Thursday, April 26, 2012

Boston or Providence: Which Bruins Team Met The More Disappointing Ending?

Is a premature ending to one’s playoff run, let alone in defense of one’s championship, really better than no playoff run at all?

Is falling short of a postseason passport for the third year in a row, i.e. failing to raise a bar that had nowhere to go but up, really more merciful than failing to win a single series for the first time in four years?

The Providence Bruins and their parent club from Boston saw their respective seasons end a mere 10 days apart. For the first time since 2006, right before Peter Chiarelli became the organization’s new general manager, neither the AHL nor NHL Bruins will play in May.

Safe to say this was, collectively speaking, the Black and Gold family’s most frustrating finish in recent memory. But who brooked the brunt of the bitter taste?

On the one hand, you had Boston coming into the 2011-12 campaign in the new role of defending champions and certifiable favorites to go deep again. The outlook subsequently fluctuated in accordance with a hangover-laden October, otherworldly November and December, iffy January and February and then a hasty homestretch recovery.

But by April 7, they were repeat Northeast Division champions and raring to defend their crown against a mystery squad from Washington that had similarly traveled to every corner of the high-low spectrum this season.

The Capitals fan base is really in the same position that its New England counterpart was in at this time a year ago. It is starved for a solution to incessant spring shortcomings, especially in Game 7s.

The men in uniform and head coach Dale Hunter, a midseason replacement for Bruce Boudreau, have proven themselves equally bent on clearing that hurdle. But on their end, Claude Julien’s pupils did not do nearly enough to live up to their label and laurels.

As a consequence, a mutually tight-fisted, best-of-seven arm-wrestling bout culminated Wednesday night with Washington taking a 2-1 overtime decision in Game 7 at TD Garden. It marks the earliest end to a Bruins season since Julien’s first year as head coach in 2007-08.

One hour-long Amtrak ride away in Rhode Island, a former Capitals skipper in Bruce Cassidy finished his first year as P-Bruins head coach the same basic way he finished his second and third campaigns as Rob Murray’s assistant. His team treated its rooters to victory in the final home game while knowing that it would, indeed, be the last AHL game at the Dunkin Donuts Center until next October.

But that scenario was hardly what many pundits, and certainly any loyal fans, were expecting this past October. With a foundation built around March 2011 goaltending acquisition Anton Khudobin, the import of such AHL veterans as Josh Hennessy and Jamie Tardif and a new voice behind the bench, the P-Bruins appeared primed for a return to the Calder Cup bracket.

Not to be. Unlike the parent club, the Baby Bs saw their 2011-12 season unfold much like 2010-11, with an unspectacular autumn giving way to a vain cramming session in the second half.

It didn’t help that they were plagued by injuries, costing significant man games to the likes of Tardif, Maxime Sauve, captain Trent Whitfield (a la last year), Nathan McIver, Matt Bartkowski and Andrew Bodnarchuk, just to name a few.

The missed time by the later three was especially detrimental early on as Cassidy was forced to resort to a blue line comprised almost entirely of professional rookies and sophomores. Without the NHL-seasoned McIver and Bodnarchuk, who is now nine career games shy of the franchise record, the P-Bruins set a tone by losing their first three games, all on home ice, by a cumulative score of 15-3.

From there, Providence never skated more than two games above .500 and would finish in the middle of the Eastern Conference’s non-playoff picture.

Boston had its own health problems when the time came for its second season. Clutch scorer and power forward Nathan Horton was officially declared done till next year shortly before the Washington series, having been out of commission since a Jan. 22 concussion.

Backup goaltender Tuukka Rask saw his last lick of game action on March 3, when he went down with a lower-body injury. That, combined with Khudobin’s own ailment, forced the Bruins to acquire Marty Turco for the mere sake of giving Tim Thomas the breathers he needed in advance of the playoffs.

Thomas looked relatively unaffected by his heavier-than-desired workload once he engaged Washington’s Braden Holtby in a seven-part arm-wrestling match. But for multiple reasons, especially an underachieving power play and quiet top-six scorers, the Bruins strike force could not mollify the Capitals’ rookie.

Game 7 was even tougher without faceoff connoisseur Patrice Bergeron’s specialty service. The alternate captain and longest-tenured Bruins skater was openly playing through an injury that forced him to play wing rather than center and very likely prevented him from burying a would-be winner in overtime.

Still, the rest of the team could have done more to overcome that hindrance or even prevent it from happening (Bergeron appeared to sustain his pain during Game 5).

Could Cassidy’s pupils have done more to surmount the injury-induced adversity they endured over the last six-and-a-half months? Even more so than Boston could have defied its problems?

That question is likely the key to answering the title question as to which Bruins team left more on the table in 2011-12.