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Regular-season struggles toughen B's for playoff run

by John Dellapina /
PHILADELPHIA -- In retrospect, perhaps last season went too well for the Boston Bruins.

Last season's trouble-free joyride was not the kind of thing that prepares a team for a night like this -- a night against a desperate Flyers team in front of a howling Philadelphia fandom that had its nostalgic connection to a fearsome era gone by stoked by an HBO movie the night before and another virtual appearance by the late Kate Smith just before the drop of the puck.

A night when a key centerman (David Krejci) and one of the six defensemen (Adam McQuaid) who figured to be under siege all game long went down with injuries within the first six minutes, leaving those still standing to go above and beyond.

In other words, a typical night in the two-month test of will that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

This regular season, in contrast, was just the kind of thing that prepares a team for nights like this. When you've spent six months overcoming significant injuries, bleeding for just about every goal and never really knowing until the final days of the schedule that you'll even make the playoffs, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals isn't such a stark contrast from Game 23 or 63 of the regular season.

When you've spent six months battling to re-forge your identity, you know who you are and what to do when the opposition scores off a botched keep-in 2:32 into the game --  you keep your cool and score twice before the next four minutes elapse to snatch the lead. You know exactly how to nurse that one-goal lead through the rest of the first period and all of the second until you get a fortunate-bounce insurance goal early in the third -- you trust your teammates and your defensive system and use it to turn the Flyers' desperation from motivation to frustration.

"Every year is different," said Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' hulking captain, after logging 25:47 in the 4-1 triumph in the Wachovia Center that gave Boston a 3-0 grip on this series. "Yeah, we faced some adversities, and we had a tough season as far as injuries go -- and we always had different guys in the lineup throughout the whole season.

"Obviously, now, it's a part of the year that you're going to see that the games are getting harder and harder. But you just have to go through it like we've been going through it throughout the whole season."

The Bruins pretty much lost budding power forward Milan Lucic -- at least the rampaging 2008-09 version -- for the season because of an ankle injury and a broken finger. They watched top playmaking center Marc Savard get KO'd for the regular-season stretch drive and first round of the playoffs by the March 7 hit from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke that just might have convinced any on-the-fence NHL general managers that it was time to take blindside head hits out of the game.

But there was more than that. Seemingly expecting to just show up and again be the class of the Eastern Conference, the Bruins had wobbled through the season's first five months, unable to score goals and unable to string victories together.

But rather than kill them, running that gauntlet made them stronger. They surged to go 9-3-1 over their final 13 games, finally nailing down a playoff berth.

As the sixth seed, they drew Northeast Division champ Buffalo and its brilliant goaltender, Ryan Miller, and were written off as first-round fodder.  Six tooth-and-nail games later, they found themselves in a second-round series in which they actually had home-ice advantage.

This time, the Bruins appear far better prepared to handle such a second-round situation – and a Game 3 in which Krejci and McQuaid are in the dressing room by the six-minute mark and it's 1-0 for the other guys even before that.

"We've been through it enough this year to know how," said Savard, who voraciously gobbled up the extra minutes left by Krejci's absence and played 17:56 in just his third game back from that concussion. "When Krejci went down tonight, I just knew that, ‘Now, I'm playing. It's time to go.' I didn't know how many minutes I was going to pick up. But I was going to be back in penalty-killing situations again.
"We battled all season. We had tough times. Our crowd got a little angry at home, even. And now, we're reaping the benefits. Guys are getting healthy. And we're just building on each game." -- Marc Savard

"Everybody was ready for that -- for their name to get called. And tonight that's what happened. Guys stepped up. Defensemen. Forwards. We all were ready to go."

This time, the Bruins believe they are far more alert to the possible perils of a 3-0 series lead and again-heightened expectations than they were in blowing a 3-1 lead to Carolina last spring.

"We kept saying that ourselves in here -- and we believed it," Savard said. "We really went through last year without any injuries, cruised through the season. Toward the end of the year, we weren't playing as well and it kind of carried into the playoffs.

"This year was different.  We battled all season. We had tough times. Our crowd got a little angry at home, even. And now, we're reaping the benefits. Guys are getting healthy. And we're just building on each game.

"You know, we're a confident group. Quietly confident."

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