It was over. Not just the game or the series, but maybe the run of these Boston Bruins. They had blown a 3-1 series lead and now faced a 4-1 deficit almost halfway through the third period Monday night, and they were going to lose a Game 7 in the first round for the second straight year after winning the Stanley Cup. People were starting to wonder whether coach Claude Julien would be fired and what other changes would be made, from cyberspace to the Bruins’ bench.
“You start thinking to yourself, ‘Is this the end of this group here?’ ” said winger Milan Lucic. “Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game.”
But the Bruins did win this game. Somehow they came back and tied the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring twice with their goalie pulled in the final minute-and-a-half of regulation. Somehow they eked out a 5-4 victory when Patrice Bergeronscored on a rebound 6:05 into overtime, converting boos into cheers at TD Garden, cruelly dashing the raised hopes of Leafs Nation.
And now you wonder if it’s just getting started – or if it’s just delaying the inevitable.
Three years ago, the Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead – and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 – and lost in the second round to the Philadelphia Flyers. Two years ago, the Bruins rallied from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens, took a 3-2 series lead, failed to win Game 6 and won Game 7 in OT. They saved Julien's job then, too, and won two more Game 7s on their way to the Cup. Last year, they lost Game 7 in the first round to the Washington Capitals.
Julien keeps calling them “Jekyll and Hyde,” because they play like champs when they’re desperate and look average and vulnerable when they aren’t. They are still searching for consistency entering the second round against the New York Rangers.
[Watch: Bergeron scores in overtime to complete Bruins' Game 7 comeback]
“I’m a tired coach, I can tell you that much,” Julien said. “We’ve always had trouble with the killer instinct. That’s maybe a fault of ours, but a strength of ours is the character you saw tonight. There’s that fault, and then there’s that character. Somewhere along the way, you try to fix the faults and hopefully keep that character going. That’s the biggest challenge for me right now.”
The Bruins faced plenty of challenges, some self-created, some not. After taking that 3-1 series lead over the Leafs, a team they had dominated in recent history, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in nine years, Lucic said they “did underestimate them a bit.” They failed to close out the Leafs in Game 5 and then again in Game 6, losing back-to-back 2-1 games.
Then their plane was grounded due to mechanical problems Sunday night, forcing them to spend the night in Toronto and fly to Boston on Monday morning. Then they had to play Game 7 without defensemen Andrew Ference and Wade Redden. Then defenseman Dennis Seidenberg suffered an injury and played only 37 seconds, thinning their blue line further.
All that set up a game Bergeron called “one of the craziest ones I’ve been a part of.” The Bruins took a quick 1-0 lead by cashing in on a brutal Toronto turnover, then allowed four straight goals. Their fans booed them when they struggled on the power play or were just plain sloppy. There were being outskated, again. They were being outplayed, again. They didn’t look experienced. They looked slow. Summer was coming.
“It looked pretty bad there for a while,” said winger Brad Marchand. “It was tough being on the bench, getting booed, looking up at the time clock, watching those seconds count down.”
Nathan Horton, who scored two Game 7 winners two years ago, scored 9:18 into the third period. From afar, it seemed too little, too late. But on the Bruins’ bench, it seemed like a spark, and on the Leafs’ side, time seemed to slow. General manager Dave Nonis headed for the elevator, and it would not come. He waited. He waited. He paced. He paced.
“Brutal,” he said.
Brutal was right. Tuukka Rask stopped Matt Frattin on a breakaway, keeping it a two-goal game, then went to the bench for an extra attacker. Assistant coach Geoff Ward had designed plays for this situation. Lucic had scored 6-on-5 with 25.5 seconds left Sunday night, but the Bruins had been unable to get another goal to tie it. This time, he chipped in a rebound 6-on-5 with 1:22 to go.
“I remember saying to the guys in the huddle after that, ‘One more. We just need one more. You never know. You never know. Just keep pushing,’ ” Lucic said.
Bergeron scored his first goal of the series with 50.2 seconds left, blasting a shot from the blue line through a screen set by hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara. Tie game. TD Garden literally shook. You could feel the tremor underneath the stands, and you could hear the fans singing along to the songs on the loudspeakers before OT. “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “Livin’ on a Prayer.” “Shippin’ up to Boston.”
“Yeah,” said Leafs goaltender James Reimer, “there’s a little bit of a shock maybe.”
The Bruins had the momentum, and they had to take advantage of it with their defense held together with hockey tape and hope. Rask made a huge save on Joffrey Lupul, whipping out his right pad to stop a shot from the slot.
And then came Bergeron again.
“If you keep working at it, the bounces are going to go your way at some point,” Bergeron said. “It did when it mattered, I guess.”
The Leafs are now stuck searching for answers. What could have been an inspiring story ended in disaster. They proved people wrong and stood up to the big, bad Bruins, but they blew it. They turned Maple Leaf Square into a raging party, but they skunked the beer. It’s of little consolation that they put themselves in position to blow it or that this experience should help them grow. Lucic said they reminded him of the 2008 Bruins, an eighth seed who pushed top-seeded Montreal to seven games.
[Also: Rangers embarrass Capitals in Game 7 blowout]
“It’s definitely in the top five lows of your life,” Reimer said. “It’s not like we were getting away from our game when it was 4-1, I don’t think. It’s just, they came with some pressure and some desperation, and they were able to sneak a few bounces in.”
“There’s nothing you can say to explain how and why it happened,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “It happened.”
“I don’t know what happened to us,” said Leafs winger Phil Kessel, who finished with four goals and six points against his former team. “You can’t lose that game.”
The Bruins are still searching for answers, too. Bergeron broke through with the two biggest goals of the series, but his line needs to generate more. Marchand had no goals and three points in the series. Tyler Seguin had no goals and one point in the series, and he was demoted to the third line Monday night in favor of 41-year-old superstar Jaromir Jagr, who finished the series with no goals and four points himself. The Horton-David Krejci-Lucic line cannot do it all offensively. And oh, by the way, just how badly damaged is the defense?
But at least the Bruins are still alive. At least they’re still together. For now.
"I think it’s a special group, and we don’t want it to change,” Lucic said. “Everyone has a lot of fun coming to the rink here and being around each other and playing for each other. I think we need to keep stepping it up and hopefully push for another good run here, because the Rangers are going to be just as hard or even better.”