BOSTON - The Bruins fell painfully at the last hurdle in their Stanley Cup run, but their battered and bruised players proved to be truly Boston Strong.
Forward Tyler Seguin said he had no regrets after what he called a long, short year. But plenty of pain.
"It's going to take a little while before we can realize the accomplishment that we had in making it to the finals again, but right now it doesn't feel good," coach Claude Julien said in the wake of Chicago's Cup-clinching 3-2 comeback win on Monday night.
Added Seguin: "I've never felt anything like this. I've never cried for as long as I've known until tonight."
The city of Boston began looking forward instead of back Tuesday. The moving makeshift memorial to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings was slated for removal from Copley Square to be moved to the city archives for cleaning and archiving.
Like the rest of the city, the Bruins were rocked by the devastation of the attacks. On a sports level, their schedule was disrupted. On a personal level, they saw their home and neighbours under duress.
A tightly knit team felt the pain of its city.
"We had more reasons than just ourselves to win a Cup," said Julien.
They came close in a series that saw three overtime games. Chicago outscored Boston 17-15, with four games decided by one goal and the other two separated by two goals.
The Bruins got off to a great start to the season, going 13-4 through January and February. But they only won two of their last nine games as the season wound down, their schedule and psyche disrupted by the bombings.
The ups and downs led Julien to call his team a Jekyll and Hyde outfit. That continued in the playoffs where players like Seguin and Brad Marchand failed to retain their regular-season scoring form.
Among the positives:
Forwards Gregory Campbell and Patrice Bergeron added to the Bruins' tradition of toughness. Campbell finished a shift against Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final despite breaking his leg blocking a shot. Bergeron played Game 6 of the final with a broken rib, damaged cartilage and separated shoulder. "Big-time courageous effort.," Julien said. Captain Zdeno Chara, Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr and a host of other Bruins were also hurt.
Forward David Krejci finished with 26 points (9-17) in 22 games to lead playoff scoring for the second time. He had 23 points (12-11) in leading the Bruins to their 2011 title. The Czech becomes the first player since Colorado's Joe Sakic (1996, 2001) to lead the league in scoring in multiple post-seasons.
Goalie Tuukka Rask made fans forget the departed Tim Thomas, finishing the 2013 playoffs with a 14-8 record, 1.88 goals-against average and a league-leading .940 save percentage in 22 games. Rask also tied for the league lead in shutouts (three) with Los Angeles's Jonathan Quick. The lanky Finn restricted the high-flying Penguins to two goals in the Eastern final and the Blackhawks often needed multiple deflections to beat him. Now the Bruins have to re-sign the restricted free agent and fan favourite.
Forward Milan Lucic, a healthy scratch late in the season, led all players in the Stanley Cup final with six points (4-2) and had nine points (4-5) in his last 10 playoff games.
Young players like defenceman Torey Krug stepped up and made a difference while gaining valuable experience.
Boston also had to mount a history-making comeback in the first round of the playoffs just to survive. Three goals in the final 11 minutes of Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs set the stage for a record comeback in OT.
"We've lived through both of them so we know how it feels now on both sides of it, winning and being the losers," said Julien.
Defenceman Johnny Boychuk could have had a Maple Leaf on his jersey when he described the pain of the Bruins' final collapse and how long it will stay with him.
"Forever. I mean you are going to remember forever. You remember winning it but I think you remember losing it a little bit more, now that we have had that happen."
But Julien had a longer view.
Minutes after suffering through perhaps one of the most gut-wrenching Cup final exits, he saw beyond the agonizing ending.
"I love this time of year. It's the best time of year to be playing hockey," he told reporters. "I don't care if it's the end of June or the beginning of July. How can you not enjoy coming to the rink, beautiful weather, and best time of year to be playing a game?"
The Boston coach was a true gentleman in two languages throughout the playoffs.
Business will soon intrude on the Bruins' game, however.
With the salary cap dropping to US$64.3 million next season, the Bruins (eighth in the league at $73.2 million this season) will be have little wiggle room given the need to lock up Rask. Jagr, Horton, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden are among the Bruins eligible to become unrestricted free agents.
A woeful power play (25th in the league during the regular season) needs repairs.
And one wonders how much longer the 36-year-old Chara can log so many minutes. Injuries and the unwavering attention of the Blackhawks may have slowed the big Slovak, but he still spent just four seconds short of three hours on the ice during the series. A warrior like many of his teammates.
Boston may also have to address cracks in its defence exposed by speed in the playoffs.
Any change will be felt in a tight locker-room that prided itself on not having any cliques.
"This is the tightest team I've been on," said defenceman Dennis Seidenberg. "We love to play for each other, and we are very tight in this room."
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