Bruins have simply been better team

BOSTON -- In the spring of 1997 the Philadelphia Flyers cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs, winning each series in five games.

The Flyers arrived in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in a decade with the expectation, at least externally, that they would cruise through a Detroit Red Wings team that had been remade before the season and featured five Russian players playing prominent roles.

They didn't.

In fact, after being crushed 6-1 in Game 3 of the finals, head coach Terry Murray referenced the team being in a "choking situation," a term that has become part of the lexicon of playoff hockey.

Whether that was accurate or not, the Flyers lost Game 4 and were swept out of the finals, and shortly thereafter Murray was fired as head coach.

History suggests, however, that despite the presence of Eric Lindros, Rod Brind'Amour, 50-goal scorer John LeClair and goalie Ron Hextall, the Flyers weren't necessarily chokers but rather the victims of a Detroit team that was deceivingly good.

That Red Wings team -- with future Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, Slava Fetisov and an emerging Vladimir Konstantinov -- might have been underappreciated at the time, but it turned around and won the 1998 Cup by sweeping the Washington Capitals in the finals, as if to reinforce the Red Wings were the real deal no matter how much emphasis had been on what the Flyers did or did not do against them the previous year.

We were reminded of that 1997 series as we watched the Pittsburgh Penguins drop a gut-wrenching third straight game to the Boston Bruins on the road Wednesday night.

Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins' perpetual hero, redirected a Brad Marchand pass past Penguins netminder Tomas Vokoun with 4:41 left in the second overtime period to give the Bruins a 2-1 victory, with Game 4 and a possible sweep in the Eastern Conference finals set for Friday night in Boston.

It was a game that saw the Penguins produce by far their best performance of the series, and perhaps their best overall performance of the entire postseason.

Were it not for the fact they could not dent Tuukka Rask for that second, pivotal goal, the Pens' effort might well have been considered a perfect road game.

But the heartbreaking loss highlights the dynamic that reminds us of those '97 finals.

So much of the attention coming into this series was on the star-studded Penguins. They had been buoyed by the addition of key veterans Jarome Iginla (who spurned the Bruins to join the Pens), Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen. That made them, on paper at least, the kind of team that seemed well-positioned for another long playoff run after several seasons of postseason disappointments.

And they appeared to be peaking at the right time, outscoring the Senators 22-11 in the second round and coming into the conference finals with the most potent power play in the postseason.

It wasn't quite the Penguins as Harlem Globetrotters and Bruins as Washington Generals, but the focus from many quarters as this series began was clearly skewed toward Pittsburgh.

But just as the '97 Red Wings were a very good team that just hadn't been recognized as such, this Boston team has not been given full credit for all of its success.

And no, that doesn't really bug the Bruins.

"Not really. We're not a group that needs the limelight, let's put it that way," head coach Claude Julien said Thursday. "We're a group that wants results. You just have to look back at how David Krejci, how Tuukka Rask has been handling this. It doesn't matter to us.

"What matters to us is what we accomplish as a group," Julien added. "We go about our business, you gain the respect from winning a game, winning a series and hopefully winning Cups. Our goal is to continue to play well and give ourselves a chance."

Rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who has been a revelation since coming into the Bruins' lineup with four goals and two assists in eight postseason games, agreed.

"I don't think it bugs us," Krug said. "We know what we have in this locker room. We know it's a great group of guys that comes to compete every day, and I don't think we're worried about them at all. We're just worried about ourselves."

Yes, Game 3 could have gone either way. In that sense, it was a true classic playoff tilt. But the Bruins found a way to make it go their way, just as they found a way to erase a 4-1 third-period deficit against Toronto in Game 7 in the first round.

Did the Leafs choke in that game?

Fair question, but was it choking as much as it was the Bruins rising to the occasion, imposing their will on a less-experienced team?

Are the Penguins choking in this series?

There's no question they haven't come close to the overall performance they had hoped to deliver, having been outscored 11-2 through three games. And the power play has not delivered, going 0-for-12. Their stars have not played to their potential, although captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal were all much better in Game 3, and all had terrific chances to win it for the Penguins.

Still -- and this is the great yin and yang of the playoffs -- is the lack of production from such great players a failure on the Penguins' part, or a grand achievement on the part of a Bruins team that has been as close to perfect in this series as a team can be?

Julien called Malkin's play in Game 3 "outstanding."

"But it's not about doing a better job on one or the other [Malkin or Crosby]. We're trying to do a great job on all of them," the coach said. "But like I said, you can only hold that team back so much, try and minimize the opportunities, because they are a potent team offensively and when it's not our guys up front it's our goaltender that's doing a good job. Our whole team has committed itself to respecting the strength of that team and doing the best job we can to defend against them."

True, the Bruins' power play also stinks, having gone 0-for-10 in the series, but that's small potatoes compared to their other achievements against the Penguins. Rather than pillorying Crosby or Malkin -- which might be good sport for the Twitter generation -- has this not been a grand achievement for a Bruins team that has played with incredible composure?

Let's talk about the job Bergeron has done in neutralizing Crosby.

Let's talk about the timely scoring of Bergeron; the work of future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, who has bought in wholeheartedly to a different style of play; the prowess of playoff scoring leader Krejci; or Rask, who has fallen into the shadow cast from across the continent by Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick.

Or how about the sight of Gregory Campbell, his right fibula fractured by a shot in overtime, getting up off the ice to try to disrupt a Penguins power play?

Is this really the story of a choking Pittsburgh Penguins team?

Maybe it's time to turn our gaze in a different direction and praise what is being done by a very good Bruins team, and talk less about a Penguins team that at this point is running a distant second in the series.