Bruins Learn Just How Hard It Is to Repeat in NHL as Mental Strain Dooms Cup Defense

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Bruins Learn Just How Hard It Is to Repeat in NHL as Mental Strain Dooms Cup DefenseBOSTON — For the 14th straight season, a new Stanley Cup champion will be crowned this year.

Boston's quest to end that drought of repeat champs was snuffed out in the opening round with a 2-1 overtime loss to Washington on Wednesday.

But in many ways, the seeds of that defeat were sown at the same time that the Bruins were completing their run to last year's title. The nature of the NHL playoffs, with four seven-game series of ever-increasing intensity, pressure and physicality takes such a toll on a team.

Add in a short offseason with minimal recovery time and another 82-game regular-season grind before trying to muster the kind of mental and physical commitment needed for another playoff run and it's easy to understand why no Cup champion has successfully defended the title since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

"Well it's obviously a very difficult thing," Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. "That's why nobody's done it in a long time. But having said that, I thought we had a better chance than most. I thought that if we could get past this first-round hurdle that we would pick up some energy and momentum. I mean, I had the picture in my head of holding the Cup again this year. I believed in that this team still had what it took to get it done, even with that short summer and everything else."

But the short summer and long season were too much for the Bruins to overcome, just as it has been for so many other recent champions. It was less the physical toll of so many games and so little time off than it was the mental strain of being in the crosshairs of every team you face all season long.

"The whole year has been a mental challenge for our guys," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Physically, I don't think it's that big of an issue because guys are in great shape, but the mental part of it is just a challenge. It just seems like, even getting into these playoffs, it seemed like it was just yesterday we'd gone through it, and so things happen fast.

"The summer was short, guys came back, and now you're asking them to re-focus for a whole season, and that's not an easy task to do," Julien added. "We had a slow start, and we finally picked it up again, and midway through the season, [around] February, we started having our struggles again, and then trying to pick it up at the end of the year, which were did a little bit, but, again, I don't think our team was in tune as well as it was at this time last year."

The 2010-11 season had its slumps and streaks as well, but the fluctuations did not last as long this year's rollercoaster campaign.

"It was a long year," Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "We had a few ups and downs, longer ups and downs than expected, but at the end we came out of it strong and at the end we seemed to find our rhythm again going into the playoffs. But then again, we didn't play our best hockey in the series."

The Bruins snapped out of their funk twice, shaking off the initial Stanley Cup hangover with 25 wins in a 30-game stretch after a 3-7-0 start, then rallying late in the season to finish 9-2-1 in their last dozen games. But they couldn't find that consistency in the playoffs, failing to win back-to-back games at any point in the series with Washington.

"It's definitely disappointing," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "It's not a great feeling. We worked so hard all season long and battled through a lot to finish where we did in the division. Even we battled in this series to give ourselves a chance and going into Game 7. So, definitely disappointing and like I said, we just couldn't get that one bounce to give us that win."

The Bruins did battle through a lot of adversity in the regular season. They overcame those extended slumps and earned the second seed in the East and did become the first team ever to repeat as Northeast Division champions. That wasn't the repeat they wanted though.

"Especially the way we started, you look at the 3-7 record and everyone was counting us out right off the beginning and we showed that we're still an elite team coming off such a short summer and all that," Lucic said. "So, we accomplished a lot this year but we didn't really accomplish our ultimate goal. That's the part of the sport that you have to deal with sometimes."

The Bruins spent the whole season dealing with adversity, but hope the experience will only make them stronger.

"More mentally I think," Seidenberg said. "Physically I felt, I can only speak for myself, but I felt really well. There were times throughout the season where you'd just get mentally fatigued and we're just dragging along and I think that was the hardest part. But again, you learn from all those situations and try and make it better next time."

Lucic agreed. "It was real tough," the burly winger said. "You don't want to make excuses, but it was real tough to get yourself mentally prepared to start that season and get ready for the grind of the season and even the playoffs. Especially ending the way that we did with 22 games in the last 40 days of the season, you know, you're definitely feeling it after that.

"But like I said, you don't want to make excuses, but now with this time off we won?t have any excuses for next year," Lucic said. "We've got to do whatever we can to get our rest and come in healthy and ready to play."

It wasn't the way the Bruins wanted to get some much-needed rest, but they'll do their best to take advantage of the opportunity to restore their strength for a much longer run next spring.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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