BOSTON — Where do we even begin?
Calling it a collapse of biblical proportions might be laying it on a big thick. But it certainly has to feel that way to the Boston Bruins this morning … and it most certainly does to their fans.
Most wins and points in a season in NHL history. Only four losses at home in regulation. A boatload of hardware coming their way at the NHL Awards in June. It all means nothing now.
The Florida Panthers completed a stunning comeback Sunday night, rallying from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to shock the top seeded Bruins, 4-3, on Carter Verhaeghe’s overtime goal before a stunned and sullen full house at TD Garden.
Putting Jeremy Swayman in net for Game 7 — something that truthfully that should’ve been done much earlier in the series — didn’t give Boston the spark it so desperately needed. Just the the fourth goalie in NHL history to make his first start of a series in the seventh game, he was up to the challenge (particularly in OT) and finished with 27 saves, but Verhaeghe’s snipe at 8:35 of the extra session sealed the Bruins’ doom.
Still dazed by what had happened less than five minutes beforehand, the Bruins saluted the fans who were still left at TD Garden after going through the traditional handshake line with the winning Floridians.
Captain Patrice Bergeron — who admitted postgame that he was playing with a herniated disc in his back, which caused him to miss Games 1-4 — hugged and consoled all of his teammates before they left the ice. Long-time linemates David Krejci and Brad Marchand were the last two to do so; after embracing both for a long while, Bergeron was left to pay tribute to the fans one last time with a stick salute.
“It’s extremely disappointing, especially with the team we had. It’s not where we want to be,” Bergeron, admitting it was hard to process anything postgame, told the assembled media in the Bruins locker room. “It hurts. You compete hard and battle all year for that, so it’s hard.”
In what very likely could’ve been both Bergeron’s and Krejci’s final NHL game, the Bruins didn’t get the fast start they wanted, allowed Florida to take a two-goal lead just 74 seconds into the second period, were slow along the walls, and were once again forced to play catch up … a formula that works in the playoffs as well as an ‘84 Datsun works on the Autobahn.
How crazy is it that the Bruins lost all three games of this series that Bergeron played in? Or the sheer fact that after winning in every way imaginable from October to mid-April, they prevailed only once in four postseason contests on Garden ice?
Or that they committed seven turnovers in just 8-plus minutes of overtime?
Or, rather than playing hockey throughout May and into June, that they’ll merely be cleaning out the lockers now after this astounding, unprecedented upset?
Three times they had a chance to close out the series. Two of those took place on home ice.
Instead, they lost all three and will go down in infamy as first ballot inductees into the Regular Season Numbers Don’t Mean Squat Hall of Fame.
“I guess the words that come to mind are disappointment, confusion,” said head coach Jim Montgomery. He also admitted he should’ve started Bergeron and Marchand together to start Game 5 when the captain made his playoff debut.
The team that scored first won all seven games in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, so when Florida’s Brandon Mountour swooped in and popped a power play backhand goal past Swayman in the first period, it was a bad omen. It got worse when B’s defenseman Hampus Lindholm failed to clear the zone early in the second period and fed the Panthers’ Sam Reinhart with a thank-you-very-much pass in the low slot, allowing the right wing to snap a shot home with ease.
To their credit, the Bruins did come back to tie the game on two power play goals: a Krejci slapper from the left circle, and Tyler Bertuzzi tipping a Dmitry Orlov shot past Sergei Bobrovsky. David Pastrnak then gave the hosts the lead by popping a Brandon Carlo rebound past Bobrovsky with a 15 minutes and change to go.
Florida looked dead in the water until, with its goalie pulled for an extra skater, Montour snuck a shot past Swayman at the right post with just 59.3 seconds left in regulation. As if it were fated at this point, the Panthers then won it in extra time.
“They deserve all the credit. They got it done, got the goals when they needed them … the did the job and they move on,” said Bergeron.
The questions will be endless. Was the pressure too great for a team that had blitzkrieged its way through the regular season and into the record books? Was Montgomery too slow to pull the hook on struggling goalie Linus Ullmark earlier in the series and go to Swayman? Did they not take the Panthers seriously enough after taking a 3-1 series lead? Where was the confidence and swagger shown in Games 3 and 4 in Florida?
On and on it will go. For this isn’t just any season ending loss or upset; it’s one that will haunt this team for a long, long time as a golden opportunity they literally let slip through their gloved hands.
Montgomery and the players all talked about the “honor” and “privilege” it was to respectively coach and play for this year’s team. “I don’t have very much regret with anything we did,” the coach said.
Sorry, but that’s not what the fans want to hear after a soul crushing cave-in. For a team to go from clear Stanley Cup favorite to a staggering first round upset, all the regular season accolades and bouquets mean little now.
The Bruins had this series, then gave it away — and with it, their history making season went up in smoke.
Contact Phil Stacey