Legitimate threat — for years to come

By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / May 8, 2010

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No matter what happens now, barring a complete and unexpected collapse in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bruins are back. One win from the conference finals, possessors of the No. 2 pick in the NHL draft, participants in the playoffs for a third straight season, the Bruins are no longer an obvious No. 4 on the Boston sports landscape.

Precisely where the Bruins go from here is anybody’s guess, but assuming they eliminate the Flyers, let there no longer be any doubt about the validity of hockey in Boston. One more victory will deliver the Bruins to the NHL’s final four for the first time since 1992 and legitimize any and all talk of a Stanley Cup, be it this year or next, or the one after that.

The Bruins might not win the Cup this season, but that’s not the point. The Cup is a realistic goal now. And it will remain a realistic goal for the foreseeable future.

In the midst of all this, let us pause and note that the Bruins have rebuilt themselves from the ground up, partly as the work of Mike O’Connell, partly as the work of Peter Chiarelli, partly as the work of Claude Julien and others. The players also should not be overlooked. The luster has been restored to the spoked “B’’ that serves as the team’s logo — it will not be fully restored until there is a Cup to celebrate — and the Bruins are where they are because of shrewd drafting and decision-making.

Let’s look at the big picture here. In the last four or five years, O’Connell and Chiarelli have drafted and/or signed everyone from David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Marc Savard to Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara. Phil Kessel was drafted and flipped to the Maple Leafs for three draft picks, one of whom will be Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall. The Bruins are young and talented, a combination that will serve them well for years in the salary cap world of professional sports.

OK, so the Bruins didn’t add a scorer at the trade deadline, something that could have been done without the forfeiture of that invaluable No. 2 selection. Maybe that will haunt them yet. But Chiarelli has made Mark Recchi and Miroslav Satan his two most notable in-season pickups over the last two seasons — we’re talking offense here — and the results have been downright eye-popping. In 20 career postseason games with the Bruins, the 42-year-old Recchi has seven goals and 13 points, a pace that would produce 29 goals over an 82-game schedule. This postseason, Recchi and Satan have combined for nine goals and 17 points in nine games, all while counting for less than $1.4 million of the Bruins’ approximate $60 million payroll.

Meanwhile, Ilya Kovalchuk is out of the playoffs. So is Raffi Torres (for whom the Sabres paid more in slightly more than a month than the Bruins are paying Satan all season). Alexei Ponikarovsky and the Pittsburgh Penguins are still very much alive in the postseason, but he has not produced for the Penguins what either Recchi or Satan has produced for the Bruins.

Give Chiarelli his due here, folks. Even the Dennis Seidenberg pickup proved more valuable than anyone initially thought. (At the time, the roundabout swap of Derek Morris for Seidenberg seemed like a classic case of rearranging the furniture.) Chiarelli resisted bigger, more dramatic moves for more specific and cost-efficient ones, and the Bruins on the ice have benefited greatly.

As for Julien, lest anyone forget, he is the reigning Jack Adams award winner. No Boston executive, manager, or coach will be fully celebrated until he rides on the duck boats, but the Bruins have changed goalies in the last year and remain one of the stingiest teams in hockey. At no point this season, as bad as things got, did the Bruins appear to tune out their coach. Chiarelli and Julien took a cerebral, level-headed approach to crisis, and maybe it is not a coincidence the Bruins are now operating as if entirely unaffected by the pressure of playoff hockey.

Two years ago at this time, let’s not forget where we were. During a first-round playoff series in which the Bruins lost to the Canadiens, the team was nonetheless celebrated for forcing a seventh game after an unforgettable, dramatic Game 6 victory. Last year, the Bruins swept the Habs in the first round. Now the Bruins are one win from advancing to the conference finals despite a laborious regular season and, more recently, the loss of Krejci, and the necessary pieces seem to be in place for an extended run of success.

In Boston, the hockey team continues to make the long climb back, one step forward at a time, one year after the next.

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