BOSTON -- With their 4-3 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, the Boston Bruins pushed aside some ghosts with their first Game 7 win since 1994, when they also beat the Habs. The core of this team that has had its past three seasons end with a Game 7 loss -- the last two coming at home in the second round -- has some sense of redemption and knowledge that they can win a do-or-die game.
But for this group and for Bruins fans, the true redemption will come if the B's are to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in their upcoming Eastern Conference semifinal series with the team that stunned them by coming back from a 3-0 series deficit and 3-0 deficit in Game 7 in the conference semis last May.
Following that series, general manager Peter Chiarelli said something was missing in the dressing room and that he would do his best to figure out what it was. He made some key additions, such as winger Nathan Horton, who has been Mr. Clutch with two overtime winners in his first seven playoff games of his career, and Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly, who were acquired near the trade deadline and played major roles in the Bruins beating Montreal.
While those additions have helped, the missing element goes deeper than that. When the Flyers began to chip away at the Bruins' series lead and then the Game 7 lead last season, the Bruins unraveled before their GM's eyes and lacked the poise to battle through their mistakes. But against the Canadiens, they not only fought back from a 2-0 series deficit, they won an astonishing three overtime games, including Wednesday's clincher. Chiarelli was asked Thursday if this newfound poise was what was missing last spring.
"That might be it," Chiarelli answered. "We stressed it going into this series. You see this quiet confidence and you try and bottle that and have them do it and display it. Maybe that's it because I felt we showed it this last series. This was a tightly fought series and it could have gone either way. And I've got to give credit to Montreal because they just kept coming.
"But having said that, we earned three overtime games and we won those three. That's like the highest pressure point in the playoffs, and we managed to win those three.
"Then I saw times when we had some defensive breakdowns, I saw us settle it. It's not that we didn't panic some of the time, but we just settled the pucks down and we made the right pass where there was a [pass] to a center seam or something. And then we broke out fine. So I just saw that growing a bit as the series went on. And you look to have that, and I hope we continue to have that."
Goaltender Tim Thomas, who had a historic season, breaking the record for save percentage with a .938 mark, was one of the finest examples of the poise Chiarelli cited. Thomas hasn't been the dominating goalie he was during the regular season, but he has fought through some goals he may have wanted back and come up big when his team needed him most.
"He, like the rest of the team, was nervous to start," Chiarelli said of Thomas."And there was a goalie, you guys obviously remember, Grant Fuhr, who once let in goals like Tim [Thomas] let in, but they ended up winning. I just saw a lot of poise in Tim's game as the series progressed. He worked hard on his rebounds, and despite his acrobatics he was playing a quieter game relatively speaking. He made some huge saves when he had to and he just got better as the series went along.
"I told him after the game he had a terrific series. I know his stats didn't mirror his regular-season stats. I don't know if anyone's playoff stats would ever mirror Tim's regular-season stats. He had a terrific series."
With another series that will bring plenty of hype and references to last season's failures, the Bruins will need to block out the pressure, use that poise and stay calm. Chiarelli thinks the Habs series served as the perfect preparation for what the Bruins are about to experience starting Saturday in Game 1 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
"I wouldn't think it would be too much harder than this past series," Chiarelli said. "This past series had a terrific amount of hype for a number of reasons. And the common denominator for me in this past series was the players more or less were calm in their own way for all of the series. You'd see some frenzies here and there, but they were able to respond after those frenzies and settle things down. I like the way they handled that frenzy and I anticipate the typical playoff environment for this next series, and of course there is some history there from last year. But if it matches the frenzy of last series, you guys [the media] will be busy."
The Bruins will be dealing with a much bigger and more physical team in the Flyers, but Chiarelli says that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"They're bigger, first and foremost," Chiarelli said while comparing the Habs and Flyers."You saw that Montreal stretched the ice, and they're always coming at you. These guys don't stretch the ice as much, but they can go to the weak side a lot in their neutral zone, and they're coming in rushes, but they don't stretch it as much. They're more north-south; they're like us to a certain degree. They've got skill players; they've got some heavy players. Obviously there are more similarities between us and them than there are between us and Montreal."
There has been some turnover since last May, when the Bruins walked off the TD Garden ice dumbfounded and ashamed at blowing the 3-0 series lead to the Flyers. Now they have a chance at redemption, and they're not hiding from the past but are tackling it head on. The returnees from last season aren't afraid to fail; they're excited to have another shot at the Flyers.
"[Coach] Claude [Julien], I think he mentioned it to them at one point prior to the game, that here's a chance, one chance to redeem yourselves," Chiarelli said. "I believe in Game 7 of last year, there were nine players in that game that are on our roster now. So there's been over half the team that's turned over. But definitely the core players also lived through that. It's been a consistent theme this year. It's fitting that we're playing them."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.