NEW YORK In the end the Bruins are going to get exactly what they deserve.
Thats hockey justice, and thats how it should be.
The Bruins won the Northeast Division for the second time in three years, and wiped the floor with the dreaded, despised Canadiens in their final emotional meeting on home ice this season.
Even better, the Bs enjoyed knuckle-busting, Big Bad Bruins-style wins over the Thrashers, Stars and Habs in victories that highlighted the regular season, and unified the team.
But the Black and Gold didn't maintain that pedal-to-the-medal consistency, too often flubbing away chances with a lack of focus or inability to deliver the killer punch. It prevented them from claiming true Eastern Conference elite status, and it was symbolized by a gruesome third period at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. The B's -- who once held a 3-0 lead in the game -- surrendered three third-period goals, lost to the Rangers 5-3 and, in the process, all but guaranteed they won't climb into the first or second seed in the East.
The Bs had some compelling crescendo moments during the regular season and still should be considered in the conversation for Stanley Cup-worthy teams given the wide-open Eastern landscape.
But they never did quite enough to become the top dog, and now that chance has gone by the boards with less than a week of regular-season games remaining.
When youre up 3-0 it doesnt matter what stage of the season theyre in or were in, said Dennis Seidenberg, in a lament that could transfer over to a good-but-not-great regular season. Youve just got to do your job.
Their lack of elite-ness was hammered home with an exclamation point as the Bruins surrendered five consecutive goals after building up a 3-0 lead, and coughed up three scores to the Ranges in a third period thats been their domain all season.
Thats what we learned tonight, said coach Claude Julien. If we dont respect the game plan, then thats what will happen. There were a lot of breakdowns in the third. Our defensemen got caught out of position a lot tonight, and obviously there a couple of goals that goalie Tim Thomas would like to have back.
Up-front we were okay for the first 30 minutes, but then we stopped play and got cute. When you get cute thats what happens. Its a disappointing loss, but you hope your players walk out of here feeling like theyve learned something.
A Boston victory would have pushed the Bs to within two points of both the Flyers and Capitals with three games remaining, and the Bruins set to face East patsies in the Isles, Senators and Devils. Good teams dont melt under pressure or make uncharacteristic mistakes when things get a little intensified, but thats exactly what happened in front of a New York crowd thirsting for the playoffs.
The Bs floundered amid dopey penalties, blown defensive assignments and some weak-sauce offensive possessions, and have blown any realistic chance of catching up to both teams with only three games left.
After a dominant first period that saw the Bs outshoot the Blueshirts by a 19-6 margin and utilize goals from Daniel Paille and Nathan Horton to cobble together a 2-0 lead, the Bs immediately backed off once Chris Kelly made it 3-0 in the second period.
The gritty, relentless offense lost its teeth. Thomas looked all too human roaming out of position and letting pucks get past him. The defense appeared tired, weak, confused and soft. The Bs have proudly thumped their chest about leading the NHL in goal differential during the third period this season, but they were outplayed and outshot by a 12-7 margin over the final 20 minutes of swarming Rangers.
Dennis Seidenberg appeared to have been fitted for concrete boots on his feet. Zdeno Chara was flat outplayed by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. And on the game-tying goal, Tomas Kaberle vacated the front of the net to guard the invisible man and allowed Brandon Dubinsky to creep onto the doorstep.
That doesnt even count the second-period penalties for David Krejci, when he decided he didnt like how rough Dan Girardi was being with him. In fact, if anything came to light in Monday nights game, it was that the Bruins defensemen could learn a thing or two by watching Staal and Girardi physically dominate play at both ends of the ice.
We got up 3-0 and . . . I dont know. We were taking it to them and then we just back off for a while, said Thomas. Our plan was to come out in the third and turn it around, but as you could see thats not what happened.
They were desperate and they got us to play the game the way they wanted us to in our own zone.
Instead of authoring a resounding victory that could have helped vault them toward the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins are stuck fast at the No. 3. After another loss to the scrappy Rangers, the Bs will have to hope the Blueshirts cant climb all the way up to the six spot for a first-round date.
Its become clear that the strong, tough, blue-collar Rangers -- armed with enthusiastic shot-blockers and a world-class goaltender would be the most difficult first-round match for the Bs. The Bruins have size, strength and experience advantages over their other potential opponents (Canadiens, Sabres, Hurricanes), but not so much over New York. The Rags took the season series by a 3-1 count, and outscored the Bs 11-8.
The third-period meltdown was the latest indignity, but the Rangers have consistently been a tough draw for Boston over the last three seasons. Unfortunately for Boston, New York drew into a tie with the Canadiens for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference and appears to be on a first-round collision course with the third-seeded Bruins.
Had the Bruins managed to stay in the hunt for the No. 1 seed, they could have had a first-round meeting with the injury-depleted Habs or the physically and emotionally drained Sabres. But they've lost control of their destiny after one too many careless losses.
Julien said he hoped his team had learned its lesson about going away from the game plan following the stunning Monday night loss to New York, but that's impossible to assume. If the Bruins haven't learned this lesson yet, what makes anyone think they've learned it now?
They lacked that killer instinct too many times during the regular season, which is why they're not going to finish atop the Eastern Conference. The No. 3 seed certainly isnt anything to scoff at, but it could have been so much more.