BOSTON -- After two years of disappointments, of collapses, of failures at the last possible minute, the Boston Bruins are back where they believe they belong: They are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With two games to go, the Bruins collected both a 4-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning and a playoff berth on Tuesday at TD Garden, making good on promises that they had made all season.
They had said that this team was different. They said this team would not suffer the fate of recent iterations of the Bruins. They were right.
"This team has a swagger," defenseman Torey Krug said. "There's just something about this group that really clicks. Guys are playing for each other and playing the right way, this time of year. Maybe years past we weren't playing the right way.
"This was a big moment. We stepped up in a big moment."
They had to. With the Lightning vying to keep their own playoff hopes alive and the Atlantic Division still a tight race with the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins needed the win. They needed the two points and the confidence and the continuation of a winning streak that has now reached six games.
Video: TBL@BOS: Pastrnak slams Nash's feed past Vasilevskiy
They needed to get back to the playoffs. They needed it so badly that, as coach Bruce Cassidy said, it brought both "a sense of relief that you're going to be able to do it and then there's the joy that goes with that."
"You never want to look back too much. But at the same time, it was in our minds, especially guys who were here the past few years," captain Zdeno Chara said. "We know what it takes. We know how hard it is to get into the postseason."
And the Bruins know it more now than they ever did before.
"This one feels pretty special," forward David Krejci said. "We fought hard. It was an up-and-down year, but we got the job done. I thought we played really well the last 20 or so games, so it feels really good."
The game, and the win, was not without its controversy. The Bruins lost their best player, and leading scorer, at the end of the first period when Brad Marchand was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for spearing Jake Dotchin. It was not his finest moment.
And it might have been the difference for the Bruins in the game, the season, the playoffs.
"It was an undisciplined penalty," Marchand said. "There's no question about that, and it could have cost the team a very important game, but the guys did a great job of rallying and having a huge game."
They persevered. They killed the resulting five-minute penalty and finished the game undermanned, against the undermanned Lightning, who themselves were playing without a forward because of the impending birth of Gabriel Dumont's child. The Bruins built their lead, with a goal at 5:56 of the second period by Drew Stafford, and another at 16:06 by David Pastrnak. They added to it, an insurance goal by Chara on the power play at 9:12 of the third, before an empty-net goal at 18:58 by Pastrnak sealed it.
"I think that was a turning point in the game, that penalty kill of five minutes," Krug said. "They have a top-five power play in the League and we were able to shut down and minimize the opportunity. Tuukka [Rask] was our best penalty killer."
They had believed they would get here, even when they struggled for consistency, even when they saw their coach, Claude Julien, fired at the beginning of February, even when they suffered through a four-game losing streak less than two weeks ago.
Video: TBL@BOS: Rask denies a pair of chances in close
Rask has been especially crucial to the Bruins' resurgence: In his four starts in the six games since that losing streak, Rask has two shutouts and has allowed three goals, bolstered by the play of backup Anton Khudobin, who has allowed three goals in his two starts during the stretch.
"It feels great," Rask said. "I think the city deserves it. The organization deserves it and we feel like we deserve it too. We fought hard all year to secure a spot and it took 80 games, so it's a good feeling. I think everybody can breathe a little easier now."
It has been three years since the Bruins were in the postseason, with their last playoff game coming in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Montreal Canadiens in 2014. That was a different team, one with Milan Lucic and Johnny Boychuk and Jarome Iginla and Dougie Hamilton.
They were one year removed from the Stanley Cup Final then, and no one would have believed it would take three more years for them to return to even the first round. But it has taken that long, ending a run of seven consecutive seasons of playoff hockey in Boston.
And that wait has made their return all the more worth it, all the more pressure packed, all the more important.