A Bandwagon of Optimism

BOSTON – The two announced crowds added up to 25,751.

Nearly 26,000 fans for a pair of rookie games between the Bruins and the Islanders on back-to-back nights in the middle of September, a month typically reserved for pennant races and kickoff weekends, for a club that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in nearly four decades.

All for a club that carved a new, most epic chapter in its recent playoff futility just four months ago as the third team in NHL history to blow a three-games-to-none series lead. A club that’s been dubbed as cheap, with an owner who fans are convinced is a direct descendant of Uncle Scrooge and Montgomery Burns. Not to mention a club that hasn’t sniffed the Conference Finals since 1992.

You get the idea…

“I was sitting up there and saying there’s more people here than the first year I came for a regular-season game in our stands,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “I think we owe our fans a lot. They’ve been obviously loyal to us and, going back to last year the way the season ended, I think it’s important for us to realize and want to reward our fans for being that.”

This new season means new beginnings, new excitement and a new opportunity. That ‘next year’ label fit so well for 86 years on the town’s baseball team, but now it’s taken the ride up the Green Line. The allure of a potential championship run, a Stanley Cup chase, has replaced the mystique and aura of sustained excellence.

Or to put it bluntly, boredom …

The locals won’t admit it freely, but the Red Sox TV ratings and Tom Brady calling out a silent fan base suggest that on their own. The Bruins have become ‘chic’, the shiny new toy in the fans so accustomed to winning everything else over the last decade.

For one of the newest Bruins, Boston marks the great escape. Those two rookie game crowds would have passed for a good regular season gate for Nathan Horton on South Beach, where the Panthers play in relative apathy in hockey’s version of Alcatraz. The third overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft finally has a chance to live up to those once lofty expectations as a franchise savior, but here Horton doesn’t need to do everything to accomplish that.

“It’s exciting because I think we have a great team here,” Horton said of his new teammates before raving about his new locale. “This is such a great sports city too, to walk down the street and see that there are games on TV. To see all the media come out for training camp and practices. This feels like home.”

Horton scored a career high 31 goals in 2006-07, and tallied 57 points in just 65 games last season. His presence along with second overall pick Tyler Seguin should complement Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron to make up a formidable first three lines … if healthy.

That’s the big ‘if’ around the rink, as Bruins Training Camp got underway without the services of Marc Savard last week. According to General Manager Peter Chiarelli, the club’s number one center is sidelined indefinitely, still suffering from the effects of a blow to the head from Matt Cooke back in March.

While Savard did return to the lineup for the second round of the playoffs scoring the Game 1 winner against Philadelphia, he started to notice recurring symptoms over the last few weeks. An avid golfer, Savard did not take part in the team’s charity golf tournament on September 13.

“Any time there’s this recurrence, there’s concern,” Chiarelli said. “He’s a very durable guy. He’s played hurt in the past. He wants to come back and we want him healthy. He was actually training quite hard with his personal trainer for a number of weeks.”

Savard’s immediate replacement, David Krejci, suffered a shattered wrist during the first period of Game 4 of that same series. It was the moment that changed the plot line, the dynamic of the entire series according to fellow teammate Milan Lucic, who spent much of the 2009-10 season battling a nagging ankle injury of his own before hitting his stride during the team’s playoff run.

“When you look back, especially in Game 5 and Game 6 when the Flyers got (Simon) Gagne back, I think that’s where Dave’s presence was missed most,” Lucic said of Krejci. “Just having his talent on the Power Play, the Penalty Kill and at both ends of the ice makes us a better team.”

“We’re both 100 percent now and I think we’re excited to get things started right now.”

And yet, health can’t overshadow the real X-Factor in Seguin, the shiny, much hyped, much talked about second overall pick who netted 106 points in 63 games last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. He, along with Tyler Hall, spent most of the year between first and second on Central Scouting’s prospect list and he’s the most anticipated talent this organization has had since his numerical namesake, Joe Thornton.

“I came here with the expectation that I would have an opportunity, just like any other guy, to make this team,” Seguin said. “You have to go out there, work hard, respect the coaches and earn your spot.”

Bergeron, the longest tenured Bruin at just 25, entered the league as an 18 year-old back in 2003, so he understands the expectations that come with breaking into the league amid such buzz.

“I think for him the idea is that you can’t put too much pressure on yourself and to learn as much as you can from the guys in the dressing room.,” Bergeron said. “I was 18 and I remember learning so much from the older guys on the team. It’s something that he’s going to have to do and he’s such a good player that it’s going to be exciting to see.”

Still, potential and expectations is one thing, results are another. Thornton scored just three goals in 55 games during his rookie year and just 16 in year number two. Though the crowd around him, including one of the league’s top goaltending tandems and the NHL’s top statistical defensive club last season should help keep the pressure to those outside the locker room.

And if these Bruins ever start scoring, matching what Zdeno Chara can do on the blue line, who knows where the bandwagon of optimism may end. Once the town punch line while the other three teams were busy winning championships, maybe the Bruins can become just as boring by getting the job done on the ice.

Wouldn’t that be something?

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