WILMINGTON, Mass. - The Boston Bruins lost 10 straight games in one miserable stretch. They even lost 10 in a row at home. They didn't clinch a playoff berth until their next to last game.
And now? The sixth-seeded team in the East has home-ice advantage in the conference semifinals.
"To be in the second round, maybe there is a little surprise to the people," captain Zdeno Chara said Thursday, "but I still think that this team believes in what we have and what we can accomplish."
They made their regular-season playoff run with star playmaker Marc Savard sidelined for the last 18 games with a concussion. They eliminated the Buffalo Sabres in six games in the opening round even though leading goal scorer Marco Sturm didn't get a single point. And they advanced without two injured solid defencemen, Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart.
So what turned the club that scored the second-fewest goals in the regular season into the second-highest remaining seed in the topsy-turvy Eastern playoffs?
"It was just a process through the whole year that we had to work on being more committed every night and being more desperate every night," said 42-year-old Mark Recchi, who won Stanley Cup championships with Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006. "We went through a lot of stuff and the guys started to figure it out. If you play hard every night and you compete hard every night we're a pretty good team."
Michael Ryder dropped from 27 goals last season to 18, but picked up his play down the stretch.
"We played with desperation and showed a lot of emotion," he said. "When you play like that, your game starts to turn around."
What may be even more surprising than the Bruins' success is their opponent's in the series starting Saturday. The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers didn't clinch a playoff spot until their final game then beat the second-seeded New Jersey Devils in a five-game series.
The most surprising of all the results was eighth-seeded Montreal's seven-game victory over top-seeded Washington. That left only No. 4 Pittsburgh as a higher seed in the East than Boston.
"Every team is getting so close and everyone can beat everyone," Sturm said. "But, of course, Washington was the big favourite. I never thought they're going to lose."
The Bruins had a surprising playoff run last year, too, just not as satisfying as this year's.
They had the best record in the Eastern Conference, then swept the Canadiens in four games. But they lost their edge during a nine-day layoff before the second round and fell to Carolina in seven games. This year, it's Philadelphia that has the nine-day break before Saturday's opener while Boston has four days since its clincher over Buffalo.
"Everybody handles it differently," Recchi said. "Last year, I don't think we handled it very well."
Last year, the Bruins had seven players with at least 21 goals, led by Phil Kessel's 35. But they traded him to Toronto and the offence nose-dived as Sturm's 22 goals led the team. The attack should get a boost from Savard, who returns Saturday after missing the opening series.
The Bruins relied on a defence that allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL.
"The way we play defensively, we're never out of games," forward Blake Wheeler said. "Now that things really matter, we seem to have come into our own."
A major reason for their stinginess is goalie Tuukka Rask, a playoff rookie. Tim Thomas, a member of the U.S. Olympic team, began the season as the starter. But Rask started the last six regular-season games and the Bruins went 4-2. He finished the season with a 1.97 goals-against average and kept his poise throughout the Buffalo series.
"It's just hockey," the 23-year-old Finn said. "Why would you suddenly get rattled or too excited when you've played the whole season the same way?"
Somehow, the Bruins didn't get so rattled that they couldn't recover from some horrible stretches. They even got rolling at home by winning their last two regular-season games and all three playoff games there.
But there's more to be done.
"If you're happy getting to the second round then you're not playing for the right reason," Recchi said. "At the end, we started to play well. We gave people a lot of reasons to doubt us so it's our own fault. (Now) we just want to go out there and keep playing good hockey."