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Let’s Go, Boston

The Bruins return to their home ice

Everyone already knew the anthem would be perfect. The Boston Bruins have one of the league’s great pregame performers in Rene Rancourt, and even on a median night — say, some mid-January Tuesday-nighter against the Carolina Hurricanes — his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a rousing, operatic affair. On a big night — like a Stanley Cup finals game — it’s booming and frenzied and sublime. And on a night like Wednesday’s — the first Bruins home game since two bombs were detonated at the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three and injuring more than 100 — Rancourt’s version of the national anthem practically seemed to take flight.

Rancourt began to sing in his usual way; the only difference was the reaction from the crowd of 17,565. Like any great playmaker, he waited just a tiny bit longer than you might have expected … and then let go of things so smoothly that you barely perceived the handoff. The Boston crowd seemed to be so distracted by the easily-belted-out “proooooooudly” that they didn’t even notice that Rancourt wasn’t joining them as they hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.

But once the Boston crowd realized what was really going on — an earnest, emotional, arena-wide sing-along — it was like watching a child experience that first mind-blowing bike ride without Mom or Dad gripping the back of his seat: the sudden grasp of freedom, the waver of uncertainty, the surprise at one’s might, and then the propulsive release of simply pedaling, pedaling, pedaling full steam ahead. “It’s the quite audibly dropped ‘r’ in ‘stars’ that really chokes up this Beverly native,” Slate editor John Swansburg pointed out on Twitter. For me, it was the rockets’ red glare.

“You do get a bit choked up,” Chris Kelly later said. “It’s something that you try to fight back some tears and when you go to swallow, it feels like you’ve got something in your throat.”

“It was extremely emotional. I was definitely fighting back tears,” Brad Marchand said after the game, the first major sporting event in the city since the bombing.

“My hair was standing up on the back of my neck,” Shawn Thornton, who sang along with the national anthem just like everyone in the stands, told NHL Network. “It was very emotional.”

Thornton and Kelly grew up in Ontario; Marchand is from Nova Scotia. The Bruins have only two Americans on their roster, and both were healthy scratches Wednesday night. But it didn’t matter, because by the wonderfully fuzzy transitive properties of sports, they are all Bruins, therefore they are all Bostonians, therefore we are all in this together.

Dennis Seidenberg #44 of the Boston Bruins

A few minutes into the game, the TV crew pointed out that the crowd was chanting “Let’s go, Boston!” instead of the customary “Let’s go, Bruins!” On Twitter, I saw two different reports: one that everyone was yelling “We love Boston!” and another that it was actually “We are Boston!” I like to think that all three interpretations were equally correct, that they’re just three different facets of the same precious gem. It’s a bit like translating something from English to a foreign language and then back again: All the nuance disappears, but the raw intentions remain.

“Duly, the shows of solidarity with Boston have been expressed through sports,” wrote the New Republic’s Marc Tracy, “which has meant dipping into the sappy language of Boston fandom” — like how the New York Yankees played “Sweet Caroline,” or how Tracy has seen signs of support that use the Red Sox logo as shorthand for the town. It’s a testament to the link between people and place, between city and sport, between the projected and the personal. And so it seems almost appropriate to admit that the most resonant moment of proud mourning we’ve seen all week has maybe come during the pregame ceremonies for a freaking hockey game.

The problem with relying on sports, though, is that you can’t. The Sabres, down all game, unapologetically tied it with less than 30 seconds remaining. In the shootout, neither Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, nor Brad Marchand could score on Ryan Miller, and Buffalo came away with the 3-2 win. It was ostensibly a disappointing ending to what had been a genuinely uplifting night — until it became clear that most of the fans were still at their seats, loudly chearing, and that all the players on both teams still lingered proudly on the ice.

They raised their sticks, all of them, and saluted the fans, and that’s when it became so obvious: It didn’t matter that the Bruins lost, because this game was never about the Bruins. It was, always, about Boston.

The Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Look, I know the Minnesota Wild use Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant” for their goal celebration song, too, but I’d like to start a petition that it belong solely to the New York Islanders forevermore. It was during this Matt Moulson goal the other day that the celebratory suite just really, no pun intended, sang to me. It feels so Nassau Coliseum. It sounds like it belongs in an über-competitive Guitar Hero competition that takes place out in the concourse. It’s so much better than the old song. It’s so much more Long Island.

Moulson’s goal was his 14th in 42 games this season; the 29-year-old forward is averaging a career-high 0.95 points per game, and what’s most impressive is that he’s doing so despite registering a career-low shooting percentage. (Last season 16.4 percent of his shots went in; this year it’s 9.8 percent.) He’s part of an Islanders team that has a dangerous young corps, a defiant old goalie, and serious first-round upset potential. If I’m Pittsburgh or Boston — the two teams that have the best odds of facing the Islanders in the playoffs — I’m a little antsy right about now.

John Tavares, who has generated Hart Trophy buzz and who has one of the greatest value contracts in the league through 2018, is third in the NHL in goal scoring. And Michael Grabner has provided production, too; his two goals against Florida on Tuesday put his on-the-year total to 15. Sure, it was the Panthers, but it doesn’t matter when it looks like this:

Also, the spotlight shining down on the orange-and-blue uniform reminds me of how they do things at Rexall Place. Can you imagine how incredibly awesome an Oilers-Isles Stanley Cup rematch could be in a couple years?

Other runners-up this week: Ryan Kesler is back; Thomas Vanek is not of this world; and the good people of Winnipeg have been tricked into falling in love with an American boy.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Go home, Edmonton Oilers, you’re drunk. No, seriously: The goings-on in and around Edmonton’s front office lately have been so genuinely loopy that they reminded me of an essay I read years ago on some website called Modern Drunkard Magazine about the virtues of blacking out. (Hey, we all found material for our AIM profiles in our own ways.) I have no doubt that for Oilers president Kevin Lowe, the series of events that culminated in Monday’s press conference to announce the firing of GM Steve Tambellini was like an unplanned, streaking-the-quad kind of bender. The kind that winds up like this …

It happens to even the most moderately accomplished drinkers. In addition to an above-average hangover, you wake up with a vague feeling of unease and the sense that your memories of last night are a lot sparser than they should be.

Kevin Lowe stirs; stretches. Winces at a few tweaks here and there. These old bones, he thinks. He smiles. These old six-time Stanley Cup–winning bones. At that, something catches in his mind — a distant memory, visible only if he doesn’t look directly at it, like a star in the clear Alberta prairie night sky after a night spent celebrating another Stanley Cup win. Six Stanley Cups. A press conference. Reporters. Those goddamn reporters. Six Stanley Cups. Winners. Celebrating in front of the fans. All the fans. There was something about the fans —

As you begin to piece your identity back together, a sordid tale emerges from the disjointed scraps of evidence around your room. The half-eaten economy-size bag of Chili Cheese Fritos and four melted ice cream bars suggest you stopped by a convenience store on the way home, but the shopping cart in your doorway is from Safeway, and that’s a mile and a half down the road.

Kevin Lowe is startled when he goes into the kitchen and finds Gary Bettman smoking a cigarette like he’s Betty Draper. “Sit down, Kevin,” Bettman says. With one hand he snaps open an attaché case and withdraws a lengthy document.

“You said a lot of things yesterday, Kevin,” he begins. “You said, and I quote: ‘We have two types of fans. We have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about. But certainly the people who go to the games and support, we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message.'” He takes a long drag.

A slow tour of the house reveals the lights are all on, the door is wide open, the CD player is looping Air Supply at full volume, your roommate is missing and there’s a strange dog on his bed.

“You said some other stuff, too, Kevin,” Bettman says. “Again, here I quote: ‘I’ll say that there’s one other guy in hockey today that is still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me. So I think I know a little bit about winning, if there’s ever a concern.'” Bettman rubs his temple. “Again with the Stanley Cups thing, Kevin? I mean, Nail Yakupov wasn’t even born yet.”

Lowe reddens; the thunder rolls. “He would have been eight and a half months old during the last one!”

The last thing that anyone should ever do is feel ashamed of blacking out. You were trying to get drunk last night and, goddamnit, mission accomplished. Sometimes we must close our minds to the horrors of the world, especially if we happen to be the father of those horrors. Do not, under any circumstances, explain yourself or apologize to anyone for your actions.

“Get that computer graphics guy in here,” Lowe hollers. “I want to make a YouTube.” He fixes his sweater, he speaks. He isn’t sure what he says, but he knows it’s all good stuff. Winning. Six-time Stanley Cup winning. The fans will get it. His fans. The phone rings.

“Next time you record an apology YouTube video to Oilers fans, Kevin,” Bettman says, his voice crisp. “You may want to take the framed New York Rangers photo down off your wall first.”

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

• Justin Bourne wrote a list of the NHL’s 10 best players through the neutral zone. Considering the importance of good zone entries with respect to generating offense [PDF] this is a pretty solid list to be on. (To it I’d add Erik Karlsson.)

Here’s a nice interview — worth it just for the photo alone — of Alexei Yashin, former Senators star and Islanders saga. Yashin is retired from the NHL and is now the GM of the Russian national women’s hockey team, which hopes to stand up to the North American powerhouse teams when they host the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi next February. Speaking of stand up, who else wasn’t expecting the kind comments about Mike Milbury? Whatta guy.

• The Buffalo Sabres’ John Scott is giving the Keslurker a creeparound for his money. Listen to the way the kids giggle here: We’ve got a new generation of hockey fans, folks! You know John Collins just inked a 12-year merchandising deal with the purveyors of that fine brown fur robe.

• The Globe and Mail‘s James Mirtle wrote as clear-eyed and dispassionate a piece as one possibly could on this year’s meteoric rise of young Maple Leafs sensation Nazem Kadri. The 22-year-old center has scored 41 points in 43 games this season and could play a key part, in the eyes of many a Toronto fan, in the glorious revolution of the franchise. But will he be able to repeat his success? Spoiler: If he does, it will be without precedent. Mirtle displays two great charts that put Kadri’s season in the context of the NHL and show what has happened to past players who have had similarly puck-lucky seasons. (Random takeaways from chart no. 1? Taylor Hall is a beast, and poor Brian Boyle.)

• I got a kick out of this tweet from The Score’s Rob Pizzo: “Word emphasis now in playoff talk is key. ‘NOT mathematically eliminated’ = Still hope. ‘Not MATHEMATICALLY eliminated’ = Plan tee times.” In that vein, here are some teams who are NOT mathematically eliminated: the Winnipeg Jets, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Dallas Stars. And, sorry to say, some that are not MATHEMATICALLY eliminated: the Buffalo Sabres, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the rest of you know who you are.

• With that in mind, here are a few big games to watch over the next few days. On the Eastern Conference bubble, the Winnipeg Jets and Islanders will play a game with major playoff implications Saturday, while the New York Rangers are scheduled to take on every trap game on the planet. (Safer in the standings but not free from trouble are the Montreal Canadiens, who have lost three straight and may well take out all their frustrations tonight against poor Tampa Bay.) Out West, the only way a team like Dallas could even conceivably make a playoff push would be to win a game like the one they have at St. Louis on Friday. And the Detroit Red Wings, meanwhile, can reverse their recent skid — and save their 21-year playoff streak — with a Saturday win over Vancouver. And tonight — oh my god, would you two please stop flirting and just make out already?!

• I hope Alex Ovechkin does end up getting a championship ring for his old Dynamo Moscow team winning the KHL’s Gagarin Cup — “Im gonna get the champion ring )))haha,” he wrote on Twitter — and I hope when he does, the jewelry is fashioned in the exact fashion of that unbelievable chalice. It makes the Stanley Cup look like a Monopoly piece.

• Here’s the latest NHL commercial, which I think is pretending to showcase the weird and wacky world of players while secretly serving as some sort of strobe-lit Rorschach test in which the league is extracting your personal information through your looks of confusion. (What, you thought this was unsettling?) I wonder if they could flash those player photos over a nightclubbishly hypnotic remix of Jason Spezza’s laughter any faster? I feel weak; I feel drugged. I’ve entered a hallucinatory state in which Steve Ott slowly licked Jeff Halpern’s visor and Geno Malkin’s alabaster skin was rumored to be seared to an unplayable crisp.

And a Beauty! The Week’s Nicest in Net

Halfway through the first period of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ game against the Wild on Saturday, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopped an attempt by Zach Parise on the Minnesota power play that frustrated the Minnesota left wing and kept the score at 0-0. Parise smacked his stick into the boards in frustration. The Blue Jackets, despite being outshot 41-22, won the game 3-2 in a shootout in which Bobrovsky would stop Parise again.

In Columbus’s next game, a Monday tilt in Colorado, the Blue Jackets fought their way into overtime with an R.J. Umberger goal in the final minutes. Less than a minute into OT, though, Avalanche winger Gabriel Landeskog cut in alone on a shorthanded breakaway, and it looked as though all the Blue Jackets would get would be one point. But Bobrovsky denied the young captain, and later — with just 29 seconds to play in the extra session — Nick Foligno’s goal would give the Blue Jackets the win.

It’s all been part of a five-game winning streak for #LUMBUS, who haven’t lost since a 3-0 stinker at home against the Wild on April 7 and now find themselves, at least briefly, in the last Western Conference playoff spot. The Blue Jackets’ run goes back even further than that, too: Of their last 25 games, dating back to February 26 against Dallas, they’ve lost only four in regulation. And so increasingly, the question has become: Should Bobrovsky be a contender for the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s MVP?

In goal this season, the beanpolish 24-year-old has put up even-strength numbers that are nearly identical to those of a Henrik Lundqvist or a Tuukka Rask: 51 goals allowed on 777 shots, or an even-strength save percentage of .938. No goalie who has played at least 20 games this season has amassed better numbers than “Bob.” (What’s more, he’s enchanted a Blue Jackets fan base once unfairly stereotyped as being hostile to Russian players.)

Bobrovsky’s Hart case, according to his staunchest advocates, boils down to this: The “player most valuable to his team” should be the one that you simply can’t take out of the lineup, or else. Bobrovsky would ostensibly fit that bill — particularly if you remember some of Steve Mason’s more recent seasons — as would a player like John Tavares. Hart contenders like Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews, these people point out, are on teams so good that removing them isn’t going to make things appreciably worse. (The flip side to this argument is that the best player in the league is by definition the most valuable player a team can have.)

Whether or not Bobrovsky actually earns Hart support — and I’d say that if the Blue Jackets remain in the playoffs, he’ll deserve to be in exactly these sorts of conversations — remains to be seen, but perhaps we’re already seeing the guy’s impact on the ice. Fine, fine: I know David Steckel didn’t deploy this wacky “time release” goal intentionally Wednesday night, but it’s fun to think that maybe it was done on purpose, because he couldn’t figure out how to score on Bobrovsky any other way.

Other notable stops: Brian Elliott continues to improve after a disastrous early season (with three straight shutouts in April, he’s allowed seven goals in his last seven games); Antti Niemi stuffs Mike Richards; and Justin Peters takes that Niemi save and basically Dikembe Mutombos it.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

Sometimes a week begins to go by without too much controversial NHL chaos of note and I start wondering how I’m going to finesse this part of the column, and then, reliably, there comes along a headline like this: “David Backes Mocks Zack Kassian’s Hairline: ‘Are You Going Bald?’

Love it. The thing about Backes is, despite his occasional on-ice mischief, he’s always fundamentally branded as a Nice Guy — I mean, he pilots planes to rescue puppies — that you wonder if what we’re seeing here may actually be some of his darkest material. I’m doing it, I’m going for the bald stuff. (As Sean Gentille points out, it’s doubly meaningful because he’s projecting.) Meanwhile, Kassian appears completely unaffected by the sick burn, which should surprise no one. The guy is an agitator who is pretty much operating with one working tooth. He’s probably been hearing hair-loss material since Mites.

Hockey Haiku

You like outdoor games?
We’ll smother you in whimsy.
Your last words: CHA-CHING.

Filed Under: Boston Bruins, Teams

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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