BOSTON -- The Cup came home Thursday night, and with it tangible proof that the improbable, pulsating championship run of the Boston Bruins was no mirage.
Look to the Garden rafters for validation. There, in all its black-and-gold glory, is the pristine 2011 championship banner, a heartening symbol of rejuvenation for the Bruins, for hockey in the Hub, for the long-suffering ownership of the Jacobs family.
The Bruins are no longer the punch line to the futility (or the tightwad) jokes. They are the reigning kings of our sports landscape, the anti-Red Sox, a cohesive, gritty, blue-collar collection of athletes who bonded together to win it all against significant odds.
Are you looking for a group that embodies the word "team"? Come check out the guys on skates. Listen to them share compliments, responsibilities and, in all probability, even taxicabs.
Their celebration comes at an opportune time for the city. Boston's talent-laden baseball team, billed as "the best team ever," stumbled so horrifically in such self-destructive fashion that it has cast a pall over New England's fervent fan base. The anger and frustration remains palpable a full week after manager Terry Francona succumbed as the first victim of the inevitable bloodletting. But for every homegrown local who feels betrayed and duped by the Sox, there is another who has been reborn by the verve and guile of the guys in the spoked-B sweaters.
Hockey by nature is not a glamorous sport. (You parents who shuttle your cherubs to ice rinks before the sun rises, then truck them home with rancid jerseys, pads, socks and gym bags in tow know what I mean.) It requires the ability to grind it out, withstand bone-jarring hits, to play on after someone knocks your Chiclets across the ice.
The Bruins thrived in this environment last season. Their version of color and pageantry was a glorious hit at center ice by Milan Lucic, a Shawn Thornton brawl, a Tim Thomas terminator shove in front of his crease.
Even so, a Stanley Cup title is reason to drop the gloves for a different purpose, to applaud their own accomplishments with a little bit of glitz and a full dollop of unabashed emotion, allowing everyone, the players and the front office and the fans, to exhale and declare, "We did it!!"
Sure, there were red carpets and the appointed white gloves for transporting the most famous hardware in all of sports to the ice, but Jeremy Jacobs, gazing at the elusive banner that had finally found its way to his rink, cut through all the pomp and circumstance by declaring, "I've waited 36 years for this. [Some of you] have waited even longer. Let's get this damn thing up!"
The job of raising the banner was left to a thread of Bruins champions, from the wondrous (and ageless) Milt Schmidt to the last Boston Cup winners, the lovable '72 alumni represented by Derek Sanderson, Johnny Bucyk, Johnny "Pie" McKenzie, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Todd Bailey (son of Ace Bailey, who was tragically killed on 9/11) and one Robert Gordon Orr, who grinned throughout the ceremony like a schoolboy on his maiden voyage to the Garden.
With the old-timers flanking one side of the banner and a cluster of the newly minted champions (Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas, Patrice Bergeron and the recently retired Mark Recchi) holding up the other, the banner was passed along to the front-office team that assembled the championship core.
Then the current players witnessed the fruit of their efforts elevated to the hallowed Garden rafters, where legacies are cemented and memories forever preserved.
As a capacity crowd roared its approval, the players -- just for a moment -- reveled in their glory just one more time.
"It was emotional," admitted Bruins coach Claude Julien. "You see the highlights, and the players going around the ice with the Cup "
Yet there was precious little time to admire their handiwork, even as the banner was placed squarely next to its 1972 counterpart, which had looked so forlorn for the past three decades.
There was, after all, a game to be played. The Philadelphia Flyers were in the building, perturbed, no doubt, by the late start and the incessant flashbulbs. No one had to remind the Bruins (or the Flyers, who were eliminated by Boston in the playoffs) that with the raising of the banner, last season's magical ride was officially complete.
The tall order facing the home team was to exalt, then buckle down and execute.
In that respect, the Bruins came up short. There were too many penalties, some defensive breakdowns, some missed assignments. It added up to a 2-1 loss in a game that was anything but routine.
"You try not to get too emotionally involved [in the ceremony]," Dennis Seidenberg said, "but then here's this thing that happens once in a lifetime, or maybe two or three times if we can make that happen. So you try to enjoy the moment, then figure out a way to forget about it and play the game."
One of the most difficult feats in sports is to repeat as a champion. Although the 2011-12 season will essentially feature the same core of Bruins, the expectations are different.
They won't sneak up on anybody anymore. That "pesky" Brad Marchand will now be a marked man. Teams will try to goad Lucic into making a mistake. They will attempt to exploit Thomas' butterfly style.
"It's back to reality," Seidenberg said. "Now we're the hunted ones."
Is this the season that Tyler Seguin becomes a breakout star? His brilliant pass to Marchand to set up Boston's lone goal in the first period was one of a number of plays that suggests a more confident player who is ready to take the next step. Is newcomer Joe Corvo, who sat in the locker room by himself while his teammates took turns passing around the Cup, really going to solve the power-play woes?
There will be another time to answer these questions. In truth, Thursday night was more about 2011 than 2012.
"We're in a new season," Marchand reasoned, "but tonight we kind of capped off last season. Maybe we were caught up a little bit in that. I look forward to getting on with a new year."
Marchand's coach seconded that sentiment. Julien likened the continued celebration of securing the Cup to a party that has gone on far too long. "The bottles of champagne are empty," he said. "It's time to go home."
It was only one game, one unusual, emotional night, no time to make proclamations or draw conclusions.
Here's all you need to know: When the postgame Zamboni driver finished restoring the ice to its silky smooth veneer and the bull gang darkened the Garden lights, the banner was still hanging in the rafters, bright and shiny and new.
No matter what happens from here, that banner will remain, along with the memories that nothing -- not even a 2-1 defeat -- will ever erase.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.