things have definitely been on the upswing, which is awesome. It feels like it's a hockey town."

Thornton has become a son of the city and says he's going to make Boston his home after his playing days are over.

"I've told this story a couple of times, but I go to this butcher shop in Medford that I can usually slide in and out of," Thornton said. "But now I take four of five pictures when I'm just picking up steaks. It's definitely picked up a little bit around here, and that's awesome. Anytime there's excitement for hockey, it's good for the sport."

It's been great for Boston, especially this season.

The 2010-11 regular season had its peaks and valleys. But once the Bruins clinched the Northeast Division title, it became apparent they had what it takes to win it all.

Boston rallied from a 2-0 deficit against the Montreal Canadiens and swept the Philadelphia Flyers in vengeful fashion, erasing their collapse against Philly in 2010.

The Bruins played absolutely perfect hockey in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but fell behind the Canucks 2-0 in the Cup finals.

Then the Bruins returned home.

Boston completely dominated Games 3 and 4, outscoring Vancouver 12-1. It was here, on home ice, in front of the team's passionate fans, that the Bruins found their style and completely changed the momentum of the finals.

Immediately after Rich Peverley's second goal of the game, which gave Boston a 4-0 lead at 3:39 of the third, the 17,565 (minus those few Canucks fans) in attendance began to chant: "We want the Cup! We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"

It's very possible that this team, this city and these fans will get it.

Only a few minutes later, chants of "Nathan Horton" erupted within the Garden in honor of the Bruin who suffered a serious concussion in Game 3 on a play that seems to have galvanized the team.

"Our crowd has been phenomenal, especially in these playoffs," said goaltender Tim Thomas, who made 38 saves in his third shutout of the postseason. "Playing at home in these playoffs has been a big advantage for us, and it's helped us. They were extremely loud. We played well. We rewarded the fans that have stuck with us."

The Bruins are 9-1 in their past 10 home games.

It was fitting that hockey legend Bobby Orr, a member of Boston's last Cup team in '72, was in the building as the team's honorary pregame captain. In fact, No. 4 stood in the stands near the Zamboni entrance, waving a No. 18 Horton flag and setting off a frenzy.

The 2010-11 season has no doubt been a special one in Boston. Hockey again owns the sports landscape, and it's about time. There's still plenty to accomplish before hanging up the skates for the summer.

But no matter whether the Bruins win or lose this series, there's a new dawn for Bruins hockey.

"We've had some tough breaks in the past, but the fans are great and we get so much support," Krejci said. "Even other players from Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics come to our games, and we appreciate the support and know they're behind us."

Two more wins and the Cup returns to Boston.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.