BOSTON — The Boston Bruins stood around their bench, paralyzed by defeat.
It was Game 7 of their 2023 Eastern Conference first-round series against the Florida Panthers. The Bruins were the most successful regular team in NHL history, setting new standards for wins (65) and points (135) in a single season. The 2022-23 NHL Awards would confirm that they had the league’s best goalie, best coach and best defensive forward. They bolstered their roster at the trade deadline, pushing what was already a Stanley Cup favorite into that rarified air of championship inevitability.
With one flick of Carter Verhaeghe‘s stick in overtime, those accomplishments were relegated to sports trivia. They were a footnote in someone else’s championship story.
“We made history – regular season history. Which obviously wasn’t our biggest goal,” defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. “It was weird. It felt like everything in the regular season had gone so perfect, and then for two weeks, it just … didn’t.”
For a few moments after Game 7, the Bruins weren’t sure what to do. They’d shaken the Panthers’ hands before Florida retreated to the visitors’ locker room for a raucous celebration. Some players stared off into the distance, their competitive spirits having temporarily left their bodies. The TD Garden crowd was in stunned silence, with many fans remaining in their seats trying to process how the script had been flipped.
Finally, center Patrice Bergeron raised his stick and skated towards the middle of the ice. His teammates slowly reanimated and joined him in saluting the crowd, who cheered their city’s heroes. Bergeron would acknowledge every Bruins player as they left the ice, taking a few extra moments to embrace linemate Brad Marchand before Bergeron himself saluted the crowd again.
It would be his last on-ice act as Boston Bruins captain.
Bergeron retired this summer after 19 seasons. So did the Bruins’ second-best center, David Krejci, after 16 seasons. Both of them played injured during the loss to Florida.
The NHL has seen shocking first-round upsets before, but none quite as emotionally devastating as the Bruins’ defeat last April. Not only because Boston squandered a dominant regular season in an upset loss, but because their Stanley Cup pursuit was inherently a personal one of the players.
“I think what hurts the most about that is we wanted it more for Bergy and Krejci than ourselves. We wanted to give them a fairytale ending before they walked away. And we didn’t make it through the first round,” Marchand said. “So it sucks to lose, but it sucks more because we feel like we let those guys down.”
Whenever the Bruins lose a franchise icon, it’s treated like the end of an era. Marchand saw it with Zdeno Chara. He’s seen it again with Bergeron. In the eyes of some pundits, Boston has gone from a regular-season juggernaut to a team that could miss the playoffs this season, which is something Marchand finds ridiculous.
“I don’t know how people look at the depth on our team and say that we’re going to fall off the radar,” he said. “There’s a great opportunity for everyone here to do something bigger and build something new and continue the legacy that those guys built.”
EVERYONE PROCESSES PLAYOFF defeats in different ways.
“Nothing that ever hurts as much as going the distance and losing,” he said. “You’re right there and you can taste it. It feels like it’s stolen out from under you. It sucks.
“Last year, obviously, it was tough because of the year we had and there were much higher expectations. But we’ve been to two Finals that we’ve lost and nothing hurts as much as those. When you’re that close you can see it. Those are things that you look back on and you always wonder, ‘What if you change this or that?’ And it always hurts every time it’s brought up.”
Goalie Linus Ullmark, who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, had a different context. Rather than linger on the loss, he said it took him “two weeks” to move on from the playoff disaster.
“I have two kids at home, so there’s other things in life that are more important than sulking over a last game,” he said.
Jim Montgomery, the winner of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach, said he finally came to terms with the playoff loss in mid-August, as the new season neared. He had spent weeks analyzing the defeat to the Panthers. There were mitigating circumstances like injuries. There were systemic problems with their play at the net front, where the team wasn’t physical or fast enough to handle Florida.
“We’re in the business to win. We hate to lose,” he said. “I just analyze what I did, what I could have done in every game, between every period, between the off days to have pushed us over the line.”
But in his postmortem of the Bruins’ season, Montgomery kept coming back to one factor.
“I found that, mentally, we thought we had to win the Cup in the first round. And so it was harder for us as a group to handle the adversity that comes at that time,” he said.
Montgomery then made a cinematic comparison.
“Someone goes to see a great movie and they tell you, ‘It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.’ You’re going in and usually it falls short,” he said. “There’s not that many ‘Shawshank Redemptions’ or ‘Usual Suspects’ or ‘Bravehearts’ out there.”
Thus, the Bruins felt the flop sweat beading on their foreheads, like a presumed Best Picture nominee that bombs at Cannes.
“The outside noise is hard to shut down when you’ve had a season like we did,” Montgomery said.
It’s not impossible that the Bruins match what they did last regular season. Just improbable. The Tampa Bay Lightning dropped 36 points in the standings the season after their 128-point campaign in 2018-19 ended with a first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus.
Many believed that Lightning team was cooked, that the core should be blown up. Embarrassed about being counted out, they’d win the Stanley Cup the following season. And then another.
Being the underdog is an easy sell for a coach — that “us against the world” mentality that has been a hallmark of Boston sports franchises, even during their most dynastic runs. After losing to Florida and then losing some significant personnel in the summer, the Bruins aren’t consensus Stanley Cup contenders anymore. Attention has turned to a trio of teams in the Atlantic Division — Buffalo, Detroit and Ottawa — that are all looking for one of the playoff mainstays to fall out of the top four.
Some believe that will be the Bruins.
“It’s much easier to be the person having to prove doubters wrong than remain on top of the hill,” Montgomery said. “So now we get to prove to people that we can be good and be good differently.”
THERE ARE SOME constants on the Bruins from last season. Marchand, David Pastrnak (61 goals) and Jake DeBrusk (27 goals) are the offensive standard-bearers. McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm anchor a defense that also includes Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk. The most important carryover is in goal, where Vezina winner Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman combined to post a .929 team save percentage, which was best in the NHL by .014 over the next best team, the Islanders.
Like others, Ullmark wasn’t 100% in the playoffs and his play reflected that, sporting an .896 save percentage against Florida.
“It’s a game of inches, and obviously even more so when it comes to the playoffs than during the regular season,” he said. “But it’s so fun. That’s where you want to be. So I was enjoying it a lot more this year than I did last year. And the plan is to go for next one and try our best to not repeat what we did. We have a new team, new faces, and some new beginnings.”
The Bruins will look different than the team that slowly left the ice after Game 7. Tyler Bertuzzi, who tied Marchand for the team lead in playoff points (10), left for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent. Taylor Hall, who tied for the most playoff goals (five), was traded to Chicago. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov left as a free agent to Carolina. Role players Nick Foligno (Chicago), Tomas Nosek (New Jersey) and Connor Clifton (Buffalo) all moved on.
Boston brought in a collection of familiar names such as James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Shattenkirk on short-term deals to fill those holes — none more familiar than 35-year-old Milan Lucic, who was a part of their 2011 Stanley Cup championship team.
“Just being here every day helps you move on from the ‘I’m back’ phase,” Lucic said. “I had a really good experience at the world championships, being the older guy and taking on a leadership role.”
Even more notable was what Boston didn’t get in the offseason: a top-line center to replace either Bergeron or Krejci. The Bruins intended for the solution to come from within the organization, at least at first, with Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle getting the chance to move up in the lineup.
“Both of them are really good 200-foot players, both of them know how to build our team game through all three zones,” Montgomery said. “So there’s a lot of trust in the minutes that they’re going to be able to carry in important matchups, offensively and defensively.”
Marchand said that Coyle being cast as a No. 3 center on a deep Boston team obscured how good he is in the middle.
“He’s top two line center on any team in this league, but he’s had to play a third-line center because of the guys that we’ve had,” he said.
“Again, I don’t understand how people look at us and say, ‘You’ll fall off.’ Yes, we’re losing the best two-way player to ever play the game — 100%. Krejci is probably the most poised player I’ve ever played with. They’re both incredible leaders,” Marchand said. “But every year when guys leave, it creates the opportunity for someone else to step up and further their career.”
That’s a sentiment one hears a lot in the Bruins locker room this preseason: That someone leaving means someone else has a chance to step into a greater role and excel. Marchand himself experienced that, going from a rookie role player to a top-line player and one of the best left wings of his generation.
“I mean, you look at every guy on our team who’s now in a good position, or who’s had a great career so far, they didn’t start there,” Marchand said. “They had to build it. And the only way they built it was by other guys leaving. Most guys break in the league by injury or you come up and you play while you’re in a spot. You don’t start on the top line. You start working your way up.”
Ullmark echoed that.
“Obviously, everybody’s going to look at Bergy and Krejch leaving. There’s no way around it: You can’t replace those guys. They’re not once-in-a-lifetime [players], but almost,” he said. “They have been such a big part of this thing for so long. Everything they’ve done on and off the ice is monumental and will always be remembered. But the thing is, now it’s an opportunity for other people to step up and take their spot and use this time to grow as a person and grow as a player and grow as a leader.”
With Bergeron gone, the Bruins have a new leader, ready to grow into the role: Marchand, who was named the 27th captain of the franchise this month.
“It was great to see the passion and the heartfelt emotion and pride he had in being able to follow in the footsteps of all the great leaders that have been here,” Montgomery said, referencing players like Ray Bourque, Terry O’Reilly and Johnny Bucyk.. “The great thing about Brad is he respects that tradition.”
Marchand said he learned from Chara and Bergeron “every single day” that he shared the ice with them.
“When Z was captain, we dropped our kids off to school at the same time, so we’d be the first two ones here,” he said. “He just started opening up to me over the years and explained his vision: What he tried to do and how he tried to change things and how he tried to lead. So I learned a ton from him.”
He said that Bergeron brought him into the team’s leadership structure, thinking ahead to when he was no longer wearing the spoked-B, and passing everything he could to a potential successor.
“That’s kind of what he said to me: ‘You’ve already been doing this.’ He knew when his career was going to come to an end and he knew he wanted to help us be OK when he left,” Marchand said. “And so he started implementing that and teaching us a lot.”
For over a decade, the Bruins have thrived on that tradition: Sharing their culture with new teammates and young talents. Teaching them “the Bruins way,” and allowing their process and philosophy to create the foundation on which every season’s success is built.
The Bruins couldn’t win one for Bergeron and Krejci. But the way Marchand sees it, the next best way to honor their legacy is for the team’s young players — and its new captain — to push forward with the foundation they build firmly under their skates.
“Obviously, you don’t get as far as you want to every single season. Sometimes we’re right there and it’s just not meant to be,” he said. “But the culture is bigger than any of us. It’s what allowed the team to have success every year. It’s what will allow the team to continue to have success. The biggest thing that they’ve put in place is that culture. That’s what we never want to let die.”