Their quest to defend the Cup ended in the opening round of the playoffs with an overtime loss to Washington in Game 7 last Wednesday.
But the Bruins didn't walk away from the 2011-12 season completely empty-handed. Or at least not empty-fisted. Shawn Thornton did earn a share of the league lead in fighting majors with 20 bouts in the regular season.
The achievement did little to take the sting out of Boston's unexpected early exit from the playoffs for Thornton. And as the team packed up at the Garden on Friday, he noted that leading the league wasn't a goal he had actively sought, though he did keep track of his numbers and the totals of co-leader Brandon Prust of the New York Rangers.
Thornton actually fought Buffalo's Robyn Regehr in the final game of the regular season on April 7 to pull even with Prust, but catching the Rangers tough guy wasn't the reason for dropping the gloves that day.
"I did, but that's not why I did it," Thornton said. "[Regehr] cross-checked me and I didn't like it, so I let him know. That's the end of that. Was I aware [of needing one to tie]? I knew Prust had 20 and I was one behind him, but believe me, the last thing I wanted to do that do was go out and fight. I wanted to go score a goal. It was pretty much a nothing game, but I didn't want anybody taking liberties on any of my teammates and definitely not on me. So when he was running around acting like an idiot, I thought it needed to be addressed."
Thornton stressed he doesn't drop the gloves to pad his own stats. His fights are strictly to benefit the team, either by stepping in to defend a teammate or to try to change momentum when the Bruins are in need of a lift.
"Does that mean anything? No," Thornton said of leading the league. "When I get into [fights] that's the last thing on my mind. We had some struggles during the first part of the season. There was a point where I think I fought five games in a row and it was more out of necessity than me trying to lead the league. We were down by a couple goals or things weren't going well so I was trying to do what I could do to get the team going."
Thornton did much of his fighting early in the year as he tried to help the Bruins snap out of their Stanley Cup hangover. That included a stretch of four fights over five games from Oct. 20-Nov. 1 just as the Bruins snapped out of their funk and started their dominant stretch of play through early January. There wasn't always a direct correlation, but more often than not Thornton's bouts paid dividends for the Bruins, who were 12-6-1 when he fought.
Still, Thornton deflected praise as adroitly as he fends off rival heavyweights' haymakers, noting that his league-leading total wasn't that impressive a tally, but rather more reflective of the decrease in fighting league-wide this season.
"Twenty's a low number for the league lead, so it's probably more a product of that more than anything else," said Thornton, who was signed to a two-year extension late in the season to remain in Boston through the 2013-14 season. "A couple years ago I had 21 or 22 and I wasn't even close to the league lead. So it's a product of not as many fights happening."
Thornton is correct about that. The stats tracked by hockeyfights.com had the NHL featuring just 0.44 fights per game in the 2011-12 season, down from 0.52 a year ago and the lowest since 0.40 in 2006-07 when fighting hit its nadir following the rules changes coming out of the lockout.
That 2006-07 season was also the last time there was a league leader with less than 20 fights, with George Parros topping the circuit with just 18. Brian McGrattan's 19 fights in 2005-06 and Mike Peluso's 19 in 1994-95 (in a 48-game season thanks to the first extended owners' lockout) were the only seasons without at least one player reaching 20 since Dave Schultz led the league with 16 fights in the embryonic stages of the Broad Street Bullies in 1972-73.
In 13 of the last 26 years, the league leader had 30-plus fights, and Thornton's career-high 21 tied him for just sixth in league as recently as 2009-10. Thornton joins Andrei Nazarov (27 fights in 2000-01) and Jay Miller (33 in 1987-88) as the only Bruins to lead the league since the end of the Original Six era in 1967.
And while Thornton's numbers may pale in comparison to some of the totals of past years, he can take pride in knowing that each of his bouts took place for the right reasons in an effort to help his team.