There is a different type of pinching associated with the Bruins today. It's not the kind that Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara do to keep the puck in the offensive zone. It's the actual kind, squeezing the skin together to make sure what you're experiencing is real.
Yes, the Bruins are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990. It wasn't a dream, just a dream come true for devotees of the Hub's hardscrabble hockey team.
The Bruins' 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning last night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals really happened. They're playing the Vancouver Canucks for the Cup. Spin your totem "Inception"-style if you must.
Last night has to go down as one of the most significant victories in the history of the franchise. As much heart, resolve, and resiliency as the Bruins had shown in these playoffs, if they had somehow lost this game on a fluke goal, an unlucky bounce, or a momentary lapse in judgement they would have automatically been lumped in with the previous editions that lost Game 7s on home ice to Carolina and Philadelphia.
Different team, different result. Same coach.
The win provided vindication for an entire organization and validation for oft-criticized coach Claude Julien. There were a lot of winners last night associated with the Black and Gold. Tim Thomas, who entered with a 3.22 goals-against average in Game 7s, pitched a shutout. Chara, the towering captain, finally reached a Stanley Cup final in his 13th season. Nathan Horton, who had the game's only goal, continued to build his legend in his first postseason.
But there was no bigger winner than Julien, who became the first Bruins coach in 21 years to steer the Spoked-Bs to the Stanley Cup final. Julien started out the playoffs coaching for his job, and now the job he's done should ensure he keeps it. Even if the Bruins still decide to can Claude, he'll have plenty of coaching opportunities elsewhere.
Julien would have had every right to sit in his office and blast Frank Sinatra's "My Way" while enjoying a cold beverage after last night, smiling while he thought of those who wanted him to change everything but his last name.
Like any coach, Julien did make a few tweaks -- he played Tyler Seguin for 14 minutes and 53 seconds, reduced Mark Recchi's ice time to a playoff-low 12:37, and spotted Rich Peverley on the second line -- but the brand of hockey the Bruins won with was unmistakably his. Conformist, no frills, stay-the-course.
After two tense and goal-less periods that saw the Bruins outshooting the Lightning, 29-17, with nothing to show for it thanks to goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had never lost an elimination game before last night (7-1), Julien had a straightforward message: don't change a thing, boys.
"I just basically said, 'We shouldn't have to change anything. We just have to stick with it, and eventually we would get rewarded," Julien recalled. The frequently second-guessed coach was talking about how to beat the Lightning, but those same words apply to his own stint behind the Bruins bench.
The Bruins broke through with 7:33 left, and it was with a play that Julien and his coaching staff had designed to break Tampa's much-vaunted 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. Andrew Ference carried the puck up ice and passed to David Krejci, who came streaking up the ice from left wing-side and sliced up the middle between Teddy Purcell and Steven Stamkos. Krejci then hit Horton, driving to the net, with a perfect pass and the puck was in the net.
Lightning coach, Guy Boucher, portrayed as a cross between Toe Blake and Stephen Hawking, said in his post-game address: "One thing for sure is they're very well-coached. Claude, I coached against him in Juniors, he’s always done a very good job."
There are some here who beg to differ, Mr. Boucher, despite that Jack Adams (Coach of the Year) award Julien bagged in 2009.
Neither Julien nor his system will ever be beloved by the Spoked-Believers, but pro sports is a results-oriented business. If you think Julien is going to reconsider his tight-fisted, tight-checking coaching philosophy now, you're mistaken.
"Staying the course is what I'm going to do right until the end," he said in what is about as close to defiant as you'll get from Julien.
Some might want to label Julien as accidental tourist on the Bruins' trip to Vancouver, but his players feel he is a guiding force.
"Ever since he came here -- I was a rookie -- he's brought a different culture to this organization and this club," said Milan Lucic. "I feel like we've gotten better and better as every year has gone on, and especially this year, especially in the playoffs we've bought into the system and that structure. Whenever all 20 guys do that that's when you have success."
But what about the criticisms that Julien plays it too close to the vest, and that he prefers joyless, scoreless hockey?
"You know, when we opened it up against the Tampa Bay Lightning it didn't work for us," pointed out Lucic. "We blew a three-goal lead [in Game 4] because we opened up with them. We can't afford to do that. We got to stay true to our structure and stay disciplined. He makes sure that he keeps us accountable. That's some of the qualities he's brought to this organization and changing that culture."
Julien's approval rating might still be low, but it was impossible to ignore the roar of approval from the TD Garden crowd as the final seconds ticked off. It was as loud as Garden 2.0 has ever been, including when the Celtics clinched Banner No. 17 in 2008.
Vociferous fans chanted "We want the Cup, We want the Cup."
Julien, the coach they love to hate, has his team four wins away from giving them exactly what they're asking for. The dream lives on.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.