It’s hard not to think what could’ve been with 2020 Bruins
By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Under normal circumstances, the Bruins would be slowly but surely making their way back to Boston, with training camp set to begin in 10 or so days. But as every company that’s ever tried to sell you a hamburger or cell phone plan has reminded you over the last six months, and as my search for a single package of paper towels enters its fourth week, these are not normal times.
That realization likely stings extra for the Bruins, who have since returned back to Boston for the end of their 2019-20 season following a five-game in-bubble dismantling by the Lightning.
Because it was the official opening of the “what if?” discussion with this year’s team.
Now, to fully grasp this, we gotta rewind back to March.
Back on the ice after the lowest of low — a Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss on home ice — the Bruins were a team with revenge on their mind. They accepted the past, sure, but they were never going to make peace with it. Not until they were drinking out of Lord Stanley. There was a method to the B’s madness. They brought back almost the entirely same roster from that run, ensuring they all shared the same goal. More so than usual. It was impossible to cover that team from the moment training camp opened and not think, “Holy shit. This team is driven by what happened a year ago.” It was basically what the team went through after their 3-0 collapse to Philly in 2010. Every time an out-of-town reporter or part-time Bruins give-a-damner came in to ask about June 12, you could see a player’s brow furrow, jaw clench, and their teeth bite into their lip.
And by March, this team looked ready to roll. They beat Tampa in Tampa, and nearly overcame an 0-3 deficit when the teams reconnected on Boston ice. And though the Bruins didn’t win that second head-to-head, they sent a message that they weren’t going down without a fight. Less than a week after that, the Bruins defeated the Flyers, and in Philadelphia where the Flyers had emerged as damn-near unbeatable, in a battle of the East’s two hottest teams. Deadline additions Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie were beginning to find their fits within the Boston roster and locker room, David Pastrnak was well on his way to a 50-50-100 season, and Tuukka Rask was in Vezina form.
The Bruins were the perfect storm.
It certainly helped that their top competition in the Atlantic, the Lightning, were floundering, with just three wins in their last nine games prior to the pandemic pause, including a pair of losses to their would-be first-round opponent Maple Leafs. Captain Steven Stamkos was going to be out through the first round of postseason play, too. (Stamkos is still out, so it didn’t derail the Bolts too much, but a year after their historic first-round exit, the Lightning were once again looking extremely vulnerable.)
…Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Playing through it quickly turned to limited-capacity games, limited-capacity games turned to empty-arena games, and then empty-arena games turned to no games at all. In the blink of an eye, the season — and the insanely real, undeniably legitimate revenge tour — was put on hold. For. Four. Damn. Months.
It turned out to be the worst thing that could’ve happened to ’em.
While the break allowed teams to essentially turn the page on their struggles or slumps and get helathier, it allowed the firing-on-the-cylinders Bruins to straight-up lose all of their momentum.
Players returned home and arrived back to Boston either late or not the same. David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase missed almost all of Phase 3’s training camp due to a late return to Boston and exposure to a coronavirus-positive case, and it showed with an injury for No. 88 and poor conditioning for Kase, who finished his first B’s postseason run as a fourth-line wing. Nick Ritchie also missed a ton of time, sparking questions of his game-shape, which was already at a heavier-than-most 230 pounds. The Rasks welcomed their third child during the pause, but a family emergency forced Rask to withdraw from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs after just two games, throwing the blazing-or-freezing Jaro Halak into a starting role that revealed a hard truth. The Bruins also lost all of that middle-six stability they fought so hard to nail down over the course of their 70-game regular season.
And with the season moving to Canadian bubbles (minus the kitties), the Bruins lost their home-ice advantage (and then the No. 1 seed) as the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. That removed the TD Garden, the cramped noise factory where the Bruins amassed a league-best 175 points and 79-21-17 record over the last three seasons, from the equation entirely.
It was another perfect storm.
But the exact kind that the Bruins didn’t want to navigate.
“I do believe with the turn of events with the pause — obviously stuff going on in the world bigger than hockey — but once we got back here, it wasn’t the same as a normal season,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy admitted. “It just wasn’t.”
“It felt like we were starting a new season,” echoed B’s top-line wing Brad Marchand. “The amount of time we had off was the same as an offseason. It felt like we were having a whole new year.”
Of course, this was the case for everyone. The Bruins were not the only team impacted by a four-month shutdown. But they certainly handled it worse than others. From regenerating their once-determined skating legs to taking round-robin games seriously, the Bruins failed almost across the board. The “get out of the way” turned to “happy to be there.”
The guide to properly handling a four-month interruption simply wasn’t on their revenge tour itinerary, and it couldn’t be found in time for the Lightning deflecting every shot through Halak and Boston’s Cup hopes from Edmonton to 2020-21.
“You can always look at what ifs but the fact of the matter is we were fortunate enough to be able to play,” Marchand acknowledged. “I think we have to be grateful for the opportunity to be [in the bubble], regardless of how difficult it was and the sacrifices we had to make.
“It really doesn’t matter what could have happened or what would have happened. This is what happened.”
Prompting questions of what could’ve been if this went on as originally scheduled.
In dearly-missed normal times.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.