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Top Stories of 2011, No. 1: Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship

12.31.11 at 12:00 pm ET

For the final 10 days of 2011, has counted down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our final entry in the countdown is No. 1: The Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NBA lockout
No. 9: NFL lockout
No. 8: Celtics’ playoff loss to Heat
No. 7: Patriots’ acquisitions of Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco
No. 6: Jacoby Ellsbury’s MVP-caliber season
No. 5: Patriots’ playoff loss to Jets
No. 4: Celtics’ trade of Kendrick Perkins
No. 3: Red Sox’ manager/GM turnover
No. 2: Red Sox’ September swoon

Before the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the questions surrounding the Bruins were more about Claude Julien‘€™s job security than their chances of winning the Cup. The Bruins were mired in a 39-year title drought and had made an embarrassing exit from the playoffs the year before when they held a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers only to lose the next four games.

Boston entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and would face the sixth-seeded Canadiens, against whom the Bruins had gone 2-3-1 during the regular season. And so, entering a playoff series against the Bruins’€™ biggest rival, Julien had to answer questions about whether he felt he was coaching for his job in the postseason.

‘€œI’€™m coach like every other year,’€ Julien said two days before Game 1. ‘€œThat part of it doesn’€™t change at all. You don’€™t come in here worried about yourself. In the playoffs, you come here worrying about winning the Stanley Cup. Certainly, it’€™s not even in the back of my mind.’€

But the questions about Julien and the Bruins only grew louder when the B’s lost the first two games of the series, both of which were at home. The Bruins mustered just one goal in the first two games while the Canadiens scored five times. But the Bruins regrouped and won the next two games in Montreal, one in overtime fashion on a Michael Ryder goal.

In Game 5, the Bruins again won with overtime heroics when Nathan Horton found the back of the net in double overtime to give the Bruins a 2-1 win and a 3-2 series lead. The Canadiens pushed the series to Game 7 when they topped the Bruins with a 2-1 win off Boston College product Brian Gionta‘€™s second period game-winner at the Bell Centre.

The final game of the series was a bitterly fought contest between the rivals, as Tomas Plekanec tied the game at 2 in the second period before Chris Kelly gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead in the third. With 1:57 remaining, P.K. Subban, a player who drew heavy criticism from Bruins fans (and Tim Thomas) for his alleged diving on the ice, tied the game on a power-play goal.

But Horton was again ready to play the hero. His goal off a slapper from above the left circle sent the Bruins to a 4-3 win and set up a rematch between the Bruins and Flyers.

Entering the Flyers series, the Bruins hoped to not only exact revenge on the team that embarrassed them in the playoffs the year before, but also get their first power-play goal of the postseason. The Flyers, meanwhile, struggled to find a solid netminder and attempted to counter Thomas with both Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Boucher was pulled from all three games that he started. In Games 1 and 3, he was pulled after giving up a combined nine goals. In Game 2, he was pulled in the second period after suffering a hand injury on a Johnny Boychuk slap shot, but he returned to the game in the third. Bobrovsky started Game 4, but the goalie switch did not make a difference, as the Bruins ended Philadelphia’€™s season with a 5-1 win.

The Bruins series against the Flyers brought to a close two issues haunting the Bruins. Boston finally scored a power-play goal for the first time in the postseason on Zdeno Chara‘€™s 5-on-3 tally in Game 3. The series victory over the Flyers also shut the book on the Bruins’€™ blown series from 2010.

But the Flyers series did create a new problem for Boston. Alternate captain Patrice Bergeron suffered a light concussion off a hit from Claude Giroux in the third period of Game 4, which was a problematic diagnosis for a player with a history of concussion problems. Bergeron’€™s absence from the lineup meant a chance for rookie Tyler Seguin, who had yet to see a minute of playoff action, in Game 1 of the conference finals against the Lightning.

Before the game, veteran Mark Recchi offered his thoughts on Seguin’€™s presence in the lineup.

‘€œThis is another level, and he’€™s ready for it,’€ Recchi said. ‘€œIt will be fun.’€

Little did he know that Seguin would have an immediate impact. Despite seeing just 9:38 of ice time, Seguin factored into both Bruins goals in a 5-2 Game 1 loss. Seguin’€™s first playoff goal came at 15:59 of the first period, as he stickhandled past defenseman Mike Lundin and slipped the puck by Dwayne Roloson to cut the Tampa lead to 3-1. In the third period, Seguin assisted on a Kelly goal that came in garbage time.

In Game 2, Seguin wowed again with a four-point game in a 6-5 Bruins win. Seguin scored his first goal of the game when he burst through two defenders entering the offensive zone, then switched forehand-to-backhand in front of Roloson and flipped it past him for the goal. His second tally came on a 2-on-1 with Horton, who carried the puck into the zone then passed to Seguin, who beat Roloson top-shelf. Seguin also recorded assists on two Ryder goals. Even opposing coach Guy Boucher had praise for Seguin.

‘€œThe first two games, it’€™s clear the players and everybody underestimated his speed,’€ Boucher said. ‘€œThat’€™s the main thing. His speed is obviously a weapon for him and his team. Being a young guy and having success right away, it certainly takes a lot of the nervousness away, and for us we know he’€™s going to be on the ice and we have to be able to keep up with his speed.’€

And so while Bergeron returned in Game 3 of the series, Seguin remained in the lineup while Shawn Thornton took a seat in the press box. But Seguin was not the only star of the Tampa Bay series. Thomas continued to play in top form and made a few highlight-reel saves, but none were bigger than his stick save on Steve Downie, when he dove across the crease and batted Downie’€™s shot away with the heel of his stick as the puck caromed toward an open spot near the left post.

As is fitting for a conference finals, the Bruins and Lightning battled their way to a decisive Game 7. The game was a display in remarkable discipline, as neither team was whistled for a penalty for the entire 60-minute game. The lack of power plays was a blessing for a Bruins team that was 5-for-61 on the power play entering Game 7. For the third time in the playoffs, Horton was the hero, as he slapped a centering pass from David Krejci past Roloson 12:27 into the third period to give the Bruins a 1-0 win and their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1990.

Going into the finals, the Bruins looked to be facing a steep challenge in the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks. Other NHL players, including Oiler and Boston native Ryan Whitney, warned that the Canucks were the most hated team in the NHL because of their arrogance and over-the-line antics on the ice. The Bruins quickly got a taste of how detestable the Canucks could be.

In the first period of Game 1, Bergeron got into it with Vancouver forward Alexandre Burrows, who appeared to bite Bergeron’€™s finger. Burrows was penalized on the ice with a double minor for roughing while Bergeron served two minutes for the same reason. However, the NHL took no further action against Burrows because the league said video evidence was not conclusive enough to determine whether Burrows bit Bergeron.

The Bruins lost Game 1 on a Raffi Torres goal that broke a scoreless tie with 18.5 seconds left in regulation. They lost again in Game 2 when Burrows, who recorded three points in the game, scored 11 seconds into overtime for a 3-2 decision, cementing his spot as Public Enemy No. 1 in Boston.

Former NHLer Ray Ferraro, who has a radio show in Vancouver, expressed his disgust with the NHL’€™s failure to penalize Burrows.

‘€œI said on our show, if that’€™s the case then I want to rob a bank in the city of the NHL, because I’€™ll never get caught,” Ferrraro told Mut & Merloni. “How much more evidence do you need than that? He shouldn’€™t have been in the game. And then you’€™re right, it is the NHL’€™s worst scenario, that a player that shouldn’€™t be in the game goes and has such a direct impact on the outcome of the next game.’€

The Bruins, for the second time in the playoffs, were facing a 2-0 series deficit. But as opposed to the Montreal series, the Bruins were returning to home ice with a chance to tie the series before going back to Vancouver.

Game 3 did not start out promising for the B’s. Just 5:07 into the game, the Bruins lost the clutch Horton when Aaron Rome caught him with a massive hit after Horton gave up the puck, leaving Horton lying with his back on the ice and his eyes rolling back in his head. Horton suffered a severe concussion from the play, and Rome was suspended for the remainder of the playoffs.

The Bruins failed to respond to the hit on the scoreboard in the first period, but they caught fire in the second and third periods, scoring five unanswered goals on their way to an 8-1 rout. In Game 4, the Bruins touched up Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo for four goals to chase him from the game in favor of Boston College product Cory Schneider. Thomas, meanwhile, stopped all 38 Vancouver shots to help the Bruins to the 4-0 shutout.

The Bruins’€™ success against Vancouver in Boston did not travel well, as Luongo responded to his beatdown in Boston with a 1-0 shutout back in Canada. After Game 5, he had some words for Thomas.

‘€œI’€™ve been pumping his tires ever since the series started. I haven’€™t heard any one nice thing he’€™s had to say about me, so that’€™s the way it is,’€ Luongo said.

Thomas responded with a subtler jab, saying, ‘€œI guess I didn’€™t realize it was my job to pump his tires. I guess I have to apologize for that.’€

The Bruins returned to Boston for Game 6 down 3-2 in the series and needing a win to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive. They received a pleasant surprise upon their return to Garden ice, as the injured Horton appeared on the video board smiling and waving a Bruins rally towel, igniting both the Boston fans and the team.

The Bruins earned a trip back to Vancouver with a 5-2 win. They scored four goals in a 4:14 span in the first period, breaking a finals record for the quickest four goals scored by one team. Luongo was yanked from the game in favor of Schneider after giving up the Bruins’€™ third goal, his tires undoubtedly deflated once more.

The Bruins flew to Vancouver with momentum and a bit of luck on their side. No team in the series had won on opposing ice, so the Bruins concocted a plan to make the Vancouver ice theirs for Game 7. While the rest of the team suited up, Horton, who was healthy enough to make the trip but not healthy enough to play, squirted melted Garden ice from a water bottle onto the Vancouver ice before the game.

The trick worked. The Bruins solved the road win problem and coasted to a 4-0 victory over Luongo and the Canucks to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972.

Thomas, just a year removed from losing his starting job to Tuukka Rask, won the Conn Smythe trophy for the most valuable player of the playoffs, as he led all NHL goaltenders in the playoffs with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. His numbers in the finals were even better, as he posted a 1.15 goals-against and a .967 save percentage. He also became the first goalie in NHL history to post a shutout on the road in a Game 7 of the finals.

Recchi announced he would retire, ending his NHL career with his third Stanley Cup championship. All playoffs, the Bruins had awarded a vintage 1980s warm-up jacket to whoever the players deemed the MVP of the game. After the Cup win, there were questions as to what the Bruins would do with the jacket, but that problem was solved at the opener of the 2011-12 season, when the Bruins awarded the jacket permanently to Recchi in a pregame banner-raising ceremony.

While Vancouver rioted in the streets following its Game 7 loss, the Bruins and their fans embarked on a summer-long celebration, with the most-attended championship parade in Boston history and appearances with the Cup at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium. As Recchi noted, the celebrations were long overdue.

‘€œIt’€™s incredible,’€ he said. ‘€œIt’€™s such a great sports town anyway. With the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots all winning in the last 10 years and for the Bruins to do it now — and it’€™s been a long time, 39 years — it’€™s great to be a championship city again. There’€™s nothing better.’€

Read More: Claude Julien, Nathan Horton, Tim Thomas, Top Stories of 2011