OTBH: Practically Winning Their Way

Playoffs or bust, says this olde tymey hockey dude.

Because all that matters is making it in.

Today is April 9th, 2013. Do you know where your Bruins are?

In the playoff race, I mean. And of course you do, you know exactly where they are, how many points they are ahead of the team behind them, how many points they are outside of the division lead. It's the part of the season when we all pay a great deal of attention to these things -- to the standings, and to one's team's chances of making the playoffs.

The Bruins haven't clinched a playoff berth yet, but they're almost there. In fact, they might be by the end of the week, if they win these next several games. In any case, their appearance in the 2013 playoffs seems like a fairly certain thing. And then -- well, once more into the breach, and all that. The playoffs are, in many ways, a fresh start. Anything is possible, and every game/series is potentially winnable, just as long as you make it in.

When a franchise is as old as the Bruins -- or the Canadiens, or the Rangers, for that matter -- are, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are part and parcel of that franchise's history. There are great years, wonderful, exciting, playoff-round-winning seasons. Sometimes those seasons come in chunks of two, three, heck, even ten years, and team becomes dynastic in its winning ways. The roller coaster, she keeps on rolling, though; lean years often follow, characterized by first-round playoff exits or (every fan's fear) by missing the postseason altogether.

When the Boston Bruins entered the NHL in 1924, they joined 5 other teams for a six-team league. In this, the inaugural season of professional hockey in Boston, the Bruins failed to make the playoffs by a wide margin. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the 1924-1925 Bruins were super bad at hockey. Incredibly so. At this point, I honestly find the total fail that was that season to be sort of endearing. I would like to pinch the cheeks of those Bruins players of old.

The following season (by which point the size of the league had increased by one; buh-bye, Hamilton Tigers, and welcome, Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates!), the Bruins did much, much better -- but still found themselves outside of the playoff picture, having missed by just one point. And so it wasn't until the third year of the Bruins' existence, in the late winter of 1927, that the Bruins found themselves in serious playoff contention for the first time.

Now, these days we have a bunch of stats sites and prognosticators telling us what a team's ‘magic number' is -- when said team will be guaranteed to miss the playoffs, or when one will clinch a playoff spot/divisional title/conference title. We hold our collective breath to see when our team is mathematically assured of playing at the end of April. The reporters and fans of the late 1920s were perhaps less statistical in their analysis, but no less in invested in the question of a possible playoff berth. And so on February 14th, 1927, John Hallahan opined, with a great deal of optimism, that "the toughest part of the Bruin's schedule having passed into history, Boston is sure to be represented in the play-off of the American division of the National Hockey League."

Playoffs. The promised land. Those same scrappy dudes who saw themselves relegated to the basement of the NHL a mere two years earlier now had a real chance of going to playoffs in hopes of playing for Lord Stanley's Cup.

...of course, if they did make it, they would be one of 6 teams (out of the 10 that by then made up the league), since as Hallahan grumpily pointed out::

Only four [teams] are to be shut out of the post season series indicating quite clearly that hockey has been commercialized to such an extent that it means little whether a team wins first place in its division or finishes in third place.

What we would call parity, then, Hallahan saw as a way for the NHL to include as many teams in the playoffs as possible and thus increase playoff revenue. But despite his (legit) cynicism, his point about the final standings mattering little once the postseason actually began is a good one; the Bruins, having finally made the playoffs, finished second in the division, a whopping 11 points behind the first-place New York Rangers. And yet -- despite the final standings the Bruins ripped their way through the playoffs that year, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost, in the end, to the old-school Ottawa Senators, but what a ride for a team that only two months before were still very much in limbo.

And so on February 15th, 1927, as the they prepared to face off in a game against the Blackhawks, the playoff fate of Bruins was up in the air (Hallahan's optimist on the matter notwithstanding); fans and players alike still waited with bated breath for confirmation that finally, finally the Bruins would make it in. It was winning that night's game -- along with games before, against the right teams at the right times -- that allowed to Globe to report with glee on the morning of the 16th that, for the very first time, "Boston practically won its way into the playoff series of the American division of the National Hockey League last night, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks, 3 to 0."

As we all know, that's the most important thing: all you have to do is make it in. The playoffs -- they're whole new world, baby.

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