This is why Bruins fans were so eager in November and December for owner Jeremy Jacobs and NHL owners to take the padlocks off the doors at Ristuccia Arena, put the ice under the parquet and put the bull gang back to full duty at the Garden.
Bruins fans, among the most loyal in any sport, know their team. They’re also among the most knowledgeable. And they know how talented this group is.
All they wanted was a chance to see the likes of Tyler Seguin, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Tuukka Rask and now Dougie Hamilton, all on the ice together.
What we’ve seen in the first two weeks from the Bruins is hope and inspiration jammed into a lockout-shortened 48-game schedule. What we’ve seen is a team that, until Thursday's setback vs. the Sabres, hadn’t lost in regulation in its first six games.
The results have been so encouraging that it’s natural to think that the Bruins will be playing well into June and right there competing for their second Stanley Cup championship in three years when the calendar officially reads summer on June 21.
There still is a ton to be decided between now and the end of the regular season in late April, but the early returns are very, very encouraging. After being forced to wade through the muck and mire of a needless labor stoppage, Bruins fans have earned the right to be very optimistic about what lies ahead in the next 3-5 months.
Here are 10 reasons Bruins fans -- in spite of the four-month labor impasse -- love this team.
Tuukka Rask is the real deal -- This was one of the big question marks, and still might be. Can the Finnish netminder be the answer for the departed Tim Thomas for a whole (albeit shortened) season? So far, the answer is definitely. Prior to Thursday night's 7-4 loss (that included one empty-net goal), he looked solid in starting five of the first six games. In those five games, his goals-against average was 1.74. His save percentage was .932. The only question is whether Rask, with a history of groin ailments, can withstand a compressed schedule and be the man come playoff time in May and June.
Winning games close and late -- Monday and Tuesday were prime examples of what makes this team so likable to its fans. In a dogfight with the Hurricanes, the Bruins find a way to score in the final two minutes to earn the two points. They hop on a plane, fly to Boston, have sluggish legs against the Eastern-leading Devils in the first two periods but Rask keeps them close for 40 minutes. They get the equalizer with four minutes left and earn the two points in a shootout. Winning tight games was a trademark of the 2011 champs.
Penalty kill -- Any Cup-contending team needs good special teams, and while the Bruins still are struggling to find juice on their power play, their penalty kill has been nearly flawless. They killed their first 24 short-handed situations before allowing a goal on Tuesday to the Devils. This is a trademark of teams that are well organized and know their responsibilities on the ice. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best two-way centers in the game -- Patrice Bergeron -- either.
Perfect blend of toughness and skill -- For several years now, general manager Peter Chiarelli has been molding this team with more than just skill. He’s been adding pieces that are equal parts skill and toughness. Pieces like Rich Peverley, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Dennis Seidenberg to go along with Shawn Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Johnny Boychuk. Andy Brickley put it best on Dennis & Callahan on Wednesday: What makes these Bruins so good is that -- for the most part -- their best players are their toughest players, and vice versa.
Dougie Hamilton -- He is an honest-to-goodness sensation. Forget the Bruins, he is a great story for the NHL. Two years ago, it was an 18-year-old Tyler Seguin coming into his own, helping the Bruins to the Cup. There are unmistakable similarities with Hamilton. The 19-year-old defenseman might have even more poise than Seguin. But what makes Hamilton must-viewing for Bruins fans is his vision on the ice. It’s extraordinary. He set up the game-winner to David Krejci on Monday night in Carolina with a cross-slot pass that made even veterans raise their eyebrows. And the Bruins are in perfect position to utilize his strengths without leaning on him too much. He has been paired with Chara and Seidenberg, the two senior defensemen on the team. Talk about your perfect blend of youth, skill and poise.
Focus -- Even a sausage-throwing moron from the lower bowl on Tuesday night couldn’t break the concentration of Seguin, who turned all of 21 years old on Thursday. Seguin scored in the shootout as a sausage was flying across the goal mouth. Told the rules forced him to re-do his undressing of Devils goalie Johan Hedberg, Seguin didn’t flinch. He scored in the first round and Marchand scored at the end to win the shootout and the game, 2-1.
Chemistry -- Seguin joked that he tried to tell Marchand to go up high with his shot in the sixth round of the aforementioned shootout. Seguin said Marchand just ignored him and did his own thing. Marchand said he “blacked out” on what Seguin was advising. The two kidded each other about it to reporters afterward. The feel inside the locker room is fresh and relaxed. And it goes well beyond the massive remodeling Jacobs and the Bruins committed to the team’s dressing room during the lockout. These players love being around each other and it shows.
Claude Julien -- There is not a coach in the NHL who better understands and walks the fine line of schooling his players with discipline and giving them the free reign of being their own personality. In this, Julien is like Bill Belichick. Both put on a stern façade to reports and the public on the outside, but both allow their players to see their personality on the inside.
The comeback of Nathan Horton -- He has three goals and three assists in seven games. But that hardly tells the whole story. Ever since he was decked by Aaron Rome in Game 3 of the 2011 Cup finals, it’s been the dark cloud hanging over the talented winger’s career. He suffered another concussion against the Flyers in January 2012 and missed the final 36 games of the season and the entire playoffs. He was given a clean bill of health and pronounced all clear for this shortened season. Smiles all around.
“What he’s been through, starting back a few years ago with that hit in the finals and then come back last year and going through that again; to see how he’s recovered and how well he competes, he’s going in the corner and he’s battling, he’s physically involved,” Julien said of Horton. “We know he’s got good strength, he’s a great skater, great shot and he’s utilizing all his tools right now. Doesn’t seem to be anything holding him back. That’s pretty impressive, because sometimes guys come back a little tentative. That’s not the case with Nathan, he’s been pretty poised and I think right now you’re seeing him at his best. We all know that he’s a machine. Doesn’t seem like he’s skipped a beat, he’s right back in great form and we’re feeding off him, no doubt.”
The best is yet to come -- The Bruins are winning, and some of their best players haven’t hit their stride. The second line of Krejci, Horton and Lucic is the best scoring and checking line right now. But wait till Bergeron, Marchand and Seguin (just one empty-net goal) get going.
“I said it a million times already, this was a line that had a question mark on them because of the fact that one guy hadn’t played in a year and the other guy didn’t play at all, so far,” Julien said. “David was the only one having played. So being one of our top lines, you want those guys -- you want to be able to rely on those guys. We have, and they’ve certainly given us exactly what we need right now.”
Remember these words from Jeremy Jacobs:
“Like all of you, I wanted nothing more than to have the season start on time in October. Make no mistake -- it should have. The fact that we were unable to reach an agreement until just recently is a disappointment. I want to personally apologize to our fans and others who depend on this team for their livelihood. But these are just words. The best way to make it up to you is to play hard and win.
“I said last year after our playoff exit that the Stanley Cup is on loan. I really meant it. We have a strong team and one that I believe will be very competitive this season. I expect us to contend for the Cup. We have 48 games in 96 days before the playoffs. But our advantage -- and it's a significant one -- is that we know how to win. I remember asking our players a few years ago how many of them had won the Cup. Just a few of our players raised their hand. Before the start of the last season I asked the same question. Nearly everyone raised their hand.
We want this for our team. We want this for our fans. We know what victory feels like and we want that feeling again.”
Why are those words of two weeks ago from the owner so important? Because the Bruins are playing like they believe every single one.
On to the Trags Bag, and predictably not much buzz in New England about the Super Bowl this Sunday in New Orleans after what happened on Jan. 20 in Foxboro. Still, here are a few of the responses reflective of the mood of most Patriots fans this weekend.
@BostonGal4Ever Trags, 49ers with the W (close game), rooting for SF also. What Kaepernick has done as starting QB in a short time is remarkable.
@Dan8477 Trags, the 49ers, because I'm still bitter.
Christopher Mehegan (via Facebook): The 49ers will bludgeon Maryland’s version of the overrated purple two-faced [expletives]. Watching the demise at the hands of the Niners will be sweet revenge for Patriots Nation. Ray Lewis is about as old as Johnny Damon’s ridiculous caveman beard. Suggs is a bald-faced version of Mr. Clean and the headhunter himself, dirty-nosed [Bernard] Pollard needs to be put in his place. There is no room for this dirty shmuck. The Niners defense will trounce [Joe] Flacco like a stuffed dummy. Thank you Patriots Nation for a good season. Here's to the demise and suffocation of the Ravens. Good luck Niners in clobbering the dirty birds from Maryland. Make Patriots Nation proud.
Trags' prediction for the Super Bowl:
49ers 35, Ravens 30 -- I don’t have the vitriol that Patriots fans have for the Ravens. I just see their magical purple carpet ride -- to quote Bill Belichick -- "crash landing" on the floor of the Superdome. The Niners will be able to do what the Patriots couldn’t, roll out their quarterback Colin Kaepernick and pick apart a Ravens linebacker corps that is vulnerable. Having a pair of healthy tight ends doesn’t hurt, as Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker will enable to 49ers to gash the Ravens all day. On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens will hit 2-3 big plays deep against the Niners secondary, but San Francisco's front seven and sensational group of linebackers will dictate the play in the trenches. The Niners improve to 6-0 in Super Bowls and 1-0 in HarBowls.