- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins are playing with destiny. They're also playing against history.
The Bruins' 3-2 double-overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Wednesday night gave Boston a 3-1 advantage in the series. The sixth-seeded Bruins are one victory from advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with Game 5 of this series Friday at HSBC Arena in Buffalo.
They have been in this situation before, but they don't want a repeat performance of what happened the last time.
Boston finished the 2003-04 regular season with a 41-19-15-7 record, finishing first in the Northeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins were the second seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs and faced the Montreal Canadiens in the conference quarterfinals.
Led by rookie coach Mike Sullivan, captain Joe Thornton, goaltender Andrew Raycroft and a rookie center named Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins quickly took control of the Habs and gained a 2-0 series lead, winning the first two games in Boston by the scores of 3-0 and 2-1, respectively. The Canadiens won Game 3 3-2 before Boston stole Game 4 in a 4-3 double-overtime win in Montreal.
The Bruins returned to Boston with a 3-1 series lead and needed only one more victory to advance.
Montreal won the next three games and ended what was supposed to be a promising postseason for the Bruins.
"When we won that fourth game in double overtime, and we were a little bit thinking about the second round instead of finishing that series, and it hurt us," Bergeron said after an optional skate on Thursday at Ristuccia Arena.
Thornton took a lot of criticism in that series. The Bruins captain was held scoreless in seven games and was a minus-6. A local newspaper wrote that he should surrender his captaincy.
It truth, Thornton was playing with torn cartilage in his rib cage, an injury he had suffered during the final week of the regular season. The Bruins classified it as only an "upper-body injury" and did not reveal how badly hurt Thornton really was until after Game 7 in Boston.
"The nature of that injury is usually a six-week healing process," Sullivan said after the devastating loss in Game 7. "He came back in less than a week. He played under extreme pain, and most players I know probably wouldn't have played under the circumstances that he played."
"People can say what they want," Thornton said after the series. "I know I left 110 percent out there every night. I gave it my all, and that's all I can do. This series should have been ours, and it's devastating."
Raycroft was 23 years old that year and won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie after posting 29-18-9 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. He posted a 3-4 record with a 2.15 GAA and a .924 save percentage in the first round of the playoffs.
Boston has relied and will continue to rely on another rookie goalie this series.
Tuukka Rask, 22, has been solid against the Sabres so far. Unlike Raycroft in 2003-04, Rask was not nominated for the Calder Trophy this season, even though he deserved consideration. In the 2004 series against Montreal, the Bruins' offense went south as they scored only three goals in their last three games. Raycroft was left to fend for himself but couldn't hold off the Canadiens.
The momentum swung in Montreal's favor after its 5-1 victory in Game 5 of that series.
Current Bruins forward Michael Ryder played for the Canadiens that season, so now he's been on both sides of it.
"We knew we were back in the series then," Ryder admitted. "Win another game and you're tied again, and in Game 7 anything can happen. We knew if we got that [Game 5] win to make it 3-2, it's a whole different story. Now, we can't give Buffalo any life."
The Sabres are still a dangerous team, and the Bruins can't sit back and take their foot off the accelerator.
"We're up 3-1 now, so can't give those guys any opportunity to try to get back into this series," Ryder said. "You can't let your guard down. You've got to keep doing the same things, the things that got us up 3-1. If we slack off a little bit, Buffalo has the offense to easily score on you."
Now that he's an assistant captain, Bergeron won't let a similar situation occur and suffocate the Bruins this time.
"We're taking things a game at a time," he said. "We're not looking ahead of ourselves, and that's the main thing that we need to do. We've been doing that all year, and we need to do it [now]."
Ironically, current Sabres captain Craig Rivet was also a member of the Canadiens in 2004. He's been in this situation before, and he's telling his teammates the importance of taking it one game at a time.
"We definitely feel that we can do it," Rivet told NHL.com. "There's no doubt about that. We still feel very confident with our abilities and with our team. We're battlers."
Ryder and Rivet were teammates in 2004, and both can remember how they were able to pull off the unlikely comeback.
"We took it one game at a time, and you never know what can happen," Ryder said. "We just didn't give up. I don't think Buffalo is going to give up, that's for sure. If they win that next game, they're going to have a lot more confidence. For us [in 2004], it was just do-or-die, and that's how we took every game. We just wanted to make sure we came out hard. We didn't give up, and we managed to win the series."
The Canadiens lost in the next round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
As Bruins vice president Cam Neely was leaving the TD Garden after Wednesday's victory, he stopped and told ESPNBoston.com that the Bruins need to keep pressuring the Sabres and can't relax for one second in this series.
"No question," he said. "Any time you get a team in a position where you can close out the series, you've got to make it very difficult for them, and that's what I expect out of our team."
Bergeron believes history won't repeat itself this year.
"We need to stay focused," he said. "We need four wins, not three. We can't stop. We have to be ready for Game 5 because they will be."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
Patrice Bergeron knows from experience that a 3-1 lead doesn't mean much.