r1159584 1296x729 16 9 - Replay Madness

Jim Montgomery believes in “the process.”

That’s what the Boston Bruins coach preaches to his team. A simple strategy to keep his players focused on the present.

No looking back on what’s happened. No dwelling on an uncertain future. Commit to the now and results will come.

Those principles have guided Montgomery throughout his career. But ever so rarely, Montgomery could be persuaded to take the whole big picture in.

It happened on March 30. David Pastrnak had just scored 41 seconds into overtime to down Columbus and earn Boston its franchise-record 58th win of the season. It also secured its long-projected status as the Presidents’ Trophy winners, a distinction awarded annually to the league’s regular-season points leader (additionally, it guarantees Boston home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs).

“It’s been a magical season so far,” the first-year coach reflected. “We know the hardest part is ahead of us, and we’re looking forward to that grind.”

The simplest summation — until it’s fully unpacked. Because Boston is wading into historically tumultuous waters, battling the riptide around that ol’ President Trophy curse.

The hangover accompanying a Presidents’ Trophy victory has drowned decorated Stanley Cup hopefuls for years (we’ll get to the how’s and why’s of that shortly).

Only this Boston team isn’t like any other — literally.

These Bruins are so dazzlingly spectacular they set an NHL record for wins (63) after just 75 games, passing the marvelous 1970s-era Montreal Canadiens, vaunted Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers, dynastic Detroit Red Wings groups and even their closest peer in such jaw-dropping success, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning. For an encore, Boston rewrote the books again with a single-season points record (133), passing the mark set more than 40 years ago by the 1976-77 Canadiens.

The Bruins’ goal differential (plus-127) is the best by a regular-season titleholder since the 1995-96 Red Wings, and Boston has allowed fewer goals (2.10 per game) than any Presidents’ Trophy winner since the Bruins last held that title (2013-14).

Basically, Boston stands alone in its dominance. So, would it be wrong then to deviate from Montgomery’s stay-in-the-moment philosophy and compare the Bruins to Presidents’ Trophy recipients of the past? As if those other fates will determine what Boston can imminently accomplish?

It can be fascinating to speculate (so we will). Why has regular-season success so rarely translated to playoff wins in the NHL? How does hockey stack up to other sports in that respect? And will Boston be the team to sidestep a Presidents’ Trophy jinx?

SUPERSTITIONS BEGIN SIMPLY ENOUGH. The Presidents’ Trophy was introduced back in 1985-86 by the league’s board of governors. It has been awarded 37 times to 18 teams since then.

The 1986-87 Oilers were the first recipients to also win a Stanley Cup the same season. The Calgary Flames (in 1988-89), New York Rangers (1993-94), Dallas Stars (1998-99), Colorado Avalanche (2000-01), Detroit Red Wings (in 2001-02 and 2007-08) and finally Chicago Blackhawks (in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) would all claim hockey’s hockey grail after pacing the league in regular-season points.

That’s eight teams, out of 36 past Presidents’ Trophy winners, that have achieved their ultimate goal in an ensuing postseason run. Over time, the alleged hex became more pronounced.

Since Detroit’s Cup win in 2007-08, only three subsequent “regular-season champions” have made it through to the final round of the playoffs (the 2014-15 Rangers most recently went furthest by reaching the Eastern Conference finals).

Boston previously won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2013-14 and was bounced in the second round (the Bruins missed the playoffs entirely the following season, one of only three teams to have that happen following a Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign).

When Tampa Bay had the trophy in 2018-19, it was famously swept in the first round by Columbus. Florida sat atop the league last season with a franchise-record 122 points and then barely scraped together four playoff wins in 10 games, losing in the second round.

More often than not, the Presidents’ Trophy forecasts disappointment. There are ample theories as to why, with multiple common threads.

Pundits frequently argue that having to beat one team four times in a playoff series — as opposed to facing a new challenger each night — reveals a club’s weaknesses. Adjustments are quickly made, and every club is exposed for what it is at its best — and worst.

It’s not about what can be done in the course of eight months, but maybe only eight days. Sticks go from piping hot to freezing cold. Goaltenders have an off game.

When the margin for error disappears, even the most unstoppable group from a week ago can be ousted from contention. It’s especially true when playing an unfamiliar team outside your division. Even a thorough pre-scout won’t account for the desperation and urgency manifesting in the playoffs.

Essentially, regular-season success goes out of the window. And from rewarding that — without comparable playoff results to follow — a “curse” was born.

Boston has succumbed to the Presidents’ Trophy curse on three previous occasions (1989-90, 2013-14 and 2019-20). But these 2022-23 Bruins don’t look back … right?

THE NHL PROVIDES a trophy to its top squad after 82 games, sort of like a consolation prize for the sadness to come.

Not every major sports league hands out similar hardware. But there’s a reasonable correlation between ruling the regular season and then failing to live up to postseason potential.

Hockey’s stats have been established: In the salary cap era (that’s since 2005-06), two of the past 17 Presidents’ Trophy winners have also won the Cup.

In the NBA, five of the past 17 teams to “win” the regular season went on to clinch a championship.

In Major League Baseball, it’s been six of the past 17 regular-season champs going all the way (which includes the Los Angeles Dodgers in a pandemic-shortened season).

And finally, in the NFL, four of the previous 17 top seeds also claimed a Lombardi Trophy (and none since the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles).

That’s 17 titles in 17 years across four leagues, with NHL teams remaining the least likely of all to turn that No. 1 billing into the ultimate prize.

Really then, what’s home-ice (or -court or -field) advantage got to do with it?

Throughout the salary cap stretch, 128 NHL teams have entered the postseason without home-ice advantage. Fifty-three of them moved past the first round, 23 advanced out of the second, 12 made the conference finals, and five won the Cup.

It’s a universal sports truth: When the playoffs begin, all bets are off. Boston has experienced both sides of that cliché in the past, losing out as a Presidents’ Trophy winner and also beating a Presidents’ Trophy winner (the Vancouver Canucks) in the 2010-11 Cup final.

Which end will the Bruins wind up on this season?

EXPERIENCE MUST BE EARNED. And Boston has learned the hard way about postseason failure.

Putting a pin for a minute in all those jaw-dropping triumphs the Bruins have produced this season, would they have been possible if Boston hadn’t been through hardship in potential-packed seasons of the past?

The Bruins aren’t last season’s Panthers on a thrilling, first-of-its-kind run through an offensively dominant regular season. They won’t be relying on playoff newbies who have never weathered the ups and downs of a demanding postseason round.

Boston is battle-tested, with the scars to prove it. The Bruins’ Round 1 exit against Carolina last year clearly stung. Enough so that veteran Patrice Bergeron returned for one more kick at a Cup because he believed there was more in the Bruins’ — and his own — tank.

In 2013-14, Boston was ousted in the second round. Same thing happened in 2019-20. Receiving acclaim in the regular season that ultimately amounts to so little isn’t easy, but it does provide Boston with a mental blueprint on how to get over that hump in this postseason.

Certainly, the Bruins have all the necessary assets and attributes to win a Cup right now.

Boston excelled in almost every regular-season category: The Bruins were second in goals (3.64 per game), first in goals against (2.10), had the No. 1 penalty kill (87.4%) and were top-10 in shots against.

Pastrnak was top five in league scoring, with 60 goals and 111 points. Bergeron and Brad Marchand both passed 20 goals and are as dangerous on any one shift as ever. Hampus Lindholm has garnered Norris Trophy buzz in an exceptional, career-highlight kind of campaign; he and Charlie McAvoy have been workhorses on Boston’s blue line, averaging team-high minutes each night.

David Krejci stepped back into the NHL without a hitch and the Bruins’ scoring depth — featuring great seasons from Pavel Zacha and Jake DeBrusk — is nearly unmatched.

And Linus Ullmark? He paces NHL starters in wins (39), save percentage (.938) and goals-against average (1.89). Ullmark’s backup, Jeremy Swayman, is also top-10 in GAA (2.22), with a .921 SV% to match.

Montgomery came in this season to replace Bruce Cassidy, and it’s been a seamless fit. His simplistic, straightforward approach has steadied the Bruins, made them resilient against inevitable tough times and seemingly prepared them to overcome any challenge.

(Remember when Marchand and McAvoy had to miss the start of this season recovering from respective hip and shoulder surgeries, so everyone wrote the Bruins off entirely? Ah, memories!)

There’s no one secret sauce that has made the Bruins a behemoth. Any summary will only scratch the surface on how mind-bendingly good the team has consistently been this season.

On paper, there’s every reason to think Boston can push past all comers and be the latest Presidents’ Trophy winners to break the cycle of postseason letdown.

But they are not shoo-ins.

THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS frequently turn into a war of attrition, as it’s the team that survives best that wins the ultimate prize.

Some would argue it’s the toughest championship hill to climb in all of sports.

The Bruins made it look easy in the regular season, but that’s also months of hockey already under the belts of a veteran-heavy team with a massive target on its back. Everyone wants to see a juggernaut fall. Is Boston up for — and able to stay healthy through — another eight weeks of attrition?

Montgomery gave some players rest down the stretch, but even that can end up being a detriment. Boston is about to face a Florida Panthers team that had to scratch and claw its way into a playoff spot. Momentum is a powerful, unexplainable force, too.

The Bruins also have dealt with late-season injuries to Krejci, Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno. Those can affect a roster, too, both when the players step back in and by not allowing guys as much time to create chemistry — like Hall was supposed to do with trade deadline acquisition Tyler Bertuzzi on a projected third line for the Bruins.

Then there’s Boston’s power play. The Bruins were the 22nd-ranked team with the extra man since Jan. 1 (18.0%), a baffling statistic considering how utterly dominant they’ve been everywhere else. Boston seemed to improve on the power play as the regular season closed out, but in a tightly contested series, any lack of execution of special teams can be disastrous.

Will that come back to bite the Bruins?

THAT TAKES US BACK to the “curse.”

If Boston fails to win the Cup, it won’t be because of some voodoo emanating from a well-deserved, hard-earned Presidents’ Trophy (although they will be another unfortunate statistic).

Upsets are a common occurrence in the Stanley Cup playoffs, even for teams that have dominant regular seasons — the Bruins can ask the 2018-19 Lightning about that.

But that’s how playoffs work. Anyone can win. Heroes emerge every night. History can be written at any moment. The Bruins have been proof of that all season.

Past behavior can often be an excellent indicator of future performance.

Even for Montgomery’s Bruins, who are still enamored with living in their miraculous present.

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Can the Bruins avoid the Presidents’ Trophy curse?