BOSTON — A year ago, your Big Bad Boston Bruins deservedly basked in the limelight.
They played before a packed TD Garden almost every night. From October through April, they were as good and as tough — or so we thought — as any team in hockey. They finally put hockey back on the New England sports map.
They beat Montreal like a rented mule, sweeping the Canadiens in four. They opened the next series against unsung Carolina with a 4-1 plastering.
I remembered walking out of the TD Garden after that game thinking that Bruins team might be the best since Ray Bourque and Cam Neely were truly heading a Stanley Cup contender in the early 1990s.
Then came the thud. The Bruins lost three straight games to Carolina.
Sure, they came back to win the next two, rather convincingly (4-0 and 4-2), before rendering 18,000 rabid people speechless after the 3-2 overtime loss.
In retrospect, we were wrong. Dead wrong. The 2008-09 Bruins were good, at times very good, but they didn't deserve the adulation we gave them.
They weren't tough enough.
Fast forward to last night, when the Bruins battled through two overtimes to pull out a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, taking a 3-1 lead in the series.
The team nobody has believed in, deservedly so, appears to finally get it.
These Bruins are the antithesis of the team Carolina sent to area golf courses.
"Right now, yeah, we're a pretty tough team," said Bruins right winger Mark Recchi. "We've had a lot of adversity and for about a month and half we've played pretty well. We've had to fight for everything we've gotten."
That's the word ... fight.
Sorry Stan Jonathan (in my top 10 all-time favorite Bruins), that doesn't mean fisticuffs. It means doing whatever it takes.
It wasn't that long ago that people — me included — questioned this team's toughness. The team's handling of the Matt Cooke cheap shot of Marc Savard was not sufficient. One Shawn Thornton knuckle sandwich was not enough.
Or so we thought.
But maybe that incident, and what they learned from it, is why we are here talking about a 3-1 series lead over the best goalie on the planet.
We have to put what has happened here in perspective.
When Buffalo leads a game in the third period, they are the Yankees. They won ... to the tune of 31-0. And USA Olympic goalie sensation Ryan Miller is the Sabres' version of the Mariano Rivera.
But twice in four days the Bruins have overcome a two-goal deficit to beat Miller and the Sabres.
I honestly didn't see this coming.
"We've been playing in a playoff atmosphere for about a month now," said Recchi. "I think that's helped, we've been in playoff-mode for some time. I think the difference (between now and earlier in the season) is we trust each other. We know what we have to do."
Recchi's hit on Tim Kennedy might be the play the defines the series, which was tied 1-1 in the game and their series. As the pair approached the puck in the corner, the 42-year-old Recchi buried the 23-year-old Kennedy with a check. He immediately got the puck to Patrice Bergeron, who scored from in front of the net with 7:03 remaining in the game.
"Veteran players look at it (as if) this could be one of my last opportunities," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff of Recchi's play in Game 3.
That's exactly how the Bruins are playing, as if it is their last game, even when it isn't.
Recchi admits he is impressed.
From Milan Lucic's return to his punishing style to Zdeno Chara's diving head first (he did have a mask on his helmet) into a wrist shot, these Bruins appear to get it.
"It takes time to understand the playoffs," said Recchi, who has now played two extra seasons of playoff hockey (156 games). "Last year was last year. Guys are a little older and a little wiser. The playoffs are tough. But man they are fun."
I don't think the Bruins are the best team in hockey. But, you know what, maybe that doesn't matter as much as we first thought.
And with possibility of Savard coming back, maybe within a week, we might have to reassess these Bruins.
Maybe they are tough enough to win the Stanley Cup.
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.