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Colageo: Boston Bruins Face Must-Win Summer



Boston Bruins

This is the weekend the Boston Bruins change their clocks.

Their front office publicly applauded the Boston Celtics for winning Banner 18, all the while cognizant that the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox have won championships since they did in 2011.

The Bruins are now on Boston’s clock, and it’s 2010 all over again. For them, the 13 years it’s been since raising their own championship banner to TD Garden’s rafters might as well be the 29-year title drought before Johnny Bucyk carried the Stanley Cup in 1970 and ’72 and the 39 years before Zdeno Chara accepted the Cup in Vancouver.

Neither untimely injuries nor COVID-19 are exchangeable as currency in this discussion. Boston fans are not big on excuses, and to their credit neither are the Bruins as an organization.

Since before winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, Bruins ownership and management have been transparent as to their mindfulness of where they stand in competition for the market’s attention and dollar. Lagging behind is not an option.

Employees of the hockey franchise in any department would do well to read between the lines of their employer’s congratulations to the Celtics.

Don’t dare be on the TD Garden crew whose broom misses the piece of green confetti that winds up stuck to Cam Neely’s shoe.

Don’t think for a second that the Bruins president saw Joe Mazzulla catch, sign and toss back that teenage fan’s basketball from a duck boat and didn’t say, “that should have been us.”

There is enormous pressure from within 150 Causeway Street offices to compete this summer.

Do all those good intentions translate into a big fish on July 1? Specifics are difficult, as there are many moving parts. We can confidently assert that, while it is realistic for Bruins management to approach this offseason as the first year of a two- to three-year retooling project, the plan is to contend for the Stanley Cup in 2025.

According to reports today on flagship 98.5 The Sports Hub, the Bruins were closing in on a trade of Linus Ullmark; the Ottawa Senators were at the center of speculation.

Offseason urgency is building.

On Bruins breakup day, captain Brad Marchand said only one team wins, and everyone else who loses, no matter when they do, is in the same position that the Bruins were when the Florida Panthers clinched their second-round series in six.

Hockey-wise, if the Bruins felt any better after Florida just as convincingly dismissed the Presidents Trophy-winning New York Rangers, Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers have thrown that kind of thinking right out the window and nowhere near the duck boats.

So, in the NHL, the Bruins are one of 30 (soon to be 31), but in Boston they’re on the clock.

The Oilers’ incredible comeback from the threat of a four-game sweep to a winner-take-all Game 7 should teach us why Marchand rejected any silver linings. After all, the Bruins captain lives in a competitor’s world.

The 2023-24 National Hockey League season will reach its end late Monday night (or perhaps Tuesday morning – more on that below), but for the Boston Bruins and some other teams as we read reports, the 2024-25 season has already begun.

To that effect, the Bruins announced earlier Sunday that 25-year-old defenseman Ian Mitchell has re-signed on a one-year, two-way contract paying a prorated $775,000 when in the NHL. Slotting in behind Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Andrew Peeke, the right-shooting Mitchell cleared waivers late in the season.

The media will have an opportunity to check in with General Manager Don Sweeney on Thursday in Las Vegas, site of the final centralized NHL Draft. Boston Hockey Now’s Andrew Fantucchio will be there, so if there is Ullmark news or perhaps a move of Jake DeBrusk’s FY24 negotiating rights, BHN will be on the job.

Now that the shameless plugs are out of the way, a word to younger fans.

You have just experienced one third of the 39 years it took between the Bruins’ 1972 and 2011 runs to the Stanley Cup. Much has happened in these last 13 years, including two more trips to the Cup final, the emergence of David Pastrnak as an all-world player, the passing of the torch from Timmy and Tuukka to the Goalie Hug, and the spectacular reconstruction of North Station as a commercial neighborhood, etc.

The anticipation with which Bruins fans approach this offseason (with over $20 million in salary-cap space), that (minus the cap itself) is what summers of yesteryear were invariably all about.

You’re not quite to the deep end of a 39-year pool, but you’re now up to your hips getting to know life as a Bruins fan before 2011.

By now you might be realizing that not every generation of Bruins fans ever gets a date with the Stanley Cup, but know that Bruins ownership and management understand only too well that it’s now their turn and that the clock is ticking. Embrace the process and enjoy the ride.

Imagine for the first time since the Boston Bruins won the NHL’s first-ever, best-of-seven playoff series (the 1939 semifinal and final rounds), the Stanley Cup Final might just go to Game 7 overtime.

In the NHL’s best-of seven era, this has never happened.

Now imagine the Florida Panthers pull it out, Carter Verhaeghe crawling out of the doghouse in triple overtime like Petr Klima himself and bagging the Cup-winning goal: CAT-GROWL SOUNDER!

As distasteful such gimmickry would have been to the pre-Bettman NHL, an X follower named Steven Gilbert (@irishbruinfan) reminded me of an even-worse scenario: The goal is under review…

It wasn’t Game 7, but pretty close … Game 6. At the height of goal-crease security in 1999, Brett Hull famously planted a skate inside the crease, blocking Dominik Hasek from getting his paddle out to the puck from a prone position. Hasek didn’t, Hull scored, the Dallas Stars won the Cup, and the NHL determined that this was not the place for a lengthy review.

One year before in the opening round in Boston, PJ Axelsson’s apparent Game 3 overtime winner against Washington was overturned because the tip of teammate Tim Taylor’s skateblade was on the red outline of the crease on the opposite side of the net from where Axelsson was lifting the puck over sprawling Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig.

Then-Bruins GM/president Harry Sinden earned a record fine for commenting post-series on the runaround he got from league offices.

Which NHL will officiate Monday night, on and off the ice, with the season on the line? What if the NHL finally has a next-goal-wins-the-Cup overtime?

Let’s hope that, whatever happens and whoever wins, that it’s a clean play, cut and dried, no one’s skate leaving the blue line in the same second as the puck, no attacking player in the crease and no one – I mean no one – having brushed the goaltender.

Furthermore, let the net be firmly anchored on its pins, that the puck is shot from the ice and not batted out of mid-air, that no egregious foul gets missed in the seconds leading up, and that the entire hockey world can immediately, once and for all, reckon with the result.

For the record, I published no predictions before the season or before the playoffs, but since last summer I’ve said in print, on podcasts and on radio interviews that I expect the Panthers to be wearing the ball caps and exchanging the tearful hugs when this season ends. That noted, McDavid, Kris Knoblauch and everyone else in blue and orange right down to Stuart Skinner himself has turned the 2024 Stanley Cup on its ear.

At present, I imagine devastation for the Panthers should they lose, especially for Paul Maurice, who has succeeded Lindy Ruff as the league’s premiere, B-movie villain hockey coach – always smart, willing to engage, thoughtful and sometimes snide. Getting his NHL start as the last coach of the Hartford Whalers and now closing in on 2,000 games regular season and playoffs combined, one wonders how many more chances like this will come his way.

The Oilers, should they lose, would be subjected to Canadian columnists bemoaning another year into the fourth decade without the a Stanley Cup parade north of the border (as if Edmonton would be any happier to see Calgary win it).

But where to from here if the lights go out on Sunrise Monday night?

Two years ago, GM Bill Zito, the once-upon-a-time player agent of Tim Thomas, saw his 2o21-22 team put up 122 points, win the Presidents Trophy and get swept by Tampa Bay in the second round. He remade a significant third of his roster and set this version of the Florida Panthers in motion, the one yours truly has had pegged all year as the inevitable champion.

This is still their time. It’s only a matter of whether they have what it takes to go get it.

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