The Boston Bruins knew that they were in for a tough challenge turning their Stanley Cup championship into a strong start to the 2011-12 regular season. Proof of the unfortunately dubbed "Stanley Cup Hangover" was staring at them in form of the 2010 Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks who struggled all of last season before making the playoffs on the final day when the Dallas Stars lost. So the awareness was there for the coaching staff and the Bruins organization as a whole.
Right now, though, seeing the external signs and dealing with the internal realities are proving vastly different for a team that finds itself dead last in the Eastern Conference.
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As of this writing, the Bruins have lost three straight including back-to-back defeats by hated rival Montreal. The Canadiens home-and-home series was supposed to "jump start" Boston's season. No manufacturing of emotion required. Patrice Bergeron told me, "Emotion will be a part of these games by nature. We have to make sure we can sustain it after the weekend."
Instead, the Bruins are scrambling to find a semblance of themselves from last spring. Unlike the Blackhawks, who had to rip their Cup-winning group apart due to salary cap constraints, the Bruins returned largely intact. And factoring in the fine early start of Tyler Seguin, as projected in my SI.com season predictions ("The most improved player will be... Tyler Seguin as an impact player for the Boston Bruins as they look to defend their Stanley Cup title. He will play more and get time in critical situations and the Bruins will need that infusion of exuberance and skill that Seguin can supply..."), Boston look primed to be a power again in the East, right?
Well, on paper, yes. But the Bruins are living what other recent winners have found out: the celebration lives far beyond the Stanley Cup winning goal.
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The entire experience of winning the world's most famous trophy has outgrown the simple, organic feeling of having the Cup for a day during the summer, returning to hometowns to share it with family, friends and everyone else who may be close to the players. What was once intimate and private has become material for coverage -- footage for full-length television features. The aftermath of winning has turned into an NHL reality series, with the organization that holds the Cup taking center stage.
It doesn't stop there, either. The Stanley Cup makes appearances in the city of celebration right through training camp, preseason games and on into the regular season. The NHL markets the Cup's special allure more so than ever before. That "bringing the chalice to the masses" mantra sets up one appearance after another.
The Cup didn't leave Boston until October 23, after the team had hoisted it high once more, this time in front of a sellout New England Patriots' crowd. The once quaint tradition of players spending a day with the chalice has morphed into people having some one-on-one time with it down the organization's chart to the administrative level. After all, what's one more appearance, right?
It means that even with good intentions and a plan to separate the business of selling the game and the need to get back to playing it, finding the right focus is elusive. I spoke to Bruins president Cam Neely and he proudly beamed that the franchise's first Cup since 1972 "was great for the fans and the city." But he knowingly added, "It's time to put that behind us and move forward."
That was part of a passing conversation prior to the team's first meeting with the Canadiens. GM Peter Chiarelli's face after that 2-1 home ice loss understandably had the look of a concerned executive. He has set the team up as well as anyone could hope for in order to be ready and able to take a run at repeating. A sluggish start was probably projected, but a 3-7-0 stumble is jarring.
It is especially so when you look at the Bruins' style of play. It requires a lot of physical exertion -- from the goal on out. There are no easy goals readily available because they rely on 5-on-5 dominance while grinding for goals. Their power play remains a mystery, which puts even more pressure on their even-strength performance.
The Bruins won last season by having just enough resolve and a heavy dose of Tim Thomas heroics in goal to play above the offensive break-even line. That takes a lot of fortitude, both mentally and physically. Having dug themselves such a deep October hole, the question is: Will the group have the energy reserves to draw on after a long, laborious and fruitful spring followed by a short summer filled with a long procession of Stanley Cup showings and celebrations?
We're a long way from the final answer, true, but we're further away at this point from the Bruins looking poised to repeat as champs.