EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest column comes courtesy of former STATS colleague and current Pew Research Center superstar Mike Lipka, who is the rare Boston fan you shouldn’t be rooting against.
Whenever someone tells me how fortunate I’ve been as a Boston sports fan these last dozen or so years, I remind them that I know how it is on the other side.
In 2001, when I was a senior in high school, just watching the Diamondbacks prevent the Yankees from winning a fourth straight World Series qualified as a thrill. No Boston team had won a title – or come particularly close – in my conscious lifetime. The Red Sox didn’t win one in my grandfather’s eight decades of fandom. The Celtics, long the pride of the city, were a laughingstock in the latter half of the 1990s. The Patriots had been a joke for almost their entire existence.
And my dad is from Cleveland.
If you had told me during my high school days that, before my 30th birthday, there would come a time when I’d almost feel guilty about too much good fortune, I would have laughed you out of the room. But that’s where I’m at after watching one of my beloved hockey teams stage what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime comeback for the second time in five years.
The Bruins had underwhelmed for much of the season, but they’re still well within the grace period after winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, silencing an arena of hockey-mad Canadians with a dominant Game 7 performance against Vancouver.
Monday night’s Game 7 against Toronto had a much different feel. After a strong start, the Bruins were getting pushed around at home by the young Maple Leafs, who hadn’t even been to the playoffs since prior to the 2005 lockout. They were down three key defensemen, most notably underrated workhorse Dennis Seidenberg. Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin had been all but absent for most of the series, and, as legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker might say, continued to play like the Belmont Bantams.
With the Leafs up 4-1 in the third period, I started going through the stages of sports grief, and was pretty well into acceptance when goaltender Tuukka Rask skated to the bench with the home team still trailing by two. “They need to pull a BU,” I texted a friend, laughing at the impossible odds of such a thing happening again.
I was referring to what my alma mater did in the 2009 NCAA title game. The Terriers were also down two in the closing minutes; that deficit stood as they entered the final 60 seconds. Miami of Ohio players were already starting to celebrate on the bench.
The first goal seemed like nothing but a tease. After 59 minutes of near-total frustration for a team that had had no trouble scoring all year, Zach Cohen flipped in a backhand that seemed like it would do nothing but make the final score closer. But a half-minute later, when Matt Gilroy’s perfectly patient pass across the slot teed up Nick Bonino’s game-tying blast, I got buried underneath a pile of fellow Terrier loyalists in the upper deck of the Verizon Center.
Colby Cohen’s inevitable OT winner set off an evening of D.C. celebration — one that included a tequila shot with Gilroy — that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul tweeted that Monday’s game “will haunt me until the day I die.” The Bruins didn’t win a championship that night, but their survival may have been even more unlikely than BU’s. For one, they were down three goals in the third; BU never faced such a deficit, and no NHL team had ever overcome that kind of a hole in a Game 7. They were also facing professionals, not a fresh-faced group of college kids with a freshman goalie.
Nathan Horton’s goal, making it 4-2 midway through the third, barely registered. Milan Lucic’s, with 82 seconds to play, was the tease. And then Patrice Bergeron played the role of both Bonino (who scored an OT goal for Anaheim in these playoffs) and Colby Cohen (who’s now in the Bruins system), pulling the Bruins even in the final minute and putting them into the next round in overtime. I yelped and hoisted my unsuspecting and confused housemate into the air, then tried to explain to her what had happened.
How much better can it get? I’m already at the point with the Patriots where regular-season success is standard. I realize how lucky I am to watch a player like Tom Brady for all these years, but how can you get excited about another AFC East title for a team that has won three Super Bowls — and could have won six had a handful of plays gone differently?
I’ve long known that the Red Sox can’t ever top what they gave me in 2004. It doesn’t prevent me from enjoying as much baseball as possible every summer. Still, it’s a strange feeling to have.
And now I’m getting similar pangs watching hockey.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about sports is that there’s always a new chapter to be written. Tonight, the Bruins and New York Rangers will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 40 years. We’ll find out if Henrik Lundqvist’s domination of Boston will extend beyond the regular season; if the Bruins’ offensive resurgence in Game 7 was a flash in the pan or an actual reawakening; if young defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski are really ready to play key roles; if the Rangers are the loaded contenders they looked like in January or the struggling underachievers they appeared to be for much of the season.
The good fortune may be about to end. But I’ll always look forward to the ride.