(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
So, how was your weekend? What did you do?
With the quick, but not all too unexpected exit of the Patriots from the NFL playoffs last weekend, you probably had some free time on your hands. Especially when the NFL continued its trend of snoozefest playoff games when it has the entire country's athletic attention.
In between watching Tony Romo do his best Tony Eason impression and the Raven's offense prove that Dean Pees' departure wasn't exactly without cause, you may have been jonesing for a fix of something Boston to watch. Unless indoor lacrosse is your bag baby, may I suggest giving the Bruins a look over the next few weeks.
Now, the band-wagoner in you is probably wondering why you should spend your time watching a squad that is following up its beautiful 2008-09 season with what could constitute as a clunker. To that I answer, because the Bruins need your support. Are the Bs struggling? Of course. Is there a chance they will turn it around? You bet.
Ever since the improbable Super Bowl run by the Patriots in the early 2000s was followed by the Red Sox reversing the curse in 2004, Boston sports fans have pretty much had it easy. As someone who lives outside of the Bay State, I am frequently reminded of how lucky we have been. Truth is, there really isn't a counterargument. Over the past decade, we have been able to watch six major championships - more than any region. Never mind the NCAA titles and other great games that Boston teams have been a part of.
Fact is, we have been spoiled and anyone who says otherwise is simply misguided. The important thing is to not feel shame over that. Why should we apologize because our teams have performed well? Fans from places like New York and Philadelphia can call us band-wagoners because Celtics games were not hot-ticket affairs until KG and Ray Allen reinvented the Big Three. To that, I submit the fans dressed as empty seats at 76ers or Islanders games as those teams struggle.
The Phillies weren't exactly banging out their stadium until they came to power as a team in 2007. And there isn't anything wrong with that. The Celtics were miserable for almost 15 years. The Islanders haven't been good since 1983. The Sixers have been so irrelevant lately that they signed Allen Iverson to go with their whole "retro" theme this year. What can separate Boston fans from other fanbases around the country is how they rally around a team that is struggling through no real fault of its own.
It is no secret that the Bruins have underperformed this year. This time last year they had a double-digit lead in the entire conference. Night in and night out the Bs were combining shutdown defense with timely scoring to run over teams on a consistent basis. This year? Not so much.
After Monday's blowout loss to Ottawa, the Bruins are 23-17-8 and are fifth in the conference with 54 points. The B's are in a precarious position as they sit 12 points behind division-leading Buffalo and only four points ahead of the teams just outside the playoffs. It is somewhat troubling to be so far out of the division lead, but even more concerning to be so close to missing out on the big dance. The short answers on why the Bruins have struggled is that the team has had trouble scoring goals because of some designed strategic moves in the offseason and a rash of injuries to the skill players on the roster.
Say what you want about Peter Chiarelli trading Phil Kessel just before the preseason, but his hand was forced and he made sure he secured enough assets via the trade. Kessel has 15 goals and 28 points this season in Toronto, and those numbers would look really good in Black and Gold right now. Still, who is to say he would have that production in Boston? He is playing on a miserable team with no chance to compete on most nights so he is allowed to fire 10+ shots a game.
If he was wearing a B's sweater this year - without a long-term contract - he most likely would be sulking and not playing at a high level. His penchant for injury and unwillingness to compete in the dirty areas would not keep him on the ice in what has been a trying season, so Chiarelli picking up two first-round picks and a second-rounder from Toronto could be a certifiable steal.
As you read this, the Maple Leafs are playing like Maple Laffs and are the third-worst team in the NHL. It is growing increasingly likely that the Bruins will have a shot at the first overall draft choice this year - a selection that could land a franchise-caliber player without having to sacrifice much in the standings. At worst, the Bruins are looking at a top-five selection in a stacked draft for a cranky player who didn't want to play with this team and in front of the Causeway faithful.
Anyways, despite the fact that the B's have had trouble keeping players on the ice and scoring goals, they find themselves in the playoff hunt. Will they win the Stanley Cup this year as was possible before the first puck dropped? That seems like a stretch at the moment. Will the final three months of the season be fun, exciting and interesting to watch unfold? Yes.
All too often in sports, fans turn on a team when it under performs. Two weeks ago at Gillette, boos rained down on the Pats after they folded in the playoffs. Were those boos warranted? Sure. That team showed little heart and capability in that game. But what about a team that is doing all it can with the deck stacked against it? Doesn't it say something about a fan base when it rallies in support of a team that needs it?
So, if you are looking for another reason to show New Yorkers, Montrealers and everyone else who hates on Boston why we are the best sports city in America, head on down to the Garden for a Bruins game and lend your support to a Bruins team which is doing its best to save a difficult season.
If you need a few reasons to do so, I can give you five in this week's:
FIVE MINUTE MAJOR
1. Two of the teams right below the Bruins in the standings are from New York. Both the Rangers and Islanders are lurking in seventh and eighth place in the East and are trying to chase down the B's. While the teams from N.Y. aren't the biggest rivals they B's have, as they are for the Red Sox and Patriots, it is always nice to look down on a New York team. If the Bruins make the playoffs, it is pretty likely that at least one team from the Empire State will not.
2. Patrice Bergeron is arguably the best story in Boston sports that no one is talking about. In October of 2007, he was checked from behind into the boards and suffered a major concussion. He missed the rest of the season and his career was in jeopardy, never mind his lifestyle. Last year, he missed more time with a second concussion. This year, he has been the Bruins' best player.
He leads the team in points right now despite missing six games. He was named to the Canadian Olympic team despite not being invited to its preseason camp. Tom Brady won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award for simply healing from a knee injury. His life was never in question. Bergeron has come all the way back from intense supervision to make sure he would wake up when he went to sleep. Bergeron is more like Tony Conigliaro than Tom Brady. Where is the Steve Buckley love?
3. There are few roller coasters in sports more fun to ride than the hot goalie. And if goalie play is like a coaster, then Tim Thomas is one of those upside-down, inverted jobs. While he is not playing up to his Vezina Trophy levels of 2008-09, he is still doing what he does best - coming up with ridiculous saves out of nowhere.
In the WWE, Michale Cole refers to Kofi Kingston's offense as "controlled frenzy". Tim Thomas is very similar. Sometimes he is caught behind the net after fumbling a puck. Other times he has committed to the right side and the puck has slipped out to the left. Yet, more often than not he is leaping and diving around to keep the biscuit out of the basket.
Is it fundamentally sound? Hell no. Does he keep the Bruins in games they have no business winning at the moment? Frequently. He is the heart and sould of this team and as he goes, so go the B's.
4. The Bruins have 16 home games left in the season, and 10 of them can be considered marquee matchups. The hated Habs are in twice and Toronto comes in once. Throw in other key divisional games against Buffalo and Ottawa, and playoff stakes will be high just about every time the Bruins lace up the skates at home the rest of the way.
Never mind that both of the NHL's poster boys are still coming to town. Alex Ovechkin rolls in Feb. 2 and Sidney Crosby and the Penguins come to town March 18. It is likely that if the Bruins do make the playoffs, that one of those two teams will line up on the oppossing blue line in the first round. Those two games will be a good chance to begin the hate before the playoffs begin.
Hockey games are vastly different when the crowd is into the game. Ask anyone who went to the Winter Classic and has been to another B's game this season. Ask the players themselves. They can feel it when the crowd is feeling it.
5. As down as this season has been, hockey is a sport where you truly just have to make the playoffs to have a chance to win the whole freaking thing. Last year at this time, the Penguins were just about where the Bruins are. Over the final few months the Pens fired their coach, found their health and stormed to the Stanley Cup title. Now, Claude Julien is in no danger of being fired, so don't worry about that.
The second part of that equation is possible for the B's, however. This team has been at full strength for maybe 10 of 48 games. When the team reconvenes in March for the stretch run after the Olympic Break, it should be completely healthy.
Bergeron returned Monday against Ottawa. Marc Savard is expected to be back by the beginning of March at the latest. Milan Lucic is finding his legs after two big stints on IR and the defense is getting healthy again as well. Combine the better health with a trade or two, and the B's could be entering the playoffs as a dangerous low-seeded team.
Why not say you believed all along rather than showing up in May asking how to pronunce Miroslav Satan?