TAMPA BAY – Bruins fans are a bit like Sox fans before 2004: cynical, bitter, demoralized. They'll believe it when they see it, and they reserve the right not to believe it then, either. And that 3-0 fall-from-ahead choke job last year against the Flyers? Well that'll buy you another decade in fan jail, B's.
But both were heroes in Game 3, the perfect playoff road game for Boston. And both can be thanked for what could be a turning point in franchise luck, if not yet franchise love. It's kind of appropriate that as rumors swirled Thursday night about a franchise leaving one American city, Chara and Julien are closing in on cementing the renewal of a long-lost love affair in another.
Game 3 – a 2-0 victory for the visitors – was vintage Bruins. The Lightning, revved up to play on their home ice in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in seven years, got Julienned from the opening seconds. A team known for great puck movement couldn't really get any flow going at all.
That's a nice way of putting it. The Lightning had 31 shots but it felt like the home team had none. There were sparsely few "OOOHHHHH!!" sounds made by a crowd lamenting a near-miss. It was boring-is-beautiful hockey – the kind that has made the Bruins a true power for the first time in a long time. And though it's hard to look at the Boston roster and point out thrilling playmakers, it's even harder to point out weak links.
"The atmosphere in our room since Claude came has been consistent," Ference said. "In our sport, that's a huge advantage."
Some Bruins fans don't always see that since Julien hockey can be mind-numbing – the equivalent of running the ball on first, second, and third downs. Get the puck, turn the puck up-ice, dump-the-puck, get the puck. Boston is one of those cities where small-ball – or in this case small-puck – can be embraced and loved when it works. And give the Bruins credit, because it would have been easy to overhaul everything after last season's dreadful playoff collapse – especially in Boston – but wholesale changes didn't come and now the team looks tested.
As for all the criticism, including the heat Ference took from Mike Milbury and Don Cherry for calling out a teammate for a head shot this season? "I think it would be sickening not to get criticism," Ference said. "I see it as being in a city that loves hockey."
Sure, Boston fans are loud and impatient. But so many of their beloved sports heroes – Orr, Bird and Williams, to name three – have been quiet and patient. Chara won't ever be in that pantheon. But he sure fits that character description.
"He's a force," said Ference. "A lot of pride. Very hard on himself."
That works in the playoffs, and even the most fickle Bruins fan knows it. Julien has won wherever he's been – in Montreal, New Jersey, and Boston – despite not having an avant-garde system like Lightning coach Guy Boucher. Chara isn't lovable like Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier – the tallest athletes rarely are – but you can't argue with his resilience or his record.
"We just really tried to focus on our position play," Chara said. "Being in the right place away from the puck."
Boring yes, but Bruins fans don't care about glitz. They care about results. You don't need a gimmick to win over fans in Boston; you need a title. And even the most cynical Bruins fans are starting to think what may happen if their team plays only a few more games like it did Thursday. Bring the Lightning, the Sharks, the Canucks – bring whomever. Suffocating hockey is really hard to beat. And with the exception of a flurry of Lightning offense in Game 1, the series has been largely dominated by Boston. The series lead is only 2-1, but the advantage feels a bigger. The Bruins look like a team that can play better away from home than at home, and that is the hallmark of a champion.
Of course there is plenty of hockey left in this series, as they say, and plenty of whining left to do in Boston. But Chicago fans will tell you: Despite all the grief and groaning, there is nothing like winning a title in an Original Six town. Because unlike the Thrashers, the Bruins are not going anywhere.
A banner raised in Boston will stay there forever.
- the Bruins
- Claude Julien