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Bruins reach their defining moment

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 27, 2011 09:04 AM

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Coach Claude Julien and the Bruins could only watch as the final seconds ticked away in Game 6 last night. Game 7 between the Bruins and Canadiens is tonight at TD Garden.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

In the Claude Julien era, the Bruins are now 2-8 in potential series clinchers. They are 0-3 in Game 7s. Yet none of that will really mean a thing when the Bruins take the ice against the Montreal Canadiens tonight at the TD Garden with their very identity on the line.

So this is what it has come to in this tug-o-war between Boston and Montreal, the cities’ respective hockey seasons now whittled down to a single game. The NHL postseason just isn’t big enough for the two of them anymore. And for the Bruins to even have a chance of changing who they are, for Julien to put a greater stamp on his tenure here as coach, the Bruins fittingly must go through the Canadiens in a winner-take-all affair and claim a seventh game in a series that has been wildly entertaining and unpredictable.

Last night? The Bruins brought much of their frustration on themselves. While the Bruins lamented a pair of Canadiens goals that came during 5-on-3 play – “I know I would have liked to have a 5-on-3,” Julien told reporters – they also put themselves in the predicament. In the first instance, the Bruins were called for too many men on the ice and, shortly thereafter, slashing. Neither call was debatable. In the second, after Milan Lucic was issued a 5-minute major for boarding, Patrice Bergeron (of all people) mistakenly fired the puck into the crowd attempting to clear the puck out of his own end.

Delay of game. Another two-man advantage for the Canadiens. Another goal that proved the difference in a series now locked at three games apiece.

Gripe about the officials if you’d like. But in Game 6, the Bruins were guilty of suicide on ice.

Nonetheless, the Bruins still have an opportunity here, Julien most notable among them. During his four seasons as coach, Julien has taken the Bruins from a laughingstock existence under Dave Lewis to four consecutive postseason appearances. In 2008-09, he was the Jack Adams winner as NHL coach of the year. Generally speaking, the Bruins under Julien have been fundamentally sound and competitive with most everyone, winning roughly 60 percent of their regular season games and restoring the finish on what had been a badly tarnished team logo.

So the Bruins are back. What we need to learn now is whether they can go beyond, at least with this coach and this nucleus.

In that way, it is important to remember that the Canadiens series is nothing more than a start. Even with a win tonight, the Bruins will merely advance to the second round for a third straight season. Presumably, for Julien to save his job and for the Bruins to avoid significant changes, the Bruins will need to win another round, too, something president Cam Neely all but said weeks ago when he deemed the Bruins one of the best four or five teams in the NHL.

Teams with that kind of label are serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. They certainly don’t get bounced in the first round by a longtime rival that has haunted them for decades.

Here’s the problem with Game 7s: people look at them as singular defining moments when, in fact, they are merely the final verdict on a case that has been built over time. Game 7 is merely when the jury comes in. But everything transpiring before it is what has truly determined the outcome of a series, from the identification of problems to proposed solutions.

Translation: the Bruins won’t win or lose this series because of the referees or linesmen, because of a lucky bounce or an injury. They will win or lose it because they are tougher or more skilled than the Canadiens, because their power play is utterly inept, because they still have trouble getting the puck of their zone, or because they relentlessly forechecked the Canadiens into submission.

Understand? There may be flukes at the end of a seven-game series. But there is no accident in how you arrived there.

For the Bruins, in particular, their recent history in Game 7s is poor. They got blasted by the Canadiens in 2008, albeit as an overachieving No. 8 seed. (Game 6 of that series was indisputably their renaissance.) In 2009, they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime. Last year, after having blown a 3-0 series lead, they blew a 3-0 first period lead and tumbled to a Philadelphia Flyers club that simply wanted it more.

No matter how each of those Game 7s went, each series identified a fatal flaw. Against Montreal, the Bruins were simply too inexperienced and short on talent. Against Carolina, they repeatedly failed to get the puck out of their own end. Against Philadelphia, they flat-out choked, independent of injuries, because even a bad team should be able to win one of every four.

Over the last three years, the Bruins have made a succession of maneuvers and adjustments to address those issues. They brought in people like Mark Recchi to stabilize and help lead a young roster. They went on a never-ending quest for the proverbial puck-moving defenseman, making a series of smaller trades (like the acquisition of Steven Kampfer) and some bigger ones (like the addition of Tomas Kaberle). They added relentless, undeterred grinders like Chris Kelly.

And they elevated one of the organization’s all-time greats, Neely, who brought a level of urgency and all but threatened his coach’s job in December.

Now the Bruins are resting on the precipice again, on the cusp between the final eight of this 2010-11 season and another terribly disappointing, disheartening finish. Which way will they go? Have they sufficiently addressed their issues? Are they now ready make a truly spirited, defiant run at a championship? Or are the event of the last 10 days merely an indication that the Bruins have spun their wheels for the better part of the last three years, rearranging furniture, but always ending up the same place?

Game 7 is tonight.

The Canadiens stand in the way.

The jury is all but in.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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