There is always some sadness tinged in with regret, and maybe even a little denial, when a hockey season has freshly ended for the Bruins in playoff defeat.
There have been some doozies over the years, of course.
The utter shock of the 2010 collapse to the Flyers comes to mind, as does the heartbreak of Boston flatlining in Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final where the B’s core group was fully aware they had wasted their best chance to win another Cup. That was as raw and emotional as it’s ever been in a postgame Bruins dressing room because they knew it had slipped through their fingers.
But this postseason was different for so many reasons -- and with that came a whole different level of emotion for the Boston Bruins after they were finally eliminated in double-overtime in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of their second-round series.
This was more akin to finally realizing the inevitable, that the B’s window to compete for Stanley Cups with this current group is closed.
The Bruins gave it their best shot and fought to get it into overtime with a late third-period goal from David Krejci, but inevitably they bowed to a Tampa Bay team that’s younger, deeper and better in pretty much every way at this point. With that in mind, the Bruins had their minds drift to the unknown of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inevitable changes coming to a core Bruins group that’s been together for more than 10 years and the sadness that things can’t go on forever.
“It just kind of hit me after the game that the core group, a few of us, we have one or two, three years left [on our contracts]. With the pandemic going on, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Krejci, who has his head cast downward for his entire postgame press conference alongside Brad Marchand.
What Krejci is essentially admitting is he can now see the competitive window closing on this current group to win a Stanley Cup.
In hindsight, it probably slammed shut when they couldn’t close the deal on home ice in Game 7 against the Blues 15 months ago, and it definitely shut tight once the global pandemic struck and siphoned off the momentum after a Presidents' Trophy-winning season.
The reality is the Bruins have lost twice in the last three postseasons to a division rival that they can’t even push past five games in a seven-game series. If you can’t do that, then changes need to be made to push the Tampa Bay Lightning much harder because that’s a young, talented team with players like Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov all in their prime years.
The Bruins are not that anymore. They are a team that’s still good, still proud and can still be dominant in spurts with the Perfection Line, a great power play and what was the best goaltending duo in the league.
But they can’t play winning hockey in the playoffs against the Lightning with a group that’s older, less than what they once were and moving toward the end of their contracts. Torey Krug is set to walk after this season as a high-priced offensive D-man that the Bruins can’t afford to keep with a flat salary cap and future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara is not what he once was at 43 years old, even if he does decide to return for at least one more year.
Chara would only say postgame he’s remaining “open-minded” about his future, but it’s clear he’s a limited role player and a penalty killer even if he does return for another season.
David Krejci is entering the final year of his contract at 34 years old and had major issues once again generating offense against Tampa after a pretty good overall postseason, and a proud performance scoring a third period goal to send Game 5 into overtime. Tuukka Rask too is entering the final year of his contract and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever play in a Bruins uniform again after the way things ended with him opting out for family reasons.
It is twice now that Rask has left his team to deal with personal issues and $7 million is a lot to pay a goalie who consistently experiences difficulty balancing personal life and his professional life.
“We support Tuukka’s decision 100%. But then as we get to work, of course it’s going to affect us. He’s a Vezina Trophy finalist, one of the elite goaltenders in this league,” said Bruce Cassidy, prior to the decisive Game 5 where Halak admittedly played excellent hockey with 32 saves. “Jaro, we feel if he’s not the best backup in the league he’s right up there. But now he’s pushed to number one duty and you’ve got Danny Vladar coming in that just doesn’t have any NHL experience. It does affect you mentally. It affects how you construct your lineup when you have those back to backs.
“Then the mental part of it with the group, yeah, you get down. Do you believe you have all the pieces to win? You have to ask the players. I always do. I’m an optimist. I’ve seen Jaro string together a lot of good hockey. [But] I think it does take a toll. You see both sides that when you you’re your full complement and when you don’t. Colorado, they lost their guy and they’re struggling to keep it out of their net. It’s definitely an impactful position that we felt we had as good a tandem as anybody in the league. Then going forward in the playoffs, we lost a bit of that edge. You have to overcome it in other ways. That’s the way I look at it. Can’t make excuses. I don’t think we’re doing that. We just have to find other ways to be better: Better team defense and finish more plays at the other end.”
That inevitably didn’t happen.
After it was all said and done, Halak posted an .896 save percentage in the series against Tampa Bay and gave up some killer goals while reminding the Bruins that he’s a quality 35-year-old backup rather than starter material. The goaltending department might have been one of the few places where the B’s had an advantage over the Lightning, even if it was a slim one comparing a couple of Vezina Trophy finalists.
But once that was gone, so was any real chance that the Bruins had to steal this series against the Lightning.
With a flat salary cap for the foreseeable future and no real firm idea of when the NHL will play games again due to COVID-19, there is a very real feeling that this Bruins team could look very different when they take the ice again. They need to build around 24-year-old David Pastrnak and 21-year-old Charlie McAvoy while transitioning from the old core to a new team nucleus with Bergeron and Brad Marchand sticking around as one of the NHL’s best duos now in NHL middle age.
They need to get bigger up front to bust through big, strong and mobile groups of defensemen in Tampa and St. Louis that have been able to contain them in the playoffs over the last few years. They need to figure out what the solution is with their goaltending position based on how things ended with Rask away from the team.
Most of all, the Bruins need to swallow hard and realize that the window is over for this current group of B’s regardless of whatever regular season trophies they earned. It’s something even an eternal optimist like Bergeron wasn’t shying away from given the current situation facing his team.
“It’s definitely something that crossed my mind. You never want this to happen and obviously, [we’ll] see what happens I guess going forward. Obviously, wish that everyone was coming back and we can have another chance at it,” said Bergeron.
They are too old in spots to summon the energy and good health needed for a two-month marathon through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there isn’t enough depth top-to-bottom to beat the best teams in the league. In truth, the only reason they made the Stanley Cup Final last year was because Tampa was ousted in the first round, and they can’t depend on that happening anymore.
Changes need to be made with the Black and Gold and that was a different feeling permeating the air around the team following Monday night’s valiant Game 5 loss to the Lightning in double-overtime.
It may be a long, long offseason for the Bruins to figure it all out.