The nagging what-ifs are ever-present for good teams that don’t raise the Stanley Cup at the end of any season.
And the way the Boston Bruins’ Presidents Trophy season was thrown out of whack by the momentum-killing coronavirus pause that lasted four months, the Bruins are dealing with some magnified what-ifs.
But after having their season snuffed out on Monday night in Toronto, the aging core has an even more unsettling question.
The group showed their mettle, as it has for over a decade, in the 3-2 double-overtime loss that ended their season on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman’s screen shot winner that finished the series in five games. Stuck in the Toronto bubble for over a month, and the lure of home and their families certainly lurking in the back of their minds, the B’s refused to go meekly into the night. They erased a pair of one-goal deficits, the second equalizer coming with 2:33 left in the third period off the stick of David Krejci.
They’d gotten a throwback performance from Jaroslav Halak (32 saves and not a soft goal in the bunch) and carried much of the play in the first overtime, but could not beat Andrei Vasilevskiy before Hedman, arguably the game’s best defenseman, used a Pat Maroon screen to score and send the Bolts to the Eastern Conference finals, a stage the Bruins had a great chance of reaching before world events hit in March.
The post-game Zoom interviews had a distinct funereal feel to it, for this could be the end of not just a season, but a painful finish for a terrific era of Boston Bruins hockey.
Zdeno Chara is an unrestricted free agent and though he said he’s undecided about his future (“I’m going to be open-minded,” said the captain), he is 43 years old and his role has been slowly diminishing over the past few years.
Torey Krug is an unrestricted free agent and, with the salary cap flattened by the pandemic finances, it would seem unlikely that he’ll return. David Krejci is 34 and has one more year left on his deal. Patrice Bergeron is 35, with two more years left.
Tuukka Rask, who proved his worth to this team by his excused absence, also has another year left on his deal, but it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be in the frame of mind to finish it out.
We thought this last year when they lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, but this may have been their last great chance to win one more title to go along with the 2011 championship.
As he sat at the podium with Brad Marchand, Krejci barely lifted his head, his face mostly shielded by the brim of his baseball cap.
“It just kind of hit me after the game that the core group, a few of us, we have one or two, three years left,” said Krejci, who had a goal and an assist. “With the pandemic going on, you never know what’s going to happen. So, it’s just kind of — I just got a little sad right now. At the same time, I don’t regret coming into this bubble and fighting for the Stanley Cup. If I could have to do it again, I would.”
Bergeron arrived in Boston as an 18-year-old kid. He’s seen a lot, including some lean years early on and career-threatening injury as a young player. He slowly revived his career, won that Cup in 2011 and has become the gold standard of two-way centermen.
Bergeron wasn’t quite ready to write the eulogy on this era, but wasn’t denying that time was running low.
“It’s definitely something that crossed my mind. You never want this to happen and obviously, well see what happens going forward,” said Bergeron. “Obviously, wish that everyone is coming back and we can have another chance at it. It’s been — it’s always a pleasure and a treat when you’re going out there with guys that you’ve been around for 10-plus years. You’d like to keep that and carry that, and keep going. Keep going with them. Obviously, lots of very great young players as well that are on the rise and we should be excited about.”
The pictures of Marchand in tears after losing Game 7 last year were indelible. If he had shed any on Monday night, he left them in the dressing room. But he was reminded again of how difficult it is to do what he did in his rookie season — win the Cup. With each passing year, the chances of him winning another one get slimmer.
“It’s a very disappointing finish to... we had a great year. Obviously, it’s been a very different playoff schedule and it was a lot of time off. But we have a helluva team and we expected better out of this year,” said Marchand. “Tampa has a great team, don’t get me wrong. Don’t want to take anything away from them, they have a great team.
“Just, the way things were rolling throughout the season, we thought we were going to go all the way. It’s a huge sacrifice to come here and guys had to really dedicate a lot of time and effort to be here. And it’s kind of a waste of time now. We spent the last three months getting ready for this. Being here and we walk away without anything to show for it. It’s tough and you never know how many opportunities you’re going to have to win a Cup. We never know if we’re going to be back in the finals again or in even in the playoffs again. Every opportunity missed, it hurts.”
No matter what the captain decides to do, Chara has clearly left his mark on this city, this team and his teammates.
“He’s an icon in Boston,” said Marchand. “Who knows what’s going to happen but it’s a pleasure to go the rink with him every day and see the dedication he has to the game and has had to the game for so long. It’s difficult to do what he’s done, day in and day out. The way he prepares and the way he still cares so much and he’s one of the most, if not the most, driven person I’ve ever met. And he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. He’s one of the best defensemen, best players to every play the game... We have no idea what’s going to happen but he’s an incredible teammate and captain and leader and I don’t have enough good things to say about him. “
Coach Bruce Cassidy doesn’t know any more about the future of this team than the players do at this point, but it’s clear how he feels about this group.
“I told them, for me it’s always an honor and a privilege to coach these guys,” said Cassidy. “Listen, there’s days where as a coach I’m frustrated, fans, organizations, players themselves, but they, we come to work every day. We’re disappointed it didn’t go better for us, no doubt. There will be some evaluation of players, coaches, up and down, that’s what any good organization will do once their season is done.
“But that’s what I told them. It’s a privilege and an honor and I appreciate their commitment.”