The Boston Bruins haven't made it to an Eastern Conference Final series in 19 years. Twice in the last two years, they've lost game seven of the conference semi-finals on home ice.
They are now, for the third time in as many seasons, heading back to the conference semi-finals, where they'll meet the Philadelphia Flyers for the second straight year. They'll look to, as team President Cam Neely has put it, meet their "goal" of making it to the NHL's Final Four.
Three of their last four conference quarterfinal opponents have been the hated Montreal Canadiens. Two of those three times, they've dispatched Les Habitants, sweeping them away in 2009 and, much more recently, winning game seven on a Nathan Horton overtime slapshot.
Between the 9-1-1 calls and rumored police intervention following Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty, to Pacioretty's quick recovery and ensuing cinematic endeavors, after fight night at TD Garden and after 80-plus years of intense hatred, the series needed no buildup.
But it got it anyway, and it got bigger and bigger, as the teams traded wins on each other's ice in the first four games of the series, with Michael Ryder elevating his game offensively and defensively, Horton quickly building his Boston legend with two OT winners, with Andrew Ference's unintentional bird and inadvertent shoulder, with the Bruins' power play going 0-for-the series and coach Claude Julien's seat getting very, very warm as the series wore on.
At the series' end, it was Horton and his trademark ear-to-ear grin being brought to the podium in the nether regions of TD Garden. It was Horton, who in seven full NHL seasons had nary sniffed the playoffs, now (maybe prematurely) being anointed the franchise's new golden boy. Move over, 30-goal scorer Milan Lucic; step aside, Norris trophy favorite Chara; take a seat, once- and likely-current-Vezina winner Tim Thomas: this is Horton's team now.
Not to hear the Wellington, Ontario-by-way-of-South Beach transplant say it.
Horton's praised his linemates all season long, and has been quick to compliment the rest of his locker room brethren, too. But the facts from this one are painfully obvious: David Krejci had one goal, no assists and was a minus-one. Lucic had two assists (including the primary on Horton's game seven winner) and was even. Horton had three goals, including the OT game-winners in Game 5 and the clinching goal in Game 7.
It was Horton who played for the first Bruins team to come from an 0-2 series deficit and win the series. It was Horton who played for the first team in NHL history to win a seven-game series without scoring a single power play goal.
That's not to take away from Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley and Brad Marchand and Gregory Campbell, each of whom weren't parts of this Bruins team last year in the playoffs, and each of whom has made a significant contribution to the team's postseason success thus far. Kelly's six points (three goals and assists each) are second on the team only to Patrice Bergeron, while Marchand and Peverley's five (one goal, four assists each) are right behind him. Peverley and Kelly, trade deadline acquisitions brought in to add depth to a team that struggled with it most of the winter, have done just that - but even more, they've jelled together and formed a formidable third line along with Ryder.
Marchand, the go-anywhere, do-anything, fear-nothing, chirp-everyone winger whose game reeks of grit and hard-nosed play (eh, Pacioretty?), has been one of the big things the Bruins missed last year. The lack of a player like Marchand was why the team signed Brian McGrattan heading into the season, and the quick emergence of number 63, the reason McGrattan never came close to seeing the ice in a Black and Gold sweater. It's certainly helped that he's not afraid to drop the gloves, but his ability to put the puck in the net has been a revelation.
And Campbell, once an afterthought and a throw-in in the trade that brought Horton to Boston and shipped the oft-maligned Dennis Wideman out of town, gave credibility to the Bruins' energy line, turning tough guy Shawn Thornton into a ten-goal scorer, complimenting his own 13 goals and 16 assists.
They are, as Horton will tell anyone, the team's team. But the team knows that to get where they want to be, they'll need someone to step up and be a big offensive threat. They'll be happy if Horton chooses to be that guy.
It's a role that becomes increasingly more important against an offensively talented team like the Phildelphia Flyers, who boast former UNH standout James van Riemsdyk along with Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and a slew of other offensive talents, but a role made most important by the return of Chris Pronger to the Flyers' lineup - without a marquee offensive threat, Pronger will be allowed to wreak havoc on any number of Bruins' forwards, instead of being forced to focus on one line and one man.
The Flyers' defensive corps shore up quit nicely around Pronger, as they proved following his return from a hand injury in game six of the Sabres series. It's an absolute necessity, because nobody knows who's going to be in between the pipes for these Flyers, much like nobody knew who would be in net last year at this time. Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher have both been suspect, and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky just doesn't have the trust of Peter LaViolette and the Flyers' staff.
Despite lacking the speed that Montreal possessed, the Flyers will play a more down-ice game than the Canadiens did, mostly because LaViolette encourages them to fire at will. If the Bruins' forwards are able to get behind them, they're likely to find whatever goaltender the Flyers throw out to be easily rattled.
Expect the Rich Peverley line to be a big factor in yet another series, mostly because they were in the last series and it'll be tough for Philadelphia to slow down each of the Bruins' top three lines - the Krejci and Bergeron lines can wear down opposing defenders and forecheckers, but the Peverley line can simply blow by them, perhaps more-so late in the game if they're already tired. All but two of the line's six goals in the Montreal series were scored in the third period or later, and they accounted for half of the Bruins' goals scored after 40 minutes of hockey had been played. Horton had two of the last three, Marchand had the other.
While there was a lot of history in the Montreal series, don't expect the obvious history from last year's historic collapse against the Flyers to rear its ugly head this time around; the Bruins scored six goals after the 40-minute mark of the Montreal series. All but one of those goals (Ryder's Game 4 OT winner) was scored by a player that wasn't on 2010's playoff roster - Horton (2), Marchand (1), Kelly (1), Peverley (1).
The series won't be any easier than the Montreal one, but the roles that everyone got so familiar with last year have been reversed; The Flyers now have home-ice advantage, where they're three games worse than they are on the road (the Bruins, meanwhile, were two games better on the road than they were at home during the season), and Philadelphia, not Boston, is the team battling injuries to key players. Of course, that all could change as the series goes on - the injury of David Krejci in game four last year still is fresh in the mind of Bruins' faithful.
During the season, the Bruins didn't face the Flyers once without recording a point (3-0-1 in four games). But this is a different time of year. The temperatures are rising, and so, once again, are the expectations on Causeway Street. This is the season to find out if the third straight trip to the conference semi-finals truly is a charm.
If history tells us anything, it's that we won't know that until after Game Seven.