BOSTON – For the Bruins, it was a defining moment. For the Maple Leafs, it was a shocking step into a playoff abyss that one day will go down as a learning experience.
But for now, a lockout-shortened NHL season is long on pain for Toronto.
And for coach Randy Carlyle, the post-mortem on Monday night’s 5-4 overtime collapse against Boston will have to wait until the swelling, so to speak, goes down.
“Well losing is tough and losing the way we did after a 4-1 lead, there’s nothing you can say to explain how and why it happened,” he told reporters at TD Garden. “It happened. And for us as a coaching staff, we’ll take some time in the next couple of days and we’ll evaluate and let the emotions subside here a little bit before we meet. We’ll be doing a lot of assessing between now and the (June 30) draft, I’m sure.”
The Leafs played Game 7 without injured top-line centre Tyler Bozak and tough defenceman Mark Fraser. But the Bruins were missing defencemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, and Dennis Seidenberg played just 37 seconds before limping off the ice.
Monday’s roller-coaster ride, while hard to stomach, provides Carlyle valuable data with which to rate his young, playoff-green club.
“When you get in situations like this you see the character, you see the clawing and scratching and fighting for space on the ice,” he said. “And there are some people that really elevated their play. It does change your opinion on some individuals and then (for) some other people, it reinforces what you thought.”
Goalie James Reimer faced 272 shots in the series and made 251 saves, the most of any goalie in the first round. At times, he seemed in the head of the Bruins shooters. The Boston media, meanwhile, pointed to Reimer’s rebounds throughout the series.
At times like Monday night, you hope your goalie stands on his head. Reimer did that earlier in the series. And it was not his fault that his defence failed to clear the puck or – on the tying goal – move the colossal figure of six-foot-nine Zdeno Chara from in front of him.
Toronto’s defence remains very much a work in progress.
Carlyle relied heavily on captain Dion Phaneuf (28:17 minutes ice time in Game 7), Cody Franson (27:31), Jake Gardiner (25:55) and Carl Gunnassson (23:48). John-Michael Liles (13:28) and Ryan O’Byrne (13:11) were restricted in their role.
The smooth-skating Gardiner was a revelation. Given a chance to play big minutes in big situations, he dazzled, although there is an element of defensive risk attached to his offensive skills. He earned rare praise from Carlyle, who called him a “puck-moving NHL elite-level defenceman.”
Franson showed off his shot, scoring twice in the finale and finishing the series with three goals and three assists.
The much-maligned Phil Kessel, who had been largely anonymous in the past when playing his former Boston teammates, stepped up with four goals and two assists. James van Riemsdyk (two goals, five assists) also contributed.
Star winger Joffrey Lupul had three goals and one assist, exiting the final overtime period early after blocking a shot. Injury has been his companion all season, but when healthy he can be electrifying.
Mikhail Grabovski was held to one assist during the series – and was minus-3 in Game 7 – but his speed and commitment to sacrifice his body in a defensive role deserved more. Fellow forward Clarke MacArthur answered the bell after Carlyle sat him as a healthy scratch.
Young centre Nazem Kadri went largely unnoticed for the first five games but made his presence felt in the final two.
Marlies graduates Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin offer promise for the future.
Finding centres with faceoff skills must be a priority. In the absence of Bozak, Toronto lost the faceoff battle 43-18 to Boston in Game 7.
The Leafs, as Carlyle has often said, can compete when they skate and execute their physical game. But they do not have the depth or experience of the Bruins.
In the end, the Toronto coach noted, losing two of three games on home ice proved to be a mountain too big to climb. Costly mistakes were punished.
For the Bruins, Monday night was a turning point in what coach Claude Julien called a Jekyll and Hyde season. While Boston’s regular season ended in disarray, due in part no doubt to the tragic news events that unfolded around them, the Bruins could have lost and further cemented their reputation as a team that makes life difficult for itself by not closing our series.
Instead, a snarling Milan Lucic and resurgent Patrice Bergeron stepped up and helped carry Boston to the second round.
Aided perhaps by an opponent short on experience, the Bruins dug deep at the last second to extend their season.
“There’s lots to look forward to and what could have been disastrous here tonight ends up going in our favour,” said Lucic.
Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaugnessy called it “one of the great moments in Boston sports history.”
The NHL confirmed it was historic.
The Bruins become the first team in league history to win a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period. Only one other team has overcome a two-goal deficit in the third period to win a Game 7 – the Montreal Canadiens did it to Boston in a 1979 semifinal, rallying from a 3-1 deficit at the Forum. Yvon Lambert scored the winning goal 9:33 into overtime and the Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup over the Rangers.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time a team won any playoff game when trailing by three or more goals with 11 minutes or fewer remaining in regulation time was April 18, 2001, when the Los Angeles Kings rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 in overtime of Game 4 of the Western Conference quarter-finals.
The last time a team won a playoff game trailing by two or more goals with two or fewer minutes remaining in the third period was on April 18, 1993, when the Quebec Nordiques rallied from 2-0 down with 89 seconds left to edge the Canadiens 3-2 in overtime of Game 1 of the Adams Division semifinals.
Bergeron, meanwhile, becomes only the third player in NHL history to score a Game 7 overtime goal after recording the final goal of regulation in the same game. The others were Boston’s Brad Park in 1983 against the Sabres and Buffalo’s Derek Plante against Ottawa in 1997.