The building truly belongs to them now, not solely in ownership, but in pure essence. The Celtics are gone for the summer. The Bruins are returning for a final night. And the only real question concerns whether the Bruins will be hanging a banner when they unpack next fall.
After all, the Bruins will be first to return next season.
First in, last out.
“I look at our resolve during the season and different times when we have had to come up large, whether it's Game 7 in the playoffs or whether sometime during the season when we needed certain wins,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters yesterday. “Our guys have always responded well and I have a lot of confidence in our team. The reason we're here is because those guys have delivered and I don't expect that to change.”
The coach is right, of course, recent Bruins revealing an environment at the TD Garden that cannot help but make one wonder just how much things have changed in the last several weeks. Since dropping Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens this postseason, the Bruins have gone 9-1 on their home ice, losing only Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In their last four home playoff games, the Bruins have outscored their opponents 16-2. Goalie Tim Thomas has been virtually impenetrable. And the Bruins have played with great passion before a crowd that has bordered on bloodthirsty.
But then, why should that be a surprise? The Bruins have not played a game of this magnitude in Boston in 33 years, since Game 6 of the 1977-78 Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins lost that game, 4-1. The entire Bruins franchise has since spent the last 33 years trying to get back to this point, to a place just two wins from a championship, all during a period when the Celtics spent time as the primary Garden resident.
But now, tonight and perhaps beyond, the building belongs to the Bruins again. Tonight especially. Tonight, the Bruins need the Garden to be everything it has been in recent weeks, to be what it has been during the home wins over the Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning and Canucks, four playoff teams who have been outscored by a 40-18 margin in the last 10 Garden games.
During this stretch, the Bruins have become everything they have wanted to be (short of champions) during the last several decades. They have become a difficult team to play again, a team virtually impossible to beat, a team with grit, spirit and fight.
“I remember right near the end of the year, we were pleased with our road record but we talked about establishing ourselves as a better home team,” Julien said. “That was in the last month and a half or so. We started doing that in the regular home season and we've carried that into the playoffs. So if there is a time to be good at home, it's certainly [in Game 6], and we intend to keep that streak going.”
Indeed, for all of the talk about the relative meaninglessness of home ice advantage in the NHL playoffs – at least relative to other sports – recent play in the Stanley Cup Final has suggested something altogether different. Since the start of the 2005-06 postseason, home teams are a stunning 29-7 in play during the Stanley Cup Final. In this series, the home team has won all five games. Thoroughly beaten up by the Bruins in Games 3 and 4, the Canucks returned to Vancouver for Game 5 and, with the home crowd behind them, belted the Bruins all over the ice en route to a 1-0 victory that pushed the Bruins to the brink.
Just like that, the Bruins turned back into the team they were in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
And tonight, presumably, they are just as capable of turning back.
Beyond the Garden ice, the Bruins may have other factors in their favor for Game 6 – at least through the eyes of their most optimistic fans. Julien will have the benefit of last change. Certainly, the Garden surface seemed to play slower than that in Vancouver. And while the Canucks have the advantage in the only area that ultimately matters – the series scoreboard – the Bruins can take some solace in the fact that they have had the chance to win all five games. The Bruins have outscored Vancouver in the series and led for a far longer period of ice time, elements that suggest they have been far more competitive and beyond.
Will the building matter again? Will home ice hold true? That obviously remains to be seen. In the biggest hockey game to be played in Boston since the Jimmy Carter administration, the Bruins are relying, at least in part, on their building and their fans to pull them through, all with the idea of a final, return trip to Vancouver.
Tonight and beyond, the building belongs to hockey.
Only time will tell whether the Bruins and their fans elect to give it back.
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