Patrice Bergeron spent the first 3-1/2 days of the off-season in the hospital. It was difficult to manage the pain, both physical and mental.
He might as well have been in an auto accident – punctured lung, broken rib, torn rib cartilage, torn rib muscles, separated shoulder. His first concern was his health. He asked a simple question: Am I going to be OK?
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“When you’re talking about your lung,” he said, “you obviously need it.”
Once reassured that he would recover, he had nothing to think about but hockey. He had no regrets about playing hurt, even though he was more than just hurt. His Boston Bruins were facing elimination in the Stanley Cup Final. He had worked too hard not to play. He loved his teammates too much not to play. He knew the deal. It was his decision.
“The only regret I have,” he said, “is that we lost and I couldn’t be exactly myself on the ice.”
Imagine leaving the arena struggling to breathe while the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup. Imagine risking so much, enduring so much and coming so close, only to fall short.
Imagine lying there in a sterile hospital bed, going over the games in your head – from Game 1, when the Bruins blew a 3-1 lead in the third period and lost in triple overtime, to Game 6, when they watched a 2-1 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit in 17.7 of the final 76 seconds, a surreal blur.
“Yeah, it was a really bitter feeling,” Bergeron said. “I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t change my mind at all. It was just weird.”
Now imagine coming to training camp less than three months later, still feeling tenderness in your ribs, trying to gear back up again.
“One thing is for sure,” Bergeron said. “It motivates you that you didn’t win. It’s not like, ‘Oh, OK, we can sit and relax because we won.’ We didn’t win. We didn’t do anything more …”
“We didn’t get anything more, anyways, than teams that didn’t make the playoffs. So we shouldn’t be satisfied by any means.”
True. And Bergeron would know. The Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and did the whole hangover thing the following fall, going 3-7-1 in October and wondering what the heck happened, before returning the tiger to Mike Tyson and figuring it out with a 12-0-1 November.
But check the marshmallows. The second hangover could be worse. It might be harder to come back from a loss. The pain lingers for others, too, both physically and mentally. Gregory Campbell can still feel the break in his leg from when he blocked a shot and gutted out a penalty kill against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final. Brad Marchand can’t bear to watch a replay of Game 6 of the Cup final.
“I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever fully get over,” Marchand said.
The Bruins’ problems sometimes stem from their strengths. This is an accomplished, veteran team built for the playoffs. The players know what they can do and when they have to do it. They rely on emotion, energy, effort and a tight, defensive structure. Though they are Cup-caliber at their best, they can slip easily if everyone isn’t engaged, and you can't fool ’em. You can’t tell them the pressure is on until it is. Coach Claude Julien has bemoaned their Jekyll-and-Hyde style many times.
After limping down the stretch last season and failing to win their division, the Bruins took a 3-1 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. Then they lost two straight and faced a three-goal deficit in Game 7.
The good part is that they woke up. They realized that a loss likely would break them up, and they rallied for a stunning, overtime victory. They went on a dominant run to the Cup final.
“That comeback happened because the guys didn’t want [major changes] to happen,” Bergeron said. “I think it shows that we’re not just saying that we are a tight team and we get along well and we have a good chemistry, a team-concept type of team. We just proved that by winning that game and going all the way [to the Cup final].
“We care for one another, and we want to keep that going. It’s fun to go to the rink every day for practice and games. Why change that?”
The bad part is that they had to wake up and prove it in the first place, and there were changes, anyway. Out went half a dozen guys – Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr, Anton Khudobin, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin. In came Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla.
Eriksson and Iginla might be great additions. Eriksson is a top two-way player in his prime. Iginla is on the decline, but he is a future Hall of Famer who can still hit and fight and score. Both are character guys. Both fill holes at right wing.
Milan Lucic looks like he’s in better shape than he was coming out of the lockout last season. Young defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug seem ready for larger roles, and they might boost a puzzling power play.
But the Bruins have to heal their wounds, develop chemistry and slog through 82 games before they can even begin to get back to where they were. At 36, captain Zdeno Chara needs his minutes managed more carefully. The third line is a question mark, which is important considering how much Julien likes to roll four lines.
“I think it’s about trying to motivate yourself that you want to relive the emotion that we created by winning in 2011,” Bergeron said. “That was the best summer of my life, just the feeling of a job well done. Yeah, I think it’s just about trying to motivate yourself by things like that.”
Remember 2011. Forget 2013, if you can.
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