BOSTON -- If the Boston Bruins seemed like something of an afterthought at times this season, maybe it was understandable.
They played in the Atlantic Division shadow of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who raced to the President's Trophy and were the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. Still, Boston kept winning — only three teams won more games this season — and the Bruins were among the top Stanley Cup championship contenders despite lengthy injuries to the likes of Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy and others.
Winning without so many key players only fortified the Bruins' resolve in the postseason.
"What we shouldn't be worried about is, 'Can we win without certain guys in the lineup?'" coach Bruce Cassidy said ahead of Game 7 at home Wednesday in the Cup final against St. Louis. "First thing crosses your mind (is) we've done it. We've won games without — go down the list."
Being essentially locked into the second seed in the division and a first-round matchup against rival Toronto before March and playing more than a month of playoff tuneups didn't stunt the Bruins' momentum. They came back from a 3-2 deficit to knock out the Maple Leafs and started an eight-game winning streak against Columbus that included a sweep of Carolina and a victory over the Blues to start the final.
It was a mirror image of the best of the Bruins from the regular season, when they strung together at least four consecutive victories five separate times.
"You saw us go on little streaks of success, and that's when we knew that we could be a contender in this league," defenseman Brandon Carlo said.
Contender status was cemented long before the Cup final began. Before Game 3 in St. Louis, the visitors' locker room featured prominent video screens of the most recent title-winning Bruins group from 2011. Five players remain from that team that beat Vancouver eight years ago.
"Every day it's a reminder of what we're playing for," Bergeron said. "It's to just remember every day what we're playing for and how much it means to make it happen."
Bergeron, Chara, Brad Marchand, center David Krejci and goaltender Tuukka Rask (who backed up Tim Thomas in 2011 playoffs) and 2015 Blackhawks Cup champion Joakim Nordstrom have won a title before. For Boston players who haven't, the video provided instant visual motivation.
"They keep our heads on a swivel," forward David Pastrnak said. "It's definitely something you want to be part of. It's what you work for your whole life. A picture like this is what you remember the most."
And the moments along the way: Krug crushing Blues forward Robert Thomas with a helmetless hit, Chara taking the ice in a full face shield 48 hours after taking a puck to the face and Bergeron's pre-Game 6 speech with the Bruins facing elimination. Bergeron told teammates this was about all their childhood dreams and to savor the moment and not let it end — and Boston won 5-1 to force Game 7.
"It was exactly what we needed," McAvoy said.
The journey that began for some of the team with training camp in China, which Carlo said felt like it was three years ago. Boston has felt the benefits of that trip in the nine months since: Marchand took on a bigger leadership role and led the Bruins in playoff scoring, McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and others felt more empowered to speak up and the mix of young and older guys laid the foundation for this run.
"The togetherness part was excellent for the younger group," Cassidy said of the China trip. "The work part of it, I don't know how much of it got done over there. It was more of the bonding and seeing another part of the world."
Bonded in China, the Bruins kept things together to get to the final with a shot at the seventh championship for the Original Six franchise.
"Collectively as a group, we've been able to accept all the circumstances," Krug said. "Regardless of what's in front of us, we accept what's happened, put it behind us, then we move forward. That's the mentality of this team. That's why we've been resilient all season, not just in the playoffs."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports