- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- The TD Garden has never been this loud.
When the final buzzer sounded and the Boston Bruins celebrated a 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers to clinch the Eastern Conference semifinals on home ice and avenge an historic meltdown from a season ago, the 17,565 in attendance were rocking because, for the first time since 1992, the hometown team is heading to the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston will face the Tampa Bay Lightning for the right to play for the Stanley Cup.
While the Garden, the fans and the region celebrated the Bruins' victory, it was completely different behind closed doors.
The Bruins' locker room was quiet. No champagne celebrations. The toughest games are yet to come and the Bruins know that.
Team president, Hall of Famer and Bruins legend Cam Neely walked through the room, quietly shaking hands with the players. As he exited the room, he showcased a big smile.
"Listen, I've been here a long time and have played in front of these fans," Neely said. "They've been waiting a long time for us to have some excitement in the playoffs, so this year, they're getting it."
But the fans want more. They won't settle for a conference final. They want the Cup.
There are no pink hats in hockey. There's no such thing as a fair-weather fan in hockey. You're either in, or you're out. These people, this city, right now are all in.
The Bruins are, too.
"I know Boston is a huge hockey town and the fans have wanted us to have success -- and we've tried, there's no doubt about that," said goaltender Tim Thomas, who has been the cornerstone of this team. "It's nice to reward the people, too. I stay out of it because we're too busy playing and try to keep focus, but I do see a bit of Bruins-mania going on. You see a mom out pushing a stroller and the kid has a Bruins jersey on."
The Red Sox have always owned the sports landscape in the region, but for decades this was a hockey town. Some of that fan base went dormant for a little bit, but when the Bruins returned to prominence in the late 1980s and early '90s, people were interested again.
When the Bruins failed to win the Stanley Cup, fans began pointing the finger at ownership with the thought that Jeremy Jacobs was more concerned with selling hot dogs and beers than putting a winning product on the ice.
How important and in-demand are the Bruins right now?
For the first time since 1988 there is a waiting list for season tickets, which the club announced for the 2011-12 season Friday afternoon. The Bruins have reached their capacity in the loge and balcony, which is 12,000 seats, and the waiting list already has 111 accounts or 250 seats. This is the earliest in a calendar year the Bruins have reached this capacity.
After the Bruins defeated the Canadiens in the first round, Bruins coach Claude Julien half-jokingly said the team has punished the fans enough and they deserve more. Well, the Bruins finally gave it to them.
"It's great," Julien said. "The one thing our team understands is there are some great fans in Boston. They've had some tough years, and yet, our building is full right now and the fans are into it. For us, it's rewarding to be able to give those fans what they've been waiting for for a long time.
"When you play for a city, [players] come from all over the place, but we're representing the City of Boston and the one thing you want to do is make them proud. Our guys have that in their minds, and hopefully we can continue to do well and bring some pride to this city with this hockey club."
The one thing our team understands is there are some great fans in Boston. For us, it's rewarding to be able to give those fans what they've been waiting for for a long time.
"-- Bruins coach Claude Julien, on advancing to the conference finals
The Red Sox have won. The Patriots have won. The Celtics have won.
"Now it's time for hockey to step up and try to do the same thing," Julien said
The Bruins ended the 2010-11 regular season having sold out 71 consecutive home game, which is the first time since 1972 the Bruins have done so.
It just so happens the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup was in 1972.
If, for some reason, there were fans in the building Friday who had never been to a Bruins game here before, it's safe to say they're now fans for life. In fact, one woman could be heard saying that as fans exited the building.
"Oh, my god. I'm a hockey fan for life," he screamed.
A year ago, after the Bruins imploded and the Flyers mounted an historic comeback, erasing a 3-0 deficit to win in seven games, Boston assistant captain Mark Recchi sat at his stall completely dejected. The 43-year-old future Hall of Famer didn't know if his career was over.
During the summer, he spoke with general manager Peter Chiarelli and liked the direction in which the team was going. Recchi decided to come back for his 23rd year in the NHL because he believed this team has what it takes to reach the Cup.
After Friday's victory, he's never been so sure of it.
"We really believe in each other and we trust each other," Recchi said. "It showed big time in the Montreal series and we took that next step versus Philadelphia."
The next step is the conference finals, and the fans have been waiting 19 agonizing season for this. Now they deserve a Stanley Cup.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.