It will go down as the Meltdown in Beantown.
And it couldn’t have been drawn up any more painfully for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their long-suffering fans.
In one of the worst collapses in franchise (and perhaps even league) history, the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead with less than 11 minutes left in Game 7 on Monday night, frittering away a chance to eliminate the Boston Bruins on the road after improbably coming back from down 3-1 in the series.
Boston went on to win 5-4 in overtime, with Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner clearing the puck right onto Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron’s stick and watching him pot the winner six minutes into the extra frame.
Afterwards, the Leafs players could hardly believe what had happened, with the fact that their season had ended so suddenly and embarrassingly set to sink in long after the season-ending goal hit the back of their net.
“We gave ourselves a very good chance to win this series, and we gave it away,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson lamented after the game. “It’s that simple.”
“The low feeling right now,” netminder James Reimer said quietly, “that’s definitely in the top five lows of your life.”
A confident group after winning Games 5 and 6 in dramatic fashion, the Leafs had appeared tentative and even nervous right from the opening faceoff on Monday, standing around and flubbing passes as the building rattled around them and the hosts put up an early one-goal lead.
This was Game 7, in all its glory and for the very first time for vast majority of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the final step of their comeback appeared to be headed for a letdown right away.
So when a normally reliable defenceman like Franson oddly drop passed the puck between his legs, to no one in particular, and watched a Boston Bruins defenceman belt it into the Leafs net less than six minutes in, it felt like a sign of things to come.
In reality, the Leafs were ultimately the better team for long stretches of the game, with Franson the catalyst for their early rally in scoring his team’s first two goals.
The big, affable defenceman from small-town B.C. tied the game on a power play a few minutes after he had been the goat and then added the go-ahead goal early in the second, part of his first ever two-goal outing.
Meanwhile, a secondary storyline was unfolding as the game turned into a bit of a street fight, with the physicality ramped up far more than any other outing in the series.
The officials were all over the map, too, putting the whistles away on obvious calls – like a surreptitious Chris Kelly elbow that bloodied Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk’s nose in the second period – and blowing down small stick infractions and minor skirmishes, creating an uneasy atmosphere on the ice.
More was left uncalled than not, which meant the hockey wasn’t always pretty.
“I’ll reserve my comments toward the officiating,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said afterward. “To me, playoffs are about competing and let the players decide. That’s really all I’ve got to comment about on the officiating.”
The calls and lack of calls played more into Toronto’s hands early, as the Leafs were given the game’s first two power plays and racked up a sizeable lead on the shot clock on the man advantages.
Boston, meanwhile, looked disjointed and slow, labouring to get into the game beyond mixing it up in the postwhistle skirmishes.
It didn’t help that reliable defenceman Dennis Seidenberg left the game after just one shift with what appeared to be a broken hand, forcing Bruins coach Claude Julien to mix and matching a five-man unit that included two rookies.
That was much of the reason Boston had such a tough time managing the puck to start, as they generated just 13 shots through two periods and rarely tested Reimer with quality chances.
At the other end, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was far busier, struggling with rebounds and Toronto players crashing his crease as they found ways to generate getting scoring chances with regularity.
That was how Phil Kessel made it 3-1 to start the third and then assisted on Nazem Kadri’s insurance goal three minutes later, giving the Leafs that seemingly insurmountable three-goal lead with less than 15 minutes of regulation left in the series.
Boston, however, wasn’t dead yet, not by a long shot, and they finally began pumping pucks on Reimer, outshooting the Leafs 17-6 in the third alone in a 20-minute stretch reminiscent of Toronto barely holding on to a 2-1 win in Game 5.
In Game 7, however, the pressure was simply too much.
With 10:42 to play, Bruins winger Nathan Horton – a Leaf killer all series with four goals and seven points in the seven games – brought his team to within two and added some life back into the building.
Then, with Rask on the bench and Boston smelling blood, they beat Reimer twice in a 31-second span to force overtime and bring the house down.
The atmosphere was so charged in the building that, through the full 20-minute intermission leading to the extra frame, the majority of the Bruins fans simply stood in their seats singing, serenading the fact their team’s season wasn’t over and they still had a chance.
That set up a ridiculously paced extra period, with the Bruins swarming around the Leafs net and eventually scoring when a scramble ended with Gardiner gifting Bergeron the puck right in front with Reimer down and out.
It’ll be a play that will likely replay in Gardiner and his teammates’ minds all off-season, but the reality was they had likely lost the game in the third period, when they sat back trying to protect a lead and ended up frittering it away.
It was a painful way for what had been a remarkable series to end.
“One minute you think you’re going to win the game,” Gardiner said. “You’re up 4-1. Then 20 minutes later it’s all over. I think it’ll be a good learning experience for our group.
“Not many people can say they played in a Game 7. Just the intensity and the atmosphere and the crowd. The ups and downs. It’s something that we’re going to carry with us and become better because of it.”
More veteran members of Leafs, however, weren’t nearly as ready to turn the page and immediately look ahead after letting this one slip away, turning aside questions about what positives to take from the loss.
The way it had fallen apart was simply too difficult.
“We had a team down and out and we just let them take over the game,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “And climb out of a hole that they never should have come back from… It’s extreme disappointment.”
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