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Bruins ready to tackle challenge of repeating

by Matt Kalman
BOSTON -- Although he enjoys the type of relationship with his former college teammate Martin St. Louis that would allow such a topic to come up, Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas says that he didn't ask the Tampa Bay forward this summer about his experiences trying to defend the Stanley Cup after the Lightning's title of 2004.

However, Thomas remembers what St. Louis told him the summer after the Lightning failed to repeat in that post-lockout season of 2005-06 and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs.

"He was talking about working out and he was working out really hard," Thomas said this week as the Bruins prepared to open the season as defending champs for the first time in 39 years. "He said, 'I just learned that you've got to have that hunger, that you've got to keep that and keep trying to improve.' So I took that from what I heard from him, and I understand it from the past."

The Boston Bruins are embracing the challenge of trying to become the first NHL team to defend a Stanley Cup championship since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Long gone are the days of the dynasties that ruled the NHL. The last franchise to win back-to-back Cups was the Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998). In fact, more often teams that have reached the Final struggle, or even fail, to reach the postseason the following year.

Thomas' past includes plenty of experiences that should keep him hungry this season and set an example for his teammates to do the same. Counted out as a professional prospect after he left the University of Vermont, Thomas proved his detractors wrong by becoming a star in Finland. When he returned stateside with the Bruins after the work stoppage, he didn't allow complacency to set in after he won a starting job, becoming a multi-time All-Star and then a Vezina winner as the League's top goaltender.

Even now that he's added a single-season save-percentage record, another Vezina, a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the historic Cup victory to his resume, he's still striving for more.

"I won a championship my first year out of college (in 1997-98 in Finland) and we lost in the finals the next year, but it was a challenging year after winning," Thomas said. "It's the same kind of thing after I won the Vezina the first time. Of course, injuries had a lot to do with it, too. But mentally it was a challenge, too, because you kind of achieved more than you ever wanted to achieve, and this is kind of what happened to us on a team basis, winning the Stanley Cup.

"But hopefully leadership and experience will help pull us through it and we'll be able to do it. We wouldn't want to accomplish anything that was easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it."

There are several reasons the Bruins believe they might be the team that finally ends the League's repeat drought, starting with the continuity their roster has enjoyed. Just a couple retirements (Mark Recchi, Shane Hnidy) and a couple free-agent departures (Tomas Kaberle, Michael Ryder) reduced their lineup, and in their place Boston has imported veterans Joe Corvo and Benoit Pouliot. The Bruins agree that the newcomers have fit in well with the band of championship brothers.

Many teams boast of great camaraderie and kinship, but the Bruins live it.

"You can't show people what it takes, but you can bring them into an atmosphere of what it's like to demand things out of each other, to be open with each other, treat each other like brothers -- good or bad, support or being critical," defenseman Andrew Ference said. "To be part of that kind of atmosphere, it doesn't happen on every team. And I think they get thrown right into it. They're part of it and they have to deal with it, and I think with the right personality -- and it seems like they're fitting in really well -- it just works. You saw it with [Rich] Peverley and [Chris] Kelly last year."

After witnessing the Bruins' post-championship revelry early in the summer, it might've been surprising to see every returning player in camp-ready shape this fall. But to a man, the Bruins met or exceeded their fitness goals and their conditioning allowed them -- other than a knee sprain to seventh defenseman Steven Kampfer -- to head into Thursday night's season-opener without any of the nagging injuries that could hamper a title defense.

"It's one of those things that, we're a very competitive bunch," Kelly said. "And we push one another in a good way and there's that rivalry between each other. So it's a good thing that you don't want to be left behind, you don't want to be that guy that maybe isn't in as good a shape as the rest of the guys."

It wasn't long after the Bruins completed their championship run that questions already began to arise about the possibility of a repeat. The organization met those questions head on by seeking out advice on how to handle things like burnout. Players weren't allowed to report to the team's practice facility until a specific date set later in September than most years. Players were granted days off during training camp and will receive more down time as the season wears on. Rest is just one of the preventive measures being used by management to stave off that "Stanley Cup hangover."

There's also a mental aspect of the challenge to repeat that the players, and only the players, can conquer. That's where they might want to heed Thomas' advice.

"Yeah, this is definitely going to be a challenge. I think sooner or later we've got to stop talking about that challenge, though, because if you keep talking about the challenge all the time, it's like you can't focus on the positive and put it behind you," Thomas said. "So it's like as if we talked about the Philadelphia series [from 2010] over and over and over again. It puts kind of negative thoughts in your mind.

"And it's the same thing when you talk about how hard it is to repeat. It is a reality. We acknowledge that, but let's move past that. It's a challenge whenever you lose a top player. But you don't just want to talk about it, you deal with what you've got. So basically, repeating's a challenge, but it's time to stop talking about it and start taking on that challenge."
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