BOSTON — One minute, the Boston Bruins seemed destined for yet another Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In just 17 seconds, it all went away.
The Chicago Blackhawks tied Game 6 of the Finals at TD Garden last night with 1:16 left in regulation, then earned the right to hoist the Stanley Cup with 59 seconds left as the visiting Western Conference champions stunned the 17,565 on hand with a 3-2 victory.
“It’s shocking,” Boston goalie Tuukka Rask said afterwards. “You think you have things under control, we killed the penalty there with about five minutes to go and then they tie it. Many times you see the team that scores that late goal keeps momentum and they did.”
The loss stings because of the way it happened. Boston, a defensive juggernaut when it’s on its game, does not give away leads, and until last night hadn’t been eliminated from any playoffs in under seven games under the leadership of captain Zdeno Chara.
“I’d like to say that this could make us strong, going forward in the future, but this is going to hurt ... for a while,” said Boston center David Krejci.
There was plenty of time left when Milan Lucic scored the go-ahead goal, but once the Bruins killed Chicago’s power play with under four minutes left, it began to feel as if Game 7 was inevitable.
Instead, six weeks to the day after it happened here at the Garden, Boston experienced what Toronto felt when they lost the late lead in that shocking first round Game 7.
“We’ve done it to somebody else,” said Rask, who made 28 saves last night in Game 6. “Now we feel how it feels on the other side.”
How did Boston’s season end? Occam’s razor says the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and it applies here. Chicago is a better hockey team than the Bruins.
In their Stanley Cup win two years ago, and even earlier in these playoffs, the Bruins beat better teams because they had more will than their opponents. For one of the first times in the Chara era, the Black-and-Gold came up against a team that was not only superior in talent and skill, but also able to match them in will and desire.
Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane, the fourth American (and third straight) to win the award as the MVP of the playoffs, had 71 points in 74 Stanley Cup playoff games at the ripe age of 24. Captain Jonathan Toews displayed impeccable guts in scoring a de-facto shorthanded goal (coming as a penalty expired) to tie it, 1-1, in the second, and then fighting to the net front on linemate Bryan Bickell’s tying goal with 1:16 left.
Toews is the first captain to hoist two Stanley Cups in the post-lockout era. He was the youngest member of the “triple gold club” (winning a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and world championship).
Boston’s answer to Kane in the skill department, Tyler Seguin, had an assist last night but paled in comparison to Kane in the series. Patrice Bergeron, the Black-and-Gold’s "triple gold" answer to Toews, inspired his team by playing through an undisclosed injury and scored a Finals high four times, but it wasn’t enough.
In crunch time, the Blackhawks attacked Boston’s best defenders with some of the best forwards in the world. The offensive talent won out.
“Chicago is deep. They’re a great hockey club and they got stronger as the series went on,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
Still, the Bruins played hard. They made it difficult for Chicago, the first President’s Trophy winning club to win the Cup since 2008. Difficult is not impossible, however, for a team that combines desire and talent in the seamless fashion that the Blackhawks do.
“This one was harder than in 2010,” said Bolland, whose game-winning goal bounced just out of the reach of defenseman Johnny Boychuk and hit the post before the scored it. “They battled us really, really tough. We just got the bounces we needed in the end.”
Boston’s had a tough go in sports championships of late, with the Patriots losing their last two Super Bowls and the Celtics dropping an NBA Finals to Los Angeles a few years ago. Getting so close and finishing second invites misery and frustration because you never know when you’ll get another crack it at, and you hate to leave championship rings on the table.
Nevertheless, you have to appreciate what it means to get there — to knock at that door of immortality. Six months ago, it appeared the NHL season would be lost to another lockout; The Winter Classic was canceled and prospects of the Stanley Cup being awarded seemed grim.
To have it awarded in Boston, in 90 degree heat in June, is still a triumph for the game.
“I don’t think there’s too many guys that will have regrets over the summer,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said of how hard Boston played. “We went at Chicago with everything we had. They earned it, for sure.”
Boston was in good shape early last night, attacking the Chicago net ferociously early on and taking the lead when Chris Kelly scored at 7:19 of the first. The Bruins failed to take a multi-goal advantage, and ended up 0-for-4 on the power play, and ultimately it cost them.
The Bruins lost three games in a row in these Finals, going from being ahead 2-1 in the series to falling in six games. It was only the second time they’d lost three straight in this shortened season.
“They’re an incredible team that made us battle for every inch of ice,” said Blackhawks center Michal Handzus. “That’s why it was so important that we won Game 4 here.”
There were positives in this run: Rask emerged as a bona fide number one goaltender, Lucic scored a career high seven playoff goals (four of them in the Finals) and Krejci played like a real top-line center while leading the league in playoff scoring. Young defensemen like Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski played great in spurts.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, the Bruins and their fans singing the national anthem were among the first rallying points for the city. The team honored figures from the marathon as its fan banner captains before each home playoff game in moving, inspiring moments.
“At the end of the day that’s what hurts the most,” said Julien. “In the back of our minds, we were playing for those kinds of reasons. The city of Boston, all its been through and that stuff hit close to home. The hardest part right now for the players is that we had more reasons than ourselves to get that Cup.”
After some time, the way the Bruins picked up Boston the last 10 weeks or so will be lasting image of the 2013 season. Until then, though, it will be impossible not to wonder about those last 17 seconds.
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN. #StrikeOutALS