Haggerty: Just like old times for jubilant, and relieved, Bruins

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BOSTON -- The Bruins have finally, mercifully, erased the bitter memories of the collapses at the end of the last two seasons.

And they did it with authority, while simultaneously dealing a near fatal blow to the Tampa Bay Lightning's playoff hopes, with a 4-0 shutout win over the Bolts at TD Garden, running their winning streak to six and clinching their first postseason appearance in three long, gut-punching seasons. The sight of Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron smiling and high-fiving on the bench in the closing seconds of the third period showed the relief -- and satisfaction -- that a proud veteran group felt after gettting the job done this time. 

"It’s always a sad feeling when you don’t make the playoffs," said Chara. "You work extremely hard to be in the playoffs. [Two years ago] we just missed it with, I think, 96 points. Very unfortunate.  You always want to be playing for the ultimate trophy and you want to be in the playoffs. It’s fun hockey. It’s that time of the year where a lot of emotions are involved. It’s exciting for players, exciting for fans. Every game means so much. Everybody kind of starts from scratch, from 0-0, and all that counts is wins. So it’s kind of a nice feeling to be in the postseason again. 

"This team battled through some ups and downs throughout the year and it was one of those years where we really had to come together. And we did, and played really strong, especially the last few months. It took us to put a number of games together and win them in a row and gain some points, and ground. It was kind of not easy because everybody else was also winning. We obviously focused on ourselves and how we want to keep playing and keep getting better and keep earning those points and we did. So it’s rewarding. Obviously, we have a couple more games before the end of the regular season and there’s still reason to get up for these games and play for, obviously, standing, and get ready for the playoffs."

Fittingly, it wasn’t easy for the Bruins and they had to earn it. 

The opening 20 minutes was full of nervous plays where passes were way off and Bruins players, like Brandon Carlo and David Pastrnak, were out of sorts and smashing into each other in the defensive zone. Then Brad Marchand chose to spear Jake Dotchin in the nuggets at the end of the first period, earning himself a game misconduct and saddling the Bruins with a five-minute major to kill. 

Instead of buckling and imploding under the pressure, as they’d done in the last couple of seasons, the Bruins took off like a Black and Gold rocket. They allowed just two shots on net to the high-powered Lightning power play while killing off the five minutes, and then proceeded to hit the Bolts with a 1-2 combination of goals from Drew Stafford and Pastrnak in the second period to take control of the game.

Twenty shots on net later, the Bruins had a two-goal lead, had the Lightning scrambling for their lives, and had Tuukka Rask (17 saves in the second period) playing shutdown goal. As interim coach Bruce Cassidy said afterwards, the penalty kill was "a game-changer."

It's also the exact kind of character, backbone and mental toughness that had been missing the last couple of seasons, but appears to have returned with a new, different voice behind the bench. 

"It’s a game changer, you know, if they get momentum there and then all the sudden, doubt creeps into your head for a number of different reasons," said Cassidy, who undoubtedly locked up the full-time gig behind the B's bench with this 18-7 run since taking over. "So we’ll just keep it to the simple fact that we’ve been good on the kill all year. It’s come through for us in crucial times, and tonight, there was no bigger time for us. 

"They dug in. We lost a good player, a very good player for our team, and guys love Marchy [Brad Marchand], so they knew that it would take a little more to get the job done. Listen, you saw it right? You saw what happened out there. It just shows how much they care about, you know, their teammates, and Marchy in particular. It’s great, it’s great. Listen, it’s tough to win without a close-knit room, or to have any level of success. We’ve got a good room."

The surging Bruins now set their sights on locking up the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division with a couple more wins, which would enable them to sidestep a first-round date with the Washington Capitals. 

"I think maybe we, especially in the years past, we kind of take [making the playoffs] for granted a bit and it seems like it’s definitely something that you have to appreciate," said Patrice Bergeron, who was a locked-in 17-for-17 in the face-off circle in a must-win big game. "It’s been two years. It’s been a long time coming for us. There are a lot of guys in this room that haven’t had a taste of it yet. So, we should be excited for it. Everyone should be excited just to be in it and to be in a position now where we can work on our rankings. But at the same time, you work for that all year to get in and have a shot."

It won’t be easy if they’re missing Marchand, who likely will be suspended after his selfish, ill-conceived spear to an opponent’s groin. But nobody's any longer doubting the Bruins are capable of something worthy late in the season. 
 

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