MONTREAL - The Bruins' quest for the Stanley Cup six years ago could've come to an abrupt end early on. But Claude Julien knew how to right the ship - and just in time.
In his fourth season behind the Boston bench, in 2010-11, the then-51-year-old head coach led his club to a 103-point finish, good for third overall in the Eastern Conference. The pressure mounted that spring for his Bruins to make a long and deep playoff run. The Canadiens, who finished sixth in the East, faced off against their longtime rivals in the first round and came very close to handing the Bruins a long summer of reflection.
The Habs took the first two games of the series - at TD Garden, no less. Just before hostilities were set to shift to the Bell Centre, Julien thought it a good time to calm his troops before they left for Montreal.
"After our second loss, I went in the room and I told the players that as bad as things may seem, we still had a chance to come back and I reminded them that it had happened in the past. We just had to take it one game at a time. It helped that Mark Recchi had already gone through something similar with Carolina. He was able to back up my theory," explained Julien, referencing the 2005-06 Hurricanes who dropped the first two games of their first-round series against the Habs.
The Bruins then gave the Canadiens a taste of their own medicine, winning the next two on the road. With a two-day break between games, the Boston squad headed over to Lake Placid to recharge and remove themselves from distractions. It was this break that allowed them to prevail in four of the next five games to move on to the second round.
The series could've gone either way, with three of the last four games being decided in overtime. There have been more than a few first-round upsets the last few years, for similar reasons.
"In my experience, the first round is always the toughest to win. Teams are all more or less healthy, they're all excited to be in the playoffs. It's a series that's tough to win. Once you do, you could say that you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and it gets you even more excited. You go from 16 to eight teams, you're a part of this smaller group and you hope you have momentum on your side," underlined Julien, who was on the winning side in 2003-04 when Montreal overcame a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Bruins in seven games during his first stint as the Canadiens' coach.
Things were completely different in the second round when Julien's Bruins swept the Philadelphia Flyers in four games. As the playoffs progressed, the confidence of the young players on the roster grew as they took on prominent roles normally reserved for more experienced players.
"Our young guys had character. When you look at Brad Marchand, he was a rookie that year. He started the season on the fourth line and managed to work his way up to one of the top lines with [Patrice] Bergeron and Recchi. We also had Tyler Seguin, another very good player who was playing with veterans. These were rookies with a lot of talent, but they were also part of a good nucleus," praised Julien, whose four leading scorers in the 2011 playoffs boasted an average age of 24.
The Bruins once again faced some adversity in the third round when they took on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Every game was tight, finishing with a one- or two-goal differential in six of seven meetings. In fact, the seventh game was decided by a score of 1-0 for the Bruins, allowing them to win a second Game 7 at home that spring.
If fans at TD Garden ran the gamut of emotions during these never-ending games, their team's bench boss never let the intensity get to him. Steady at the helm, he was able to rely on experience to help keep his cool when things heated up.
"I was always calm, even during the series that went to seven games. If the players can sense panic in their coach, it's going to spread. If they see their coach is still in control, is calm and knows where he's going, it calms things down quickly. In my position, it's important to not panic, but to stay focused on how to fix problems. It comes with experience," stated the coach, who as of April 11, 2017, has 109 playoff games under his belt.
The most daunting challenge facing the Bruins that year was probably in the Cup Finals, with the President's Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks standing between them and the Stanley Cup.
Starting the series on the west coast, the visitors suffered two heartbreaking defeats at the outset, with the Canucks putting home the winner in Games 1 and 2 at 19:41 of the third and 0:11 of overtime, respectively.
Despite the 0-2 deficit, Julien knew his team could bounce back, and they did - picking up wins in their next two games. After dropping Game 5, the Bruins won the next two, including Game 7 in enemy territory at Rogers Arena with a 4-0 victory.
When he ended the 39-year Stanley Cup drought for the Bruins, Julien also lived a childhood dream when he hoisted the precious trophy. Even six years later, when discussing that historic playoff run, he still recalls the family spirit among the group, and how cohesive the team ways throughout the postseason.
"When you think of the path we had to take in order to win, you see the impact that had on the entire group. Winning that Cup ensured that our group will always have a special bond," Julien concluded. "When we won, the first thing I did was look around to absorb how happy everyone was - all the people from the organization and their families. That's when you say, 'Mission accomplished.'"