As the 2017-18 NHL season began, my wife Lauren had recently undergone her second surgery in six months, book ending eight rounds of chemotherapy to treat a pretty serious case of breast cancer. She also had six weeks of radiation on the horizon beginning in late November.
It had been a very long and very difficult summer of taking care of and worrying about her, keeping the boys occupied, all while working and trying to keep myself together.
I needed hockey to come back. Not only was I entering my fifth season as a full-time hockey writer, I desperately needed the distraction and entertainment that my favorite sport had provides year in and year out, minus the occasional lockout.
The thing is, my expectations for the Boston Bruins were middling. They were coming off an opening round loss to the Ottawa Senators after missing the postseason in each of the past two years, and the belief was they’d be a playoff bubble team with a bevy of young but relatively unproven talent being incorporated into the lineup to compliment the experienced group of core talent.
The jury was very much still out as to whether the so-called rebuild on the fly was working, and it felt as though the past few years had largely been wasted – if you’re not contending with the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and even an aging Zdeno Chara, what exactly is the point?
They kicked off the new campaign with an encouraging win over the reigning Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, but then dropped two to the Colorado Avalanche, a team coming off the worst 82-game season in the shootout era.
The rest of October was up and down, and it all seemed to be going to script; the Bruins were what we all thought they would be.
But in the middle of November, about the time Rask was being written off, something seemed to click and the Bruins started winning way more often than not. I won’t go into all the details of how and why, but rather jump to a moment in March that stands out to me as a highlight of the year.
Boston was pretty well settled in a playoff spot after quite a run through the middle portion of the schedule, and Don Sweeney had played the role of buyer prior to the trade deadline. One of those moves was the somewhat head scratch inducing signing of Brian Gionta, who was not in the NHL to begin the season and who had not impressed all that much as captain of Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Still, here he was in the lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers, doing the damn thing.
After seeing some of what the worst life has to offer, it was a reminder that there are pleasant surprises still waiting to show themselves as well.
None of this was supposed to happen, really. Boston finishing with 112 points, second in the East and fourth overall; kids like Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinin stepping up this high, this soon; Bruce Cassidy earning a Jack Adams finalist nod in his first full year behind the bench; Sweeney trading for Rick Nash, one of my low key favorite players; Brian friggin’ Gionta scoring breakaway goals.
I don’t know why, but that goal will stick with me – always a fan of the underdog – as the epitome of how much this season of Bruins hockey meant to me.
Sure, it all came to a bit of a screeching halt against the Lightning after a satisfying Game 7 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we were all left believing this team could have accomplished more.
In the end, more people will remember this team for Marchand’s playoff licking than anything else, and that … sucks.
But it’s only a game, and more often than not, the journey is more important than the destination.
For me, with everything else that was going on, it was a season to remember. I needed it, and I thank the Bruins for it.
And, most importantly, there was this at the end of it: