BOSTON – It was the unlikeliest of Game 7 comebacks for a hockey club that has blown nine third-period leads this season, and has regularly been tormented in the last 20 minutes of games all year.
But it was also true to their “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” nature that the Boston Bruins -- trailing 4-1 and facing elimination (and more) -- potted three goals in the final 10 minutes and 42 seconds of a Game 7 elimination game, two of them within 31 seconds of each other after Tuukka Rask had pulled for a sixth skater, to tie the game, and went on to a thrilling, epic 5-4 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night at TD Garden.
“That was unbelievable” said defenseman Johnny Boychuk. “That’s one thing you’re going to remember probably for the rest of your life, because it was such a comeback that everybody probably thought that we were done. It showed what kind of character there is in this dressing. Never say die.”
It was yet another example of the "bipolar hockey experience" that is the 2012-13 Bruins. Their opponents have no idea what to expect, which makes the Black and Gold an unpredictable and highly dangerous opponent. But the B's also have no idea what to expect out of themselves, except that they seemingly need an axe hanging over their heads in order to thrive.
Through 50-plus minutes Monday night, that axe appeared ready to fall . . . on the game, the season, and also, perhaps, on this era of Boston hockey. It would have been the Bruins' second consecutive first-round playoff ouster since winning the Stanley Cup -- and their second straight Game 7 defeat at home -- and it was shaping up as the kind of deflating, spiritless loss that could have spurred on coaching changes, management shakeups, and even a major roster upheaval.
“When you’re looking at the clock wind down with half-a-period left [and trailing 4-1], you start thinking to yourself, ‘Is this the end of this group here?' ” said Milan Lucic. “Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game."
Instead, with their heart-and-soul leader Patrice Bergeron scoring both the game-tying and game-winning goals, it became another great chapter in a remarkable six-year run for the current nucleus of Bruins personnel.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of anything like that before," marveled Lucic. "Everyone talks about experience and how it plays big in the playoffs . . . I think our experience is what kind of put us over the edge in being able to come back and ultimately win the game.”
From the midpoint of the first period to the midpoint of the third, the Bruins played the kind of mediocre, passive hockey that’s been far too commonplace this season. They had taken an early 1-0 lead, but the Leafs tied it in the first period and went ahead, 2-1, in the second. The only sign of life shown by the B's was a Lucic roughing penalty on Dion Phaneuf after the Bruins power forward finally tired of the Toronto captain’s yapping in the second period. That briefly stirred the TD Garden crowd out of its funk, but the lack of an attack had the fans booing the B's off the ice at the end of the second.
Then, when the Boston defense -- minus Wade Redden and Andrew Ference from the start of the game, and further weakened by the loss of Dennis Seidenberg to a leg injury after two shifts -- buckled and surrendered a pair of breakdown goals to Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri in the first six minutes of the third period to make it 4-1, it seemed over.
But the franchise players and key leaders in the Bruins dressing room once again displayed the hearts of champions that everybody knows beats within each of them. Watching Lucic play throughout the third period, it was obvious No. 17 didn’t want the season to end without a proper alley fight from the Bruins, and he created a cycle game around the net that turned into a Nathan Horton score from the left face-off circle that cut the deficit to 4-2.
It was the third Game 7 goal of Horton’s career, and reminded the Bruins of all the highly heroic, highly improbable things this set of players have previously done in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It takes a special kind of mettle to be the only team to ever win three Game 7’s en route to a championship, as the B's did in 2011, and that’s exactly what Boston showed against a Toronto team that, suddenly, was hanging on for dear life.
Lucic cruised by the Bruins bench bumping knuckles with his teammates and coolly uttered to the rest of the team, “That’s one!”
"I just got more motivated when I saw him say that," said Tyler Seguin. "It just shows how much he stepped up, and the guys responded.”
But Lucic noted that in the situation the Bruins were in, "[You’ve] got to have bounces. You’ve got to have luck. You’ve got to have everything go your way, and that’s what happened there in the last 10 minutes of the third period."
It can be said, however, that the Bruins made their own luck. They outshot the Leafs 17-6 in the final period, and their play picked up noticeably after the Horton goal.
Still, they trailed 4-2 heading into the final two minutes.
But what happened next is the very reason that so many people get involved in sports in the first place.
After Rask was pulled for a sixth skater, Lucic fought through sticks and bodies in front of the net and popped home the rebound of a Zdeno Chara blast from the right point with 1:22 left. 4-3.
Then, 31 seconds later, Bergeron smoked a shot through a Chara screen past Toronto goalie James Reimer. 4-4. They'd come all the way back. It was a piece of hockey theatre that was not unlike Game 7 of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens two years earlier, when so much was riding on the Bruins getting out of their first-round match.
And like 2011, the Black and Gold proved they had just enough when Bergeron, Seguin and Marchand teamed for an overtime goal 6:05 into the extra session on their first shift of the game together after the B’s coaching staff had broken them up.
“I thought the guys showed a lot of character coming back in it,” said Bergeron. “We definitely made it interesting for us, and for the fans also. We’d like to do it a better way, but at the same time, like I said, it builds character and confidence.”
Maybe Bergeron and the rest of the Bruins should just forget about doing it any other way. The Black and Gold have captured the imagination of the Boston sports fan primarily because they’ve proven they’re talented enough to win a Stanley Cup. But they’ve also shown hockey lovers everywhere that they’re a team capable of strange and wonderful things never seen before on the ice, and can never be pegged down as one thing or another.
That unpredictability, which can make the Bruins frustrating or even disappointing at times, is also the same indescribable feature that has made the Black and Gold great in their recent past. A group of 17 players two years removed from a Stanley Cup championship served another reminder on Monday night that perhaps the Bruins can be great once again.
Because there's no question the heart of a champion beats underneath each one of those spoked ‘B’ jerseys.