It was shaping up to be an epic postseason -- and then it was over, seemingly in an instant.
After an anemic offense relegated the Boston Bruins to fighting for a playoff berth into the final days of the regular season, the sixth-seeded club proceeded to upset one of its biggest rivals, Northeast Division-winning Buffalo, in a six-game first-round series, then jumped out to a commanding 3-0 series lead over Philadelphia.
The Bruins had arguably the top defensive team in the playoffs, backstopped by an up-and-coming young goalie in Tuukka Rask. An inspiring tale was playing out, as Marc Savard returned from a serious concussion to net the overtime winner in Game 1 against the Flyers. Veterans like Mark Recchi and Miroslav Satan were turning back the clock with their goal-scoring heroics.
But then the Flyers went out and won four straight, eliminating the Bruins in the most stunning of fashions and leaving GM Peter Chiarelli to spend this summer picking up the pieces of a shattered Stanley Cup dream.
To his credit, Chiarelli didn't do anything rash -- like breaking up a team that has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three consecutive seasons, including a 116-point effort and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09.
However, each of those postseason appearances has ended with a Game 7 loss, and Chiarelli did add some pieces through the draft and the trade market. All eyes in Boston will be on him, coach Claude Julien and the players wearing gold and black early this season, waiting to see if the Bruins are ready to move on from their collapse or if the hangover still lingers.
Last season didn't go nearly as smooth for the Bruins as the one that preceded it, and perhaps no player embodied that more than defenseman Dennis Wideman. After compiling 26 goals, 86 points and a plus-43 rating over the previous two campaigns, he slipped to 6 goals, 30 points and a minus-14 while becoming a frequent target of fans' ire at TD Garden.
Wideman now gets a fresh start, as Chiarelli dealt him and a first-round pick to Florida at this year's Entry Draft in exchange for forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. The Bruins feel they are deep enough on defense, with youngsters like Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid earning their stripes, to offset the loss of Wideman.
They added another young defenseman, David Warsofsky, when they traded fourth-line center Vladimir Sobotka to the Blues.
With Rask having established himself as a true No. 1 at only 23 years of age -- he finished his rookie season with a League-leading 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage -- the Bruins wouldn't mind unloading the hefty contract of veteran Tim Thomas. But to this point they have found no takers, so Thomas is set to return as a high-priced backup.
In trading Phil Kessel during the summer of 2009, the Bruins parted ways with a dynamic young player likely to be a 30-goal scorer for years to come. The payoff was receiving the Maple Leafs' first-round draft picks in 2010 and 2011 in return, and Chiarelli reaped early dividends when he was able to take Ontario Hockey League star Tyler Seguin with this year's No. 2 pick.
Seguin finished last season with 48 goals and 106 points in 63 games for the Plymouth Whalers. If he makes the Bruins as an 18-year-old, he'll give the team a wealth of riches at center, with Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci all under contract. Trade talks rumbled around Savard after the selection of Seguin, but so far, the Bruins have shown no inclination to make a deal.
Boston also grabbed a pair of centers in the second round (the No. 32 pick also courtesy of Toronto via the Kessel deal), dipping back into the OHL to take Jared Knight of London and Ryan Spooner of Peterborough.
Expected to make a more immediate impact is Horton, who at age 25 already has career totals of 142 goals and 295 points in 422 games with the Panthers -- not to mention an overall plus-27 rating for a team that never made the playoffs during his six-season tenure. Horton's goal output has gradually slipped from a career-high 31 in 2006-07 to 20 last season, but his 57 points were only five off his career high. The Bruins hope a change in scenery revitalizes Horton and helps bring his game to the next level.
With Rask between the pipes and captain Zdeno Chara leading the defense, the Bruins were about as stingy as they come last season -- only the Devils (2.27) ranked ahead of their 2.33 team goals-against average.
The biggest reason why they slipped 25 points from a year earlier and needed a late surge to ensure themselves a playoff berth was their offensive incapability. Boston's 2.39 goals per game was dead last in the League.
Milan Lucic, was limited by injuries to 50 games, curtailing his production.
Veteran leadership won't be an issue, with Chara wearing the "C" and the 42-year-old Recchi signing on for another year.
What have the Bruins learned from and how will they handle the horrific way last season ended? Those answers may determine whether they move back into the discussion of the Eastern Conference's elite or remain on the periphery of the playoff picture.