RALEIGH, N.C. — This is supposed to be a young man’s league, but the greybeards have another shot at immortality.
Zdeno Chara. Patrice Bergeron. Brad Marchand. Tuukka Rask. David Krejci.
None of them are under 30 years of age, and each is still playing a prime-time role for the Boston Bruins eight years after first lifting the Stanley Cup in 2011. Together with a special group of young reinforcements, they’ve earned the opportunity to try and do it again.
“It’s very special. It means a lot,” said Bergeron. “We kind of grew up together. The core group has been through a lot, I guess. Ups and downs.
“Over the last few years we’ve built something special with the young guys … they’re a big part of this group and this team. They want to get better. They’re big-time players and they relish any challenge. It’s been a fun ride.”
This is not how things usually go in a salary cap league, where championship windows open and close in the blink of an eye and rebuilds tend to force older players out the door. The Bruins twice missed the playoffs after losing to Chicago in a six-game Stanley Cup Final in 2013, which allowed players like David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk to be added with high draft picks.
On Thursday night, it was Pastrnak who opened the scoring and added two assists in the series-clinching 4-0 victory over Carolina. McAvoy logged more than 22 minutes of ice time with Chara, the 42-year-old captain, surprisingly ruled out because of an undisclosed injury.
“It’s not easy out there, but man is it fun,” said McAvoy. “It’s really hard in a game to take a step back when it’s so emotional, you’re so invested, and you’re playing so hard and you have these bumps and these bruises and sometimes you’re not feeling the best mentally.
“It’s just crazy to think about; that we closed this thing out and we’re going to the Stanley Cup Final.”
Chara saw his streak of 98 consecutive playoff game ends because of the injury, but it didn’t keep him from joining his teammates on the ice at PNC Arena for the post-series handshake line and to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy from deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
The 42-year-old shared a special moment with Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, a former opponent, who stopped Chara during the handshake line to say: “Much respect to you. You can’t keep doing this. Good for you. Good luck to you.”
Boston will face either San Jose or St. Louis with a chance to win its seventh title.
First, there’s going to be a long wait for the Cup final. It could start as late as May 27, depending on how long the Sharks-Blues series runs, which would give Boston 11 days off — the most by any team in the NHL’s salary cap era.
The prospect of that layoff already had Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy talking about a potential scrimmage with the team’s Black Aces during the break. Ten of the last 13 Cup champions have been the team that entered the final on shorter rest.
Cassidy hopes the extra rest will come with some benefits, particularly for goaltender Tuukka Rask, who had a lighter workload than usual during the regular season and has been the star of these playoffs with a sparkling .942 save percentage.
“I just see Tuukka not only as a goalie, but as a person, a really zoned-in guy right now. Really even-keeled,” said Cassidy. “So I don’t see why that would change in a week. I think the sharpness of not playing will affect the whole team, but after he gets back in the flow hopefully it’s quick for him.”
The Bruins have gained steam the deeper they’ve gone in the playoffs. They faced a tough challenge from the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 — falling behind 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in the series — but have rattled off seven straight victories since being down 2-1 to Columbus in Round 2.
Against the Hurricanes, they were dominant in every aspect of the game. Boston scored more power-play goals in the series (seven) than it gave up across all strengths (five). Rask was a brick wall, the third and fourth lines made big offensive contributions and then the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line stepped up with a huge performance in Thursday’s clincher.
“I think we’re realizing how to win,” said defenceman Torey Krug. “Maybe in that first series [against Toronto] we were trying to do too much because we figured we’d have to score some goals to beat a high-powered offence. Eventually we figured out the best way to do that was to put the puck behind their ‘D’ and just go to work and grind out goals and grind out zone time.
“I think eventually that stuck with our top line and that just bleeds through your lineup. We have great depth. It speaks for itself when so many guys are scoring goals and eventually it just results in a bunch of wins.”
They are only four away from joining the Red Sox and New England Patriots by bringing a trophy back to the current city of champions in the last year.
After sweeping the Hurricanes out of the playoffs, the celebration was muted. Marchand, Rask and Bergeron wore “Eastern Conference Champs” shirts under their suits when they spoke to reporters from the podium and there were a few hoots and hollers in the visiting hallway, but nothing too exuberant.
Even if it’s been a few years, this is a leadership group that understands there’s plenty of hard work still ahead. The real secret of Boston’s success this spring is a focus that’s grown ever tighter during a wild Stanley Cup tournament where Tampa, the Presidents’ Trophy winners, and five other 100-point teams went out in the first round.
That presented a real opening — the kind that doesn’t come around every year.
“It’s where they are in their stage in their life. It’s where we are as a team,” Cassidy said earlier in the playoffs. “This is a great opportunity. I’m not going to sit here and talk about when the window closes or the next one opens and all that stuff, but they know. They won, what, eight years ago?
“A lot of years have passed, a lot of wear and tear on the body for the core group, so they know what it takes.”
Four more wins. A chance to do something most NHLers only get to dream of.