The Toronto Maple Leafs came close, but in the end just could not overcome the hex of Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins.
If there is anything the youthful Leafs will see in their nightmares, aside from some mistakes that cost them games and the playoff series, it will be the looming presence of 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara, who smothered them so often over the last four years. And right beside him will be winger Milan Lucic, another force who was seemingly silenced as the Leafs won two games in a row to tie the series but bashed his way free Monday night to help deliver the killing blows in the damnedest, craziest, most thrilling Game 7 you will ever see.
For once, the Leafs thought they finally had Chara and the Bruins. With a three-goal lead in the third period, the Bruins and their biggest dragon were down, ready for the final stroke from the Leafs’ sword. Thanks to a first-period injury to Dennis Seidenberg, the Bruins were reduced to five defencemen, including two rookies, and Chara was forced to log enormous minutes on the ice as the Leafs employed their speed to wear them down.
By this time, the TD Garden crowd had seemingly written off their heroes. They booed them off the ice at the end of the second period and were looking for the exits in the third. But then Nathan Horton scored midway through the period and the crowd came back.
The Bruins pulled goaltender Tuukka Rask in the last two minutes and Lucic and Patrice Bergeron scored to force overtime as the building exploded. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing was cranked up to top volume and the fans spent the intermission screaming along as a sense of the inevitable developed.
Front and centre on the tying goal was Chara, who moved down to the front of the Leafs net and screened goaltender James Reimer as Bergeron’s shot from the point sailed past him. Then Bergeron, called out by his coach along with his linemates a few days before for not scoring enough, notched his second consecutive goal at 6:05 of overtime for a 5-4 Boston win to pull out the first-round series in the seventh and deciding game.
It was the first time in NHL history a team won Game 7 of a best-of-seven playoff series after it was trailing by three goals in the third period.
“It was one of the craziest Game 7s I ever played,” said Chara, who finished with a super-human 35 minutes and 46 seconds of ice time.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien summed up what everyone in the Boston dressing room felt about the narrow escape from blowing a 3-1 series lead and bowing out in the first round for the second consecutive year after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011.
“We’re so used to a guy like Zdeno doing it night after night, sometimes we don’t give him the credit he deserves,” he said. “If it’s not for Zdeno – the way he played tonight – we’re not sitting here going to the next round.”
Chara finished with seven points in six games, third on the Bruins’ scoring list, but it was his defensive work that was just as responsible for turning around the series just in time against an irrepressible Leafs team.
This was a bitter turn for the Leafs, as they came so close to ending this hex.
There was Phil Kessel, the subject of all this thanks to being traded by the Bruins to the Leafs back in September, 2009, scoring another big goal. He put the Leafs ahead 3-1 at 2:09 of the third period, silencing the crowd that loves to chant “Thank you Kessel.”
At that point, the Leafs looked to have the Bruins down with contributions from almost every corner of the dressing room. The Bruins, who started the game with a rush, looked tired. The Leafs had their legs moving and the Bruins were reeling over the last 24 hours that saw them lose Game 6 in Toronto on Sunday night and then get stuck in the city until Monday morning with plane trouble.
After Chara started the first period doing his impersonation of Godzilla with some monster hits, Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle started sending out enforcer Colton Orr. His orders were obviously to hit Chara every chance he had and it looked to be working by the start of the second period.
The Bruins were flagging and by the third period, down 4-1, they had lost the crowd, too. Which is where Chara, Lucic and Bergeron stepped in.
“That’s the way it should be, you have veteran guys who know their roles in crucial times like this,” Chara said. “A lot of times the team looks up to those guys. We just have to go with instinct and lead the team. I thought we had that tonight.”
When Horton scored at 9:18 of the third period to cut the Leafs’ lead to 4-2, the possibility of doing the improbable started to percolate on the Boston bench. They remembered a couple of comebacks from winning the Cup in 2011.
“Suddenly from being out of it you were back in it,” Chara said. “Obviously it helped being through so many Game 7s, as you know from the [playoff] rounds two years ago it’s never over until it’s over. When we scored that third goal we believed we could tie the game and we did.”
All agreed it was one of the wildest games they ever played but Chara said little time will be spent celebrating. They have to get ready for round two and the New York Rangers starting Thursday.
“Well, as you can see we are pleased but at the same time tomorrow is a new day,” Chara said. “Whatever happened, we’re focused to be in the moment and getting ready for the next opponent.”
Still, there were some kind words for the heart-broken Leafs who came so close to winning a series hardly anyone thought they would.
“We were all happy, it was a huge relief,” Chara said. “It was very tough playing Toronto. They played extremely hard, really pushed us to the absolute limit. They probably deserved better.
“They made huge strides obviously. The biggest credit goes to their coaching staff. They have a committed group and battle hard.”