It's safe to believe in these Bruins

BOSTON -- You can exhale now.

All the frustration, anticipation, reservation and trepidation that has been churning in the gut of every Bruins fans for the past 21 years was finally released in gleeful black and gold jubilation on the final Friday of May.

The Boston Bruins are going to the Stanley Cup finals.

Coach Claude Julien's resilient band of brothers, who have weathered a gamut of emotions throughout this long and emotionally wrenching NHL season, who vowed this year, this team, this time it would be different, made good on their promise by eking out a 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

For once it was the other guys who crouched on bended knee, head down, distraught at the outcome, while the ecstatic Garden crowd showered its team with the piercing primal screams of a euphoric (and long-suffering) fan base.

For once it was the other coach who was left to explain why his team couldn't put the puck in the net even though it featured some of the top snipers in the game.

For once, Boston did not have to answer, "Why didn't you?", but instead, "How did you?"

It has been 21 years since a Bruins team has been to Lord Stanley's coveted final round. Back then, there were still Nordiques in Quebec and Jets in Winnipeg. Back then, the Conn Smythe Trophy was awarded to a young goalie named Billy Ranford -- who played for Edmonton.

The 1990 Bruins playoff team was led by the redoubtable Ray Bourque, and a 24-year old right winger who could be counted on to lead the team in goals, points and penalty minutes.

His name was Cam Neely, and he is running this hockey team, with valuable insight from another 1990 alumnus, former defenseman Don Sweeney.

They know how hard it is to get there and they know how hard (and often futile) it is to return if you don't get the job done. They will undoubtedly share that wisdom with their players in the days leading up to their series with the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks.

When the Bruins coughed up a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia last spring, a grim-faced Neely made it clear that kind of collapse would never happen again on his watch.

The Bruins went out and got Nathan Horton, promoted young Brad Marchand, brought Chris Kelly into the fold. They worked to change the culture, to erase the failures, to build with positive talk.

As the newcomers settled into the city, they grew weary of references to ghosts of Bruins past. There were times when they wanted to scream, "I wasn't here. I don't care. Why can't you get over it?"

"I didn't say it," Kelly confessed, "but maybe I thought it. I'm sure the guys that were here were tired of hearing about last year. As a group, we wanted to silence the people who kept talking about that."

Winger Milan Lucic hypothesized those travails might have actually shaped the character of this current Bruins team. The losses, he said, were painful, enduring. With that came a resolve to benefit from their mistakes.

"I remember when I first came here, there was no pressure at all," Lucic said. "My first game was against Tampa, and there were 13,000 people who had no expectations. We were ... whatever.

"Where we've come in the last four years and what we've been able to do as a team has been great.

"We had to deal with last year, when we blew that 3-0 series lead, and it felt like we had an even better chance two years ago when we blew the series to Carolina.

"There's been a lot of learning curves there, so tonight to get to this point ... it's ... just ... wow. A relief."

From training camp on, this team appeared to be tight-knit, singularly focused. They were an "all in'' collection of hard-working players, not a roster that glittered with 50-goal scorers. At times, they seemed too conservative, too careful.

Yet not for this winner-take-all matchup. The Bruins, who were outshot in every other game in this series, immediately established themselves as the aggressors. They kept the pressure on Dwayne Roloson with a steady diet of slap shots. They flooded the net. At one juncture, the shot tallies were running 2 to 1 in their favor, and still they couldn't blast one past Roloson, who sported a perfect 7-0 record in elimination games.

Boston focused on keeping its frustrations at bay. The Bruins didn't deviate from their plan and patiently waited for that one opportunity. Down at the other end, their own goalie concentrated on one thing only -- to match the steady resolve of his teammates.

"I was mentally prepared to keep my emotions even no matter what," goalie Tim Thomas said. "Game 6 had quite a few emotional turning points, and it made me a little emotionally tired. It probably made Tampa emotionally tired, too, which might be why their top scorers weren't as effective."

The well-documented woes of the Bruins' power play proved to be a moot point in a game in which not one penalty was called against either team. It was a dream scenario for a Boston team that thrived all season in 5-on-5 situations.

The Bruins' lone goal was a testament to the considerable talents of David Krejci, who weaved his way through the vaunted Tampa 1-3-1 defense and waited just long enough for Nathan Horton to break to the far side of the net. At that moment, Krecji delivered a textbook pass onto Horton's stick.

Horton snapped the puck into the back of the net, then watched with wonder as the Garden exploded.

The ovation was a release of pent-up nervousness. It was loud, very loud, louder than an AC/DC concert with 10-foot speakers pulsating in your living room.

"We heard [the fans] before warm-ups," Mark Recchi said. "The guys said, 'They're ready. Let's give them something to cheer about. It's been a long road for them.'"

The Bruins' euphoria has no doubt already been tempered, downgraded to rational thought. They understand they still have a long, even tougher journey ahead of them before they can celebrate the ultimate goal, which is to skate around the Garden ice with the Cup in tow, earning the right to call themselves champions.

The Stanley Cup finals. They are coming to your town, Boston. So how does that feel? By all means, let loose one more victory howl.

Great. OK, now. Breathe deep -- because it all begins anew on Wednesday.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.