MONTREAL — Boston Bruins rookie Blake Wheeler recalled that he was probably on a baseball diamond and looking forward to going to high school in the fall. Fellow rookie Byron Bitz said he probably had just graduated from grade school and was killing time by farming and golfing. A bit older than his first-year teammates, Dennis Wideman was playing Junior B hockey and getting ready to join the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL the next season.
It was April and May 1999 — the last time the Boston Bruins won a playoff series. That is, until tonight, when the Black and Gold defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-1, at Bell Centre in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series to complete a sweep and advance to face an opponent to be determined.
The Bruins’ 20-something players hardly remember that Boston defeated Carolina in spring of 1999 before falling to Buffalo in the conference semifinals. Wideman could barely recall that Buffalo went onto the Stanley Cup final before losing to Dallas in six games on Brett Hull’s controversial foot-in-the-crease overtime goal.
One Bruins player that can’t forget what happened in 1999 is winger P.J. Axelsson, the only remaining member of that team still skating for Boston.
“I would say probably more relief,” answered Axelsson when asked about whether it’s relief or joy to finally get back to the second round.
The 10-year-without-a-series-win thing has been a regular theme in the media. Of course, it was overshadowed by the two-years-without-even-a-playoff berth storyline until last spring. But a decade is a long time to go between series wins. Heck, back then you could illegally download Prince’s “1999” on Napster. Axelsson’s quirky off-ice wardrobe might’ve actually been in style.
But despite the wait, the Bruins players weren’t as jubilant as you might expect. Most of this year’s team suffered the disappointment of last season’s seven-game loss to the Canadiens. Others have fallen short in playoff series with the Bruins and other clubs. But there wasn’t any public drinking or outlandish boasting. Aaron Ward chomped on a hot dog and a few other guys jammed pizza slices in their pie holes. As far as partying like it’s 1999, they just weren’ having it (at least in the dressing room — there’s no telling what happened on the team charter).
And that’s all well and good. The Bruins have bigger fish to fry and they didn’t battle their way to the best record in the East just to win one playoff series. Nonetheless, blowing off steam wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, especially when you consider the last time the Bruins won four games in a best of seven SpongeBob SquarePants was first debuting on television. Two guys who know a thing or two about that cartoon because they have young children claimed that the metaphorical “cloud” that seemed to hang over the club since ’99, never phased them.
“I think there’s so much disconnect. Outside of Axie, there’s not that many people that have been in the playoffs or experience success with the Bruins,” said Ward. “So for us, it’s a pretty fresh group of faces and we’re creating or own pathway right now.”
Added goaltender Tim Thomas: “I never really felt that cloud. Last year we were the eighth seed going up against the No. 1 seed and I think we gave it a heck of a shot last year. This year, with how we’ve gotten better as a team over the year — we were the No. 1 seed and we showed it. I never really bought into the cloud.”
So right now the only thing to find fault with the Bruins about is their like of party instincts. Maybe Prince just isn’t their style (even though there are a few Minnesota natives in the bunch). Or maybe they really are as focused on the ultimate goal as they claim. Whatever it is, the Bruins — especially the younger players — should learn from Axelsson how elusive an opportunity like this can be. And if they take advantage of it now, 10 years from now no one will have to ask where they were back in ’09.