BOSTON – It was over. The Bruins’ collapse was complete. They had opened the scoring 5:39 into Monday’s Game 7, but then the Maple Leafs slowly put a stranglehold on the game over the next 40 minutes. They tied it later in the first, took the lead in the second, then scored twice in the first six minutes of the third to put the game out of reach. There was no life left in TD Garden, and there didn’t appear to be any left in the Bruins.
Then Nathan Horton scored with 10:42 to go, and it started to look like maybe the Bruins would at least make it interesting. They had some good chances over the next few minutes, and if they could just bury one of them, suddenly it’s a one-goal game with more than enough time left.
“Very,” Brad Marchand said when asked how dejected he was after the Leafs made it 4-1. “It was tough being on the bench, getting booed and looking up at the time clock, watching those seconds count down. After Krejci’s line got that first one for us, it started the climb back. We could see the emotion on the bench and guys starting to believe. That’s what we needed.”
They didn’t score in the next few minutes, though. They didn’t score in the next nine. Now, with less than two minutes to go, there wasn’t enough time. Maybe they’d still get one more, like they did late in Game 6. But not two. That just doesn’t happen.
Except it did. Milan Lucic buried a rebound with 1:22 to go, and suddenly the Garden crowd was on its feet, ready to explode. When Patrice Bergeron beat James Reimer through a Zdeno Chara screen 31 seconds later, that’s exactly what they did.
“I know two minutes is not much for two goals, but we really felt like we had enough time to do it,” Bergeron said. “We moved the puck real well. We opened up a lot of plays by staying poised with the puck and knowing where guys were going to be around us. It was a great play by all of us there. Everyone was at their spot where they needed to be. It was a great play by Looch to get that rebound and then a great screen by Z for the fourth one.”
The crowd didn’t sit down and didn’t stop making noise for the rest of the night. Even during the intermission preceding overtime, they remained on their feet, singing along to Journey, then Bon Jovi, then Dropkick Murphys. As the overtime started, you could actually feel the Garden shaking.
Despite everything that had just happened, and despite how raucous the crowd was, it was the Leafs who got the first great chance in the overtime, a one-timer on the rush by Joffrey Lupul. But Tuukka Rask, as he was all series, was up to the challenge, kicking his right leg out just in time to make the save.
A little more than four minutes later, Bergeron sent the Garden into delirium for the second time in a half hour. With Tyler Seguin jamming away in front, Bergeron was able to follow up his own rebound and knock it past Reimer to lift the Bruins into the second round and complete one of the most improbable comebacks in NHL playoff history.
“I think I’m in shock a little bit,” Dougie Hamilton said. “I think when you’re down 4-1, you start thinking about the season being over and the emotions from that. And then just all the excitement now. It’s a pretty cool feeling. I just skated around after the game with all the fans still here. I don’t think they sat during overtime. So I’m just pretty happy.”
Of course, the Bruins only needed that seemingly impossible comeback because of how much they had struggled until that point. After going up 3-1 in the series, it looked like they’d be able to close it out in five or six games and start getting ready for Round 2. But they didn’t play with enough urgency in Game 5 or Game 6, and the Leafs made them pay for it.
They started Game 7 well, but then they started to fade. They looked like a worn-down team, and in some ways that was understandable. They were without Andrew Ference for the second straight game. They were without Wade Redden for the second time in three games. And then they lost Dennis Seidenberg less than two minutes into Monday’s game.
Three of their top five defensemen out for a do-or-die Game 7. The Bruins’ defense wasn’t great on Monday, but it hung in there as well as anyone could’ve expected. Zdeno Chara played 35:46, seven minutes more than anyone else on the ice. He assisted on the goal that cut it to 4-3 and set the screen on the tying goal.
Johnny Boychuk played 28:30 and recorded a game-high four blocks. Matt Bartkowski played a career-high 24:51 and got the scoring started with his first career goal. Hamilton played 21:08, the second-highest mark of his career.
“You have to find a way to give credit to those two young guys on the back end — Hamilton and obviously Bartkowski,” Claude Julien said. “Bartkowski was moving the puck and carrying it so well tonight, and he scored a big goal for us. I saw Dougie Hamilton get more and more comfortable as the game went on as far as carrying the puck and making plays. You talk about people coming in, well we were minus three real good veterans on our back end. So that’s half your core, and those guys come in and do a heck of a job.”
The Bruins know they still have to play better going forward. They know they were incredibly inconsistent in this series, and they know they can’t count on ever pulling off another comeback like the one they pulled off Monday. But for one night, they’ll celebrate one of the most incredible games anyone in the building has ever witnessed.
“That was unbelievable,” Boychuk said. “That’s one thing you’re going to remember probably for the rest of your life, because it was such a comeback that everybody probably thought that we were done. It showed what kind of character there is in this dressing room. Never say die, more or less.”