The Bruins understand the kind of regretful ache that’s deep within the bones of Maple Leafs players returning to the scene of the Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden in Boston on Saturday night.
It’s the same kind of loser’s lament the Black and Gold endured four years ago when they crumbled after building a 3-0 lead in a playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, and blew four straight games, including their own Game 7 debacle where they had a 3-0 lead.
That postseason collapse and the accompanying bitterness served as fuel for the Bruins, and set up their inspired Stanley Cup title run just a year later.
Patrice Bergeron, Johnny Boychuk, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Daniel Paille, Tuukka Rask and Shawn Thornton are the only Bruins skaters still remaining from the little piece of horrifying hockey history. David Krejci was famously missing after dislocating his wrist in the middle of the series.
They all remember it well, though, and know that the Leafs will be looking for a little payback after being on the wrong side of Game 7 history.
“Maybe it’s something we all look back on, but we know that Toronto is a good team,” said Bergeron. “They’re going to show up ready. We’re expecting it. The same things have happened when we’ve beaten other teams [in the playoffs], and then you face them that next year.
“They have a little extra juice, and a little extra energy. That’s what we’re expecting against Toronto. They’ve been playing well, and it’s a big game in the standings if you look at it. So overall we’re expecting this to be a big game.”
This time it’s the B’s that acted as the playoff hammer, though, and the Leafs were their unwitting nail when the Bruins overcame a three-goal deficit to defeat Toronto in the winner-take-all decision. The memories of Lucic and Bergeron collecting goals in the third period within 31 seconds of each other, and with a pulled goalie no less, was the very definition of something special during playoff hockey.
It all brings back some excellent memories from inside the Black and Gold dressing room, and there’s no reason to deny any of it.
“We were kind of surprised at some level,” said Rask. “We were down by three goals with less than 10 minutes left in a Game 7, and you’re kind of saying to yourself that 'We need a miracle.' But we made that happen, and we were shocked that we did it. We’re still happy about that.”
Clearly the stroll down memory lane isn’t quite so rosy from the Toronto end of it, and one should be expecting an emotional Maple Leafs club that will bring the same kind of energy and steely determination as the Pittsburgh Penguins showed a few weeks ago.
Toronto natives like Reilly Smith know exactly what it’s been like for those Leafs players living and working around the Big Smoke, and listening to the Leafs angst all summer waiting for this game against the Bruins on the calendar.
“We’re expecting something special from Toronto. It should be a pretty good game,” said Smith. “They’re going to come out hard, and we need to match their intensity. I don’t think we had a great start [against Florida]. That’s something we’re focusing on.
“I was shocked [by Game 7]. I’m from right outside of Toronto, and the city hasn’t had that kind of fan base in a while. All those people were outside the Air Canada Centre cheering with a few minutes to go, and then all of a sudden everything turned around in the third period.
“It was kind of funny. I was never a big [Leafs] fan growing up, but it was pretty cool to see so many people around the city get excited about the team, and to start to really support them after they were down for so many years.”
A more determined, motivated Leafs club has amassed 22 points during the young hockey season, and sits above the Bruins in the Atlantic Division while holding second place in the Atlantic Division standings.
Toronto has experienced their share of injuries in their first 16 games, and they’ve lost some of their depth down the middle of their lineup. But the Leafs still boast Colton Orr in their lineup, and have catalysts players like Dion Phaneuf, Mason Raymond and David Clarkson in their lineup that could make revenge a bloody, unpleasant process.
The players in Toronto have heard about their collapse, and Boston’s amazing comeback, for nearly six months now, and have built up bad feelings about it that are ready to burst all over the ice on Saturday night. That should make for some good hockey theater when so many playoff grudges carry over into that first regular-season meeting the following season, and both teams will be looking to make a statement in a wide-open Atlantic Division.
For the Bruins it will be less about reliving the joy and wonder of scoring two goals in the closing minutes with Rask pulled, and more about truly removing the hockey team from their recent stretch of struggles.
Sure, the Bruins had a nice, solid win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night. But that victory resulted in Florida GM Dale Tallon canning the entire Panthers coaching staff, including head coach Kevin Dineen, after watching the team quit on the game in the third period when things began to get tough.
The Bruins won’t see a bunch of quitters when the Leafs hit the ice, and this will be a test for exactly how well Boston is playing hockey at this juncture in the season.
“It’s still early, but each division is close and every game means so much to moving up,” said Jarome Iginla. “They’re ahead of us and we want to catch them, and move up. But it’s also a chance on this home stand to get better. Teams go through tough stretches during the year, and you want to make those as short as possible.
“[That] Game 7 was pretty unreal last year. I thought it was done while I was watching at home, as most people did. But that’s sports, and that’s hockey. You don’t see it every day. There is already an Original Six rivalry there, but [Game 7] adds to it. Any time you end somebody’s season, there’s something added to it. That’s the case tomorrow, but we’re also trying to feel better about our game too.”
The Bruins can say all of the right things, and they clearly are more worried about starting to play up to their considerable potential. But this is also a classic hammer-and-nail situation.
The Bruins were the hammer, and the Leafs were the nail in the extraordinary Game 7 comeback.
One side is normally much more worked up than the other in those type of situations, and one would expect to see that manifest itself on Saturday night when the Leafs come looking for a piece of the Black and Gold.