By Joe Haggerty
The hallmark of any Big Bad Bruins team worth its salt – or sweat, or blood-stained battle scars as the case may be – over the years has been the ability to funnel fiery emotion and unpredictable circumstance into a stream of positive action on the ice.
The days of savagely beating a fan with his own shoe are clearly in the past, but there's still something to be said for a hockey team showing character and will when the moment merits it. Clearly some of the old school savagery is gone, but hockey players can still stand up for one another without hesitation or fear of retribution.
That indominable spirit is the vital beating heart of any hockey club poised for action, but it was also a quality in major question with this particular edition of the B's.
Sure, the Black and Gold squad has gritted through injuries and maddening inconsistency over the balance of 82 games, but there had also been some pretty big red flags.
The biggest: When Marc Savard, Boston's best offensive playmaker, was laid out on the ice by Matt Cooke without any retaliatory response from his teammates.
The heart so undeniably alive and active as recently as last season's playoff run had been near impossible to detect. The Bruins were playing better – if also more inconsistent – hockey as the season progressed, but team-wide concerns were cropping up on Causeway Street.
That bad vibes reached their zenith when, on March 18, the Bruins dropped the kind of listless stink bomb of disinterest and malaise on the ice that Dave Lewis would have been proud of.
In a "Revenge Game" against the Pittsburgh Penguins at TD Garden following Marc Savard's concussion at Mellon Arena, there wasn't much of a reaction from the players outside of Shawn Thornton's early fisticuffs with Cooke in the first period.
The sight of Savard literally having his brain scrambled due to a Cooke cheap shot had roiled the fans and the media into a frothy hot mess, and the Black and Gold did nothing to respond in kind. After the perfunctory bout between Cooke and Thornton in the opening minutes of the first period, the Bruins didn't skate, didn't score and certainly didn't compete in front of the highest-rated TV audience for a Bruins game in NESN history.
All those eyeballs watching the Bruins to see how they would mete out justice to Cooke and his teammates saw nothing. If the concussed Savard was able to watch the game at home, he'd have to have seriously wondered exactly how much his team even wanted to avenge him – or even win the game, for that matter.
As Thornton aptly said, the Bruins lost both the battle and the war with the Penguins, the media, the fans and themselves until further notice.
"People wanted to see blood or a win, and we didn't give them either one. If we'd just gotten a win afterward people would have been happier than hell," said Thornton.
But that, strange as it seems, may have been the turning point.
"It seems like guys really responded to some of the negative criticism and have started to play a little bit better," said Thornton. "I don't think we've had any passengers since then."
The Bruins went 8-3-1 in their remaining 12 games and enter the postseason playing better than they have all season.
"Sometimes you need a kick in the ass to get you going. Its funny how things really work out sometimes," said Milan Lucic to CSNNE.com. "If you look back at just about every team that's won the Stanley Cup over the last few years, just about every single one of them has gone through some adversity. The teams that lost in the Finals kind of had the easier path through the playoffs most of the time."
If taking the arduous, max-effort road through the regular season is a precursor to Stanley Cup glory, then the Bruins better refrain from making any elaborate golfing plans for the next few months.
And it may have started March 18.
There was emotion and anger frothing over inside the Bruins dressing while the shutout loss to the Penguins was still going on. Players stood up and challenged teammates with truth and a season's worth of evidence.
The patience of veteran leaders like Zdeno Chara and Mark Recchi finally snapped, and there was a cathartic cleansing in the locker room during and after the game.
"We were pissed off," said Lucic. "We were pissed off and we knew that we needed to turn things around if we wanted to be here right now. [The Penguins game] was a turning point."
Several players got their points across. There weren't going to be any more passengers on the Bruins bus.
And there weren't, as Boston climbed to the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference standings through a combo of goaltending, defense, and grittiness.
One player confirmed the in-game dressing room chatter had a healthy serving of the "enough-is-enough" tone, and felt there's been a discernible "before-and-after" difference to the way the team is playing.
"It doesn't really matter what was said, but there were plenty of guys voicing their opinions during and after the game," said one Bruins player to CSNNE.com. "And there haven't been guys sitting around waiting for something to happen since then.
"Did that night really change things inside the room this year? It might have. I've seen a difference."
The voices of disapproval from fans, media and those curious observers from around the NHL were heard and heeded by the Black and Gold – and it's made all of the difference to a team finally yielding results despite a continued rash of debilitating injuries along the roster.
"You know what? No matter who you are and no matter where you were on this team, the fans were on us and we didn't like that anymore," said Lucic to CSNNE.com of the fallout following the March 18 loss against the Penguins. "Rightfully so that the fans should have been pissed off at us the way we played in that game [against the Penguins]. We just took it upon ourselves to put it behind us and make a change. Guys stepped up to make sure those changes were going to be made.
"We talked about it and we knew the feeling that we had after that game. We didn't want to feel that way again. We kind of knew that this was our team and that if we didn't do anything about it we'd be golfing right now."
Instead the B's ripped out 8 wins in their last 12 games and vaulted into the playoffs with the exact kind of energy that was missing against the Pens.
Better late than never.
Joe Haggerty can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HackswithHaggs