- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- No matter what happens the rest of the way, the Boston Bruins have had a successful season.
They had to battle their way down the stretch of the regular season just to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their adversity consisted of a slew of injuries to key players, including top playmaker Marc Savard and top defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart. Coach Claude Julien had to make the decision to go with a rookie netminder in Tuukka Rask. And, when general manager Peter Chiarelli didn't acquire a top goal scorer at the trade deadline, there was public outcry.
All those issues were put to rest Monday night after the Bruins clinched their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series over the Buffalo Sabres with a 4-3 victory in Game 6 at the TD Garden.
"It's nice to see that somewhere along the way we learned from those tough situations we've been through with the adversity and the poor play," said Julien. "We weren't always good, and we had injuries, too. You hope your team grows through the course of the season, facing those kinds of situations. I think we did."
After its ice-on celebration, Boston's jubilation continued in the locker room, where the music was blaring and could be heard from the hallway two doors down. Once the doors opened to allow the media in, the Bruins already were talking about how they must keep their focus on their next opponent, which remains to be seen at this point.
The Bruins have to wait for the conclusion of the Capitals vs. Canadiens series to find out who they will face in the next round. If Montreal wins, the Bruins will host the Flyers. If Washington wins, Boston will face the Penguins.
Meanwhile, Julien is known for keeping his teams focused when it counts, and that's exactly what Boston was able to do in the latter part of the season, and especially in this series against the Sabres.
The Bruins had a game plan and they stuck to it the entire series. They were able to get traffic in front of Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and scored the kind of dirty goals necessary in order to be successful in this series.
Boston never wavered from its focus, and besides a letdown in Game 5 in Buffalo, the Bruins responded with a 60-minute effort in Game 6 en route to victory.
"When you have 20 players thinking the same way, it makes you that much better," said Julien.
The toughest part was getting into the postseason, and when they finally got there, the first-round matchup wasn't going to be an easy one. The Bruins figured out a way to beat Miller and the Sabres and they accomplished what they needed to.
All along, the Bruins felt this group was good enough not only to reach the playoffs, but to be successful in the postseason. This year's team had a different dynamic than a year ago when the Bruins finished as the top team in the Eastern Conference and swept the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
Boston had a tough go of it all throughout the 2009-2010 campaign. But thanks to a veteran presence and solid goaltending down the stretch, that success carried into the quarterfinals where the Bruins were able to dismiss the Sabres.
"It's great," said Bruins veteran Mark Recchi. "We have been through a lot this year together. I think how well we played down the stretch, and how well we came together was a direct result of us pulling together and not pulling apart. The guys stuck together through some tough times, and a lot of injuries. We had some guys step up and play big. It was good to see and we got rewarded for our hard work."
The Bruins had, and needed, the mindset of ending this series in Boston because it didn't want to go back to Buffalo for a possible Game 7. Beating the Sabres and Miller at HSBC Arena would have been a difficult task.
The Bruins don't have to worry about that now.
"We knew we always had it in us," said Bruins forward David Krejci, who scored two goals and added on assist in Game 6. "Some guys had a tough year, but we knew it was in us and I think we showed it in the first round. But, you know, it starts right now and we've got to do the same thing in the second round."
The Bruins entered the playoffs with confidence, and this latest victory has only improved their mindset moving forward.
"We were confident because we had a great finish to the season," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "We were able to get 9 of the last 10 points to clinch a playoff spot. Our goal, as a team, it wasn't good enough to just make the playoffs; we wanted to finish as high as we could in the standings. We did that and gained a lot of confidence in that and carried it over into the first series. We can't be happy. We can't be satisfied. We have to keep pushing for more and keep wanting more."
A year ago, the Bruins had nine days off between their quarterfinal victory over the Canadiens and their semifinal matchup with the Hurricanes. It was that layoff that hampered Boston's chances against Carolina, and the Bruins ended up losing Game 7 of that series in overtime.
Boston will have only a few days off this year and it doesn't plan on letting any distractions affect its game.
"Nine days was a long time last year and we did lose our focus and our competitive edge," said Recchi. "It hurt us in the first three or four games, and by the time we found it we had to scramble back. This will be nice. We'll get a day off tomorrow and get back at it on Wednesday. There's no real time for us to lose focus and we'll have to get ready for the next team right away."
Even though the Bruins don't know who their next opponent will be, they can take solace in knowing they've had a successful season. The fans, however, have seen this too many times in the past and no doubt want more.
The Bruins want more, too.
"There's hopefully lots more to come," said Julien. "We need to understand that we still need to be better."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
After a season of adversity, the Bruins came together when it mattered most.