BOSTON — They couldn't possibly blow a three-goal lead at home and a three-games-to-none series lead on the same night, could they?
In the long and sometimes painful history of the Boston Bruins, few losses — if any — will ever cast a pall of ultimate disappointment over the club as much as this one, both in the short and long term.
After shooting out to a quick three-goal lead last night, the Bruins watched as their lead dissipated, then disappeared all together in a crushing 4-3 Game 7 loss to the ever-resilient Philadelphia Flyers.
The visitors' comeback, punctuated by Simon Gagne's power play goal at 12:52 of the third period, enabled them to become just the third team in NHL history — and fourth all-time in the four major North American pro sports — to come back from an 0-3 series deficit to prevail. They will now host the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final starting Sunday.
Adding salt to the freshly opened wound was a reminder of one of the Bruins' all-time worst losses, which occurred in 1979 in another Game 7 situation at the old Forum in Montreal. Just like that loss 31 years ago, which cost Boston a shot at playing for the Stanley Cup, the Bruins were again whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty in the third period last night, leading to Gagne's game-winner.
"You can't take a penalty at that point in the game," said left wing Milan Lucic, who said he saw two centers on the ice at the same time the penalty was whistled. "But that's the way it goes; it wasn't meant to be."
Boston, which had outscored its playoff foes 16-7 in the third period prior to last night, never seemed to be the same in this series after center David Krejci went down with a season-ending wrist injury in the first period of Game 3. Also, the return of sniper Simon Gagne (toe surgery) to the Flyers' lineup one game later gave his desperate team the shot in the arm they needed to make this utterly remarkable comeback.
Gagne's winning goal, in which he grabbed a loose puck in the right circle and beat Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask (23 saves) after Flyer captain Mike Richards' initial shot was blocked, officially drove the stake through the heart of the Bruins and their incredulous fans.
"I saw it right away," Richards said of Boston having an extra skater. "I saw one guy go off the ice and two guys jump on."
""We have the right people in (our) locker room to win a game like this," added Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette. "And we have the right people in that locker room to come back from down 3-0."
While praising his own team, Laviolette certainly could have been easily indicating that the Bruins simply don't. Captain Zdeno Chara, who spoke in hushed tones at his locker after the game, is now 0-5 all-time in Game 7s; as a team, Boston has lost four Game 7s in the last seven years and hasn't prevailed in one since 1994.
Remarkably, the road team has won all four Game 7s played in the NHL playoffs this season.
"The bottom line is we had a 3-0 lead in the series and a 3-0 lead tonight — and we blew them both," said head coach Claude Julien. "No excuses."
The final outcome makes it somewhat hard to believe, but the Bruins came out with a vengeance in rocketing out to a 3-0 first period lead.
When opportunity knocked just 5:19 into the game in the form of a Scott Hartnell high sticking penalty, the Bruins struck immediately. Patrice Bergeron won the faceoff back to Johnny Boychuk, who fed Chara for a shot from the point. Flyers goalie Michael Leighton made the initial stop, but Michael Ryder pounced on the fat rebound in the slot and buried it just eight seconds into the man advantage.
A little over two minutes later when Daniel Briere knocked off Dennis Wideman's helmet to the left of Rask, he was sent off for roughing. This time, it was Lucic who scored on the power play, bearing down the left side and burying a one-timer from Wideman.
Lucic then scored one of the biggest goals of his NHL career with 5:50 to go in the opening stanza as the lead swelled to 3-0. Coming down his off (i.e., right) wing on an odd-man rush, the burly winger cut inside the right circle and unleashed a wrist shot that beat a befuddled Leighton cleanly, again stick side.
Game over and bring on the Canadiens, right?
Desperate for anything resembling a spark, the Flyers got a goal back before the period ended when James van Riemsdyk's soft shot from out front skipped under Rask at 17:12.
That goal proved to be just the elixir the visitors needed as they tallied twice more in the middle period to inexplicably tie the contest at 3-3. Scott Hartnell's backhand at 2:49 cut the deficit to one ("that one really put us back on our heels," acknowledged Bruins center Patrice Bergeron), and Briere's right-to-left wraparound at 8:39 silenced the 17,565 in attendance.
"Relentless," said Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, when asked to describe his team in one word. "We're never gonna give up and we're never going to count ourselves out."
The same, sadly, can not be said of your Boston Bruins, who must now live with the sickening feeling of letting one of the surest things in all of sports slip from their skate blades — and what certainly was a very realistic shot at their first Stanley Cup apperance in 20 years..
"There was definitely complacency (up 3-0), for sure," admitted Lucic. "It's something we'll have to deal with for the whole summer."
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Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-338-2650.