They thought it was over.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had just scored a backbreaking goal – with youngster Nazem Kadri swatting in a rebound for his first of the series – to make it 4-1 after converting on a perfectly executed 2-on-1 play.
So, with just 14 minutes and 31 seconds to play in Game 7 on Monday night, Boston Bruins fans were already streaming for the exits by the hundreds, looking to beat traffic and assuming their team’s season was over.
What came next was unprecedented.
What follows is a blow-by-blow account of how the Leafs became the first NHL team to ever give up a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, a historic meltdown that ended with a 5-4 Bruins win early in overtime:
13 minutes to play in regulation
Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul misses the net from 30 feet out in what becomes Toronto’s only attempt at a shot on goal in a long stretch of play as the Bruins began to dominate the zone.
With time running out, however, the chances of a Boston comeback are at this point incredibly slim.
Score: 4-1 Leafs
10:42 to play in regulation
With Leafs defencemen Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner retreating quickly and the Bruins’ deadliest line on the ice, big Bruins forward Milan Lucic powers into the offensive zone and swings around behind the net to create confusion, time and space.
He quickly spots linemate Nathan Horton alone near the far faceoff dot and hits him with a perfect pass through traffic, teeing up Boston’s first goal since the first period as he deftly shoots it high blocker side on Leafs goalie James Reimer.
It is Boston’s third shot on goal and seventh attempt since the Leafs went ahead by three goals.
“They took it to us and we sat back,” Leafs winger Phil Kessel said.
Score: 4-2 Leafs
3:29 to play in regulation
Leafs winger Matt Frattin gets a breakaway late that would almost certainly put the game away at 5-2 if he converts, but he shoots well wide and the Bruins quickly turn the puck the other way for another shot on goal.
Toronto has now been outshot 8-0 in the more than 11 minutes since Kadri’s goal.
Score: 4-2 Leafs
2:00 to play in regulation
Bruins coach Claude Julien pulls his goaltender to bring out the extra attacker, doing so fairly early due to the fact his team is down two goals and desperate to finally break through.
Thirty seconds later, captain Zdeno Chara gets two quick shots on goal as the Bruins cycle the puck quickly around the zone and both blasts rebound off Reimer and onto the stick of Boston players.
The second one ends up in the back of Toronto’s net when Lucic is the recipient on the doorstep, uncontested by the Leafs top defence pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson.
“[Expletive] let’s go,” Lucic barks at his teammates as they celebrate around him.
While the Leafs are reeling, there is now only 1 minute, 22 seconds to play.
Score: 4-3 Leafs
51 seconds to play in regulation
Julien calls a timeout immediately after Lucic’s goal to formulate a game plan, and faceoff ace Patrice Bergeron wins the draw shortly thereafter against Toronto’s Jay McClement.
The Bruins goaltender again charges off the ice, bringing 41-year-old wonder Jaromir Jagr on as the extra attacker, and he sets up high in the offensive zone.
Julien, meanwhile, has instructed the 6-foot-9 Chara to park himself in front of the net.
The Bruins win a battle behind the goal and cycle the puck around as it comes out to the point – Jagr to Bergeron to David Krejci back to Bergeron – with the sixth skater giving them an easy outlet at every opportunity.
Bergeron then unloads a quick wrist shot from dead centre of the blueline – making sure he gets the puck through – and with Reimer unable to see anything but Chara’s backside, it deflects off a body in front and finds the back of the net.
The Bruins ultimately outshoot the Leafs 17-6 in the third period and 13-1 after Kadri’s goal, with 19 shot attempts to just three for Toronto in that span of less than 15 minutes.
“We sat back a little bit too much and let them come through the neutral zone way too easily,” said Franson, who had scored the Leafs’ first two goals. “For the last 10 minutes of the period, we just received.”
The period ends at 9:39 p.m. local time – exactly two and a half hours after the game’s opening faceoff – and the underdog Leafs have managed to survive until overtime.
But they’re in big trouble.
“We were saying to ourselves, we would have taken overtime coming in this morning,” Reimer said of the Leafs’ conversation during the break between periods. “It’s no big deal how it got there; you can’t worry about that. It’s just next shot, next shot, and win the game.”
Five minutes into overtime and with Boston still pressing, Bruins winger Brad Marchand picks up the puck along the end boards and finds Bergeron at the top of the circle to generate another seemingly harmless shot on goal.
The puck, however, rebounds off Reimer and sits just outside the crease, bobbling around as Bruins winger Tyler Seguin kicks at it with his skate while battling for position with the Leafs defence.
Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner hastily tries to clear the puck to his winger on the half boards, but it ends up directly on Bergeron’s stick and then right back into the Leafs net.
The red light goes off, the horn sounds and the building erupts.
Reimer lays on the ice, face down and motionless, as the Bruins spill out onto the ice in celebration.
“They are a relentless group, they have championship potential and we knew they weren’t going to give up,” Kadri says quietly in the dressing room after the game. “They got a couple quick ones and next thing you know we are on our heels. We couldn’t recover.”
Final score: Bruins win the game 5-4 and the series 4-3 despite leading for only 21.5 per cent of the seven games
By the numbers: The fateful final 14:31 of the third period
Goalie freezes puck