Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Seasons in Boston Bruins History
The Boston Bruins are coming off three divisional first-place finishes in the last four seasons and four in the last six. Because of that consistency and the quantity of key returning personnel, it is easy enough to predict another sound campaign in 2014-15.
But the broader history of America’s oldest NHL franchise yields ample evidence that the past cannot secure the present. Expectations can pivot for the better or the worse with little or no advanced notice.
The Bruins have presaged their last two championship-winning eras (the 1970s and the 2010s) by absconding irrelevance and progressing ahead of schedule. But in other stretches, an established contender’s persona or a simple upward trend has given way to rancid regression.
Then there was one jutting case of a presumed setback never coming to fruition. In that instance, new stars did not dawdle with the task of nudging their predecessors out of the fans’ and pundits’ minds.
That particular season leads off the following roll of the top five Bruins seasons whose outcome differed from logical prognostications.
One month into the season, Boston coach and general manager Art Ross decided that 23-year-old goaltending prodigy Frank Brimsek’s time had arrived. In turn, he dangled 35-year-old incumbent Tiny Thompson, whom the Detroit Red Wings took off the Bruins hands.
Simply put, much of New England’s puckheaded populace was swift to lower their expectations in the wake of the move. Authoritative hockey historian Stan Fischler sums up Brimsek’s first impression as follows in his book, Boston Bruins: Greatest Moments and Players:
On December 1, 1938, in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, Frankie Brimsek went into the nets…The evening turned into a disaster. Montreal, which had only won once in its eight previous contests, beat Boston 2-0. In Detroit, the exiled Thompson beat Chicago 4-1. It left little doubt that Ross had made a mistake.
But that falter gave way to a 5-0 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks, the first of three straight shutouts and six goose eggs in the next seven outings. Brimsek did not lose again until Christmas night in a 1-0 decision versus the New York Rangers.
By season’s end, he had stamped a 33-9-1 record, helping the team finish 36-10-2. His seamless four-month transition from no prior NHL experience to the starting job all but shooed him in for the Calder and Vezina Trophies.
That, incidentally, was what kept fellow rookie Roy Conacher from corralling the Calder himself. The 22-year-old winger piloted the drive to give Brimsek requisite offensive support with a league-leading 26 regular-season goals.
As a bonus, the new-look Bs followed up in the 1939 playoffs by nabbing the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
The chorus to Linkin Park’s hit, “Burn it Down,” retroactively fits the description of the Bruins core at the end of the last century. They built up some long-awaited optimism for a couple of season only to deconstruct it the next year.
Goaltender Byron Dafoe and head coach Pat Burns had both arrived in the summer of 1997 and keyed a quick turnaround. They helped to bring the Bruins out of the very basement of the league and back into the playoff picture.
But on the heels of back-to-back 39-30-13 records and the team’s first playoff series win in five years, the foundation crumbled. Dafoe’s holdout over a contract dispute throughout October 1999 did little to excuse the team’s nine-game winless start.
Leaned-on forward Anson Carter mustered only one point (an assist) in the first eight games while the Bruins went 0-5-3. Jason Allison, whose 23-53-76 scoring log led the team in 1998-99, had two assists in the first six games and did not score his first goal until Nov. 18.
Those two strikers eventually thawed out, and Dafoe eventually rejoined, which helped to foster a six-game winning streak. But that and all subsequent spurts of hope were quick to evaporate.
Allison and Carter would later sustain season-ending injuries on Jan. 8 and Feb. 20, respectively, but the campaign was already a lost cause by then. A 3-1 home loss to the Nashville Predators on Dec. 21 dropped Boston to 13-13-8 on the year, and they never climbed back above .500 thereafter.
A 5-2 falter at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11 dipped the Bruins to 18-19-15. They would retain a losing record for the balance of the season and dealt Cup-craving captain Ray Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche on March 6.
The 2011 Stanley Cup championship, among other accomplishments, has since made sense of it. But at the time, Claude Julien’s second season behind the Bruins bench packed nothing but surprises.
Only devout partisans could have asserted that the titanic Game 6 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals—when Boston lasted one more night against the top-dog Canadiens—was the end of the beginning of the franchise’s modern renaissance.
The Hockey News, for one, predicted a step back in Julien’s follow-up campaign. The magazine’s preseason picks had Boston finishing 10th in the conference, which would have entailed a third playoff no-show in four years.
But after an average October (5-3-3 start, including a shootout loss to their nemesis, the Habs), the Bruins initiated a contender’s crash course. They went an otherworldly 24-2-1 between Halloween and New Year’s, which minimized the blow of all subsequent slumps.
While pacing themselves to 116 points, they pulled a 180-degree twist on their Montreal matchup. They would win the 2008-09 season series, 5-0-1, after going 0-7-1 head-to-head the year prior. In addition, the teams flip-flopped their positions in the conference standings as the first and eighth seed.
Free-agent transfer Michael Ryder personified the reversal and silenced his contract critics. The new Boston winger finished second on the team with 27 goals and fourth with 53 points.
Other offensive breakthroughs included those of second-year NHLer David Krejci (51 assists and 73 points) and rookie Blake Wheeler (21 goals, 24 assists). Those totals bolstered pilots Marc Savard (63 helpers) and Phil Kessel (36 goals) to help form the NHL’s second-most prolific strike force.
Behind all of that, late-blooming goaltender Tim Thomas and towering captain Zdeno Chara plowed their way to the Vezina and Norris, respectively. The backbone and backstop piloted a league-leading defense that allowed only 196 opposing goals.
The Bruins entered their eighth year of operation vying for a fifth consecutive first-place finish in the regular season. They had just posted their two best single-season records to date at 28-10-6 in 1930-31 and 38-5-1 the year prior.
But a January of futility froze any aspirations to build on those campaigns and build back to 1929 championship form. The 1931-32 Bruins tied their first four games post-New Year’s and eventually went on a 10-game winless skid (0-5-5).
After stopping the bleeding with a 4-1 win over the Rangers on Jan. 28, Ross’ pupils did not quite recover. They mustered one more pair of consecutive wins and brooked the franchise’s first losing record (15-21-12) since its inaugural season.
With that, they plummeted from princes to plebeians in the NHL’s American Division, taking fourth place out of four. They had not finished any lower than second since the franchise’s sophomore campaign in 1925-26.
At least the 1999-00 edition of the Bruins was three years removed from its last playoff no-show and had only built up to middleweight status in the interim.
Bobby Orr’s rookie campaign had been one of the sparse bright spots in a 1966-67 season that saw Boston finish sixth out of six. That was the club’s eighth consecutive playoff no-show and the conclusion of the NHL’s Original Six era.
If nothing else, the quantity of competition doubled over the subsequent season as the league doubled its population to 12 teams. That and the fact that Orr was only available for 46 of the next season’s 74 contests should have logically complicated the drive to cut off a nine-year playoff drought.
But a couple of key offseason acquisitions would waste little time turning heads and the Bruins' fortunes.
First, a blockbuster swap with Chicago landed the likes of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. The most impactful sacrifice in that deal was Pit Martin, who the year prior had no company among teammates in Boston’s 20-goal range.
The 25-year-old Esposito surpassed the bar of “worthy replacement” and made good on his change of scenery. He accelerated his career highs in his first year as a Bruin with 35 goals and 49 helpers.
Stanfield and Hodge each cracked the 20-goal plateau themselves and finished fourth and fifth, respectively, on the point-getting leaderboard. Not far behind was another new face in Derek Sanderson, whose 25-24-49 scoring log allowed him to succeed Orr as the recipient of the Calder Trophy.
Despite missing more than one-third of the schedule, Orr crafted a hardware-worthy campaign himself with his first Norris Trophy.
Those elements coalesced with others to swell Boston’s year-end winning percentage to .568 from .314 the year prior. With that, the Bruins finished third in the six-team Eastern Division and in the 12-team league overall.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics, trade information and postseason results for this report were found via hockey-reference.com.
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