- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BOSTON -- When people questioned their will early in the playoffs, their ears turned deaf.
When they faced their past in Philadelphia, they swept it aside as though it was yesterday's newspaper.
And when they looked to have lost their edge because of their special teams problems, they made the special teams moot.
For anyone who questioned whether the Boston Bruins had enough heart, they need not ask anymore after the B's gutsy 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday.
In one of the most compelling playoff games in a long time -- at least one that was decided in regulation -- the Bruins, to a man, answered the bell in advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1990.
The game whipsawed with emotion from the opening puck drop, when the two teams raced pell-mell up and down the ice for 3:45 before the first whistle. It was the Bruins who refused to blink, scoring with 7:33 left in regulation on a great pass from David Krejci to Mr. Clutch, Nathan Horton.
For a Bruins team that has always seemed to need more, one goal was enough in the biggest game the franchise has played in since 1990.
"When we got down 2-0 [to Montreal], everybody was flying away quickly and saying we weren't going to be able to do it, and here we are going to the Stanley Cup finals. And we believed in each other. That's the bottom line," said Mark Recchi, the NHL's oldest player, who had perhaps his best game of the series Friday.
"I told you guys that when we were down 2-0, we believed in each other. We knew we could do it. It was a matter of staying focused and doing the right things. Give the guys a lot of credit, we did. It was a lot of hard work. It takes all year to build to stuff like this. Give the guys credit. I'm proud to say I've got the opportunity to play with these guys. This is why I came back to get this opportunity," Recchi added.
We were in Vancouver for the gold-medal game in 2010. While perhaps nothing will ever match the emotion in that building for one game, the nervous energy in TD Garden on Friday was palpable.
If this game was a chess match, it was a chess match on amphetamines, as the pace rarely broke for the full 60 minutes. It was the Bruins who gradually exerted control, winning the loose puck battles, dominating time of possession in the Lightning zone and forcing netminder Dwayne Roloson into a series of sensational saves to keep the game scoreless.
"I thought right away you could tell we had all our legs and energy going," said Patrice Bergeron, the team's top two-way forward. "Even though we didn't score [early], I thought we had some great chances in the first, second, all along I thought we had some great chances, and we stayed with it. We didn't get frustrated because it wasn't going in and we found a way."
Throughout this series, the Bruins have been at their best five-on-five. In a game without a penalty, the five-on-five play fed to the Bruins' strengths, especially after they gave up three power-play goals in Game 6's loss.
Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier said he felt there could have been a couple of penalties called but acknowledged the Bruins' determination.
"It's a little frustrating at times. I thought there were a few calls that could have been called. But it was an even game, and they played great," Lecavalier said. "They really came back five guys. It was tough to get anything. It was tough to get those rebounds. They really came back tight as a team. They were really five there, so no regrets, we played really hard as a team."
It has been easy to be skeptical of the Bruins given their colossal playoff letdown of a year ago, when they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead against Philadelphia.
And it became fashionable to write them off when they dropped the first two games of the playoffs at home.
Even when they came back -- Horton scored the overtime winner in that first series -- it was hard to envision this team as a champion. Even the sweep of the Flyers in the second round was mitigated by the disastrous goaltending turned in by Philadelphia.
But over the course of this compelling conference final, the Bruins showed they are a team that might bend occasionally but does not buckle.
"To be honest with you, it doesn't matter. I've said that before. It doesn't matter what's being said out there. What matters is what we accomplish. What we accomplished as a team and the way we played and the way we won this game is what matters to me. And right now, as you can see, I'm just happy to see those guys smiling in that dressing room," coach Claude Julien said.
"What I care about is those guys in the dressing room. I don't really care as far as whether it's negative, positive. I do my job."
From Julien on through the players, this team has dealt with criticism from all directions. Even Tomas Kaberle turned in a solid performance in Game 7, making a great defensive play on Ryan Malone in the first period to thwart a Tampa scoring chance.
"I think maybe a lot of people doubted us. We stuck together all year. We played hard. The first series of the playoffs, a lot of people were questioning us after we got down 2-0, and we came back in that series and we won in seven. Then we came back against Philly and redeemed ourselves from last year, and then this series was a battle right to the end," said Michael Ryder, who also has been the subject of criticism.
"They played hard and it was two good teams going at it, and it's fitting that it went to Game 7 and it was 1-0."
And he was right.
It was a fitting conclusion. And in the end, it was a fitting result.
"I've said all along, when you take this kind of a job, everybody knows who you are, they know what you do and you're going to face criticism. That's OK, as long as you're doing the job and you know you're doing the best you can. That's what I'm trying to do. And right now, we're four wins away from winning a Stanley Cup. And we understand what's at stake here," Julien said.
"We understand who we're playing, a really good team that dominated the whole league this year. And we're going to have to play a lot like we did tonight if we want to give ourselves a chance. Right now, that's what matters to me is prepare those guys to face that challenge."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
In one of the most compelling playoff games in a long time, the Bruins, to a man, answered the bell in advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1990.