Saturday, May 17, 2014

Defeat May Be an Orphan, But It Makes Everybody a Midwife

Even the bitter recriminations are all over for the Bruins now.

The deafening death metal riffs on the chords of shoula-coulda-woulda that were the local soundtrack Thursday everywhere from the semi-professional howlers on Felger and Mazz to the guy behind me in the checkout line at the Bedford Stop&Shop has gone diminuendo down to Fluto Shinzawa's column in this morning's Globe saying all Boston needs to get back the Stanley Cup NEXT spring are a few minor changes.

This is all good for our civic well-being. Endless rue of defeat, a local specialty in the 20th century, is tiresome at any time. In May, it seems an affront to Mother Nature herself. More prosaically, the decline in volume of second-guessing suggests an increase in regional wisdom. Maybe, just maybe, the Bruins' fans and commentators remembered just what team they'd been watching all season. Also what sport.

Start with the first. Emotional distress, be it the genuine distress of a fan on the wrong side of an upset, or the superficial distress of a commentator on the wrong side of a prediction, is not conducive to logic. But even by the low, low standards of  "taking a tough loss" the complaints about the Bruins I heard and read last week were noteworthy for their unreasonableness.

The Bruins need finishers!!! That cry was a common one. Leaving aside the assumption that Jarome Iginla is not, saying Boston's forwards need to display more skill at scoring ignores the team's entire identity and the praise many complainers gave those same forwards before the Canadiens series began.

The Bruins, like many other NHL teams, are coached by a man who sees defense as the game's most important element, defining defense as both preventing opponents from scoring and taking the puck away from them. Boston's three most important and best players are goalie Tuukka Rask, defenseman Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, one of if not the best defensive forward in the sport. Before the season started, the team, to applause from fans and media, traded away Tyler Seguin, a talent on offense but averse to Claude Julien's defensive requirements. This did not hurt Boston one bit during the season.

In sports, all strengths contain the seeds of a possible weakness. It stands to reason that if and when a team built on defense gets beat, the reason will likely be it didn't score enough runs, points or goals. It is foolishly unjust to praise the Bruins' front lines for their ability to wear out their opponents through relentless physical play and then rip them for an inability to also be dominant scorers. That's a pretty rare combination.  When I head the complaints, I heard the words "if Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand were both Gordie Howe, we'd have beaten Montreal."

The Bruins are who they are, a self that's worked damn well for them the past four or five seasons. Changing identities in midlife is almost never a good idea.

Hockey, the sport the Bruins play, remains what it is, too. And that, more than anything about the Bruins or even the Canadiens, explains how come summer is here at the Garden today.

Repeat after me. There are no upsets in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The President's Trophy is about as relevant to the Cup as the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The balance between winning and losing is just too narrow in hockey to be otherwise. Look at the contortions the NHL has gone through to deal with how many regular season games end in regulation ties? Sudden-death overtime, which ends playoff ties, is so thrilling precisely because all fans of both teams in a game know how supremely random it is.

There are four teams left in the playoffs. All four have played at least one of their two playoff series against a foe who had home ice advantage. The Canadiens and Kings have yet to get home ice advantage, although Montreal will against the Rangers. It's hard to call the Bruins' loss an upset if the evidence suggests that victories by favorites are the real disruptions in the status quo.

Hockey's unpredictability, its constant and often unfair chaos, is an inescapable and large part of its glory as a sport. It's part of, I dare say, what makes it fun. I feel for the Bruins' fans caught on the sharp end of that glory last week. But deep down, I think, they understand what happened.

As for commentators with bruised pride, there's always the next prediction. They can dive right into the sports with real chalk postseasons, the NBA and NFL.


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