Hardly half an hour had passed since Joel Ward ended the Bruins’ march toward a second Stanley Cup in two years.
As the Bruins tried to process what had taken place - a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals Thursday night at TD Garden in Game 7 - assistant equipment manager Jim “Beets’’ Johnson made his way to every locker room stall. He wiped the blades clean and hung the skates on their pegs. Johnson placed each glove just so above the stalls. He swiped the visors and propped the helmets in place.
The way the room was being prepared, it looked like the Bruins were getting ready to report for another day at the rink.
This season, that day will not come.
A would-be dump-in and line change blew up in overtime. Tim Thomas made one stop on Mike Knuble, but couldn’t do the same to Ward.
Just like that, 2011-12 had come to a close.
“It’s such a weird feeling,’’ said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “You play a hard, tight game. Suddenly a bounce goes against you and the season’s over. For the first few minutes, even right now, you’re wondering what time practice is tomorrow. But there is no practice.’’
There will be no repeat champion. The Red Wings, who achieved the double in 1997 and ’98, live on as the last franchise to turn the trick. For the second straight season, the defending champs were bounced in the opening round the following year.
For the Bruins, they fell to the better club. The Capitals, formerly run-and-gun, submitted seven games of to-the-system discipline. They preached and practiced four-line efficiency, defensive awareness, and complete buy-in from every player. The wild card was a former No. 3 goalie in Braden Holtby. Amid injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, the 22-year-old Holtby established himself as an ace who outperformed a two-time Vezina Trophy winner.
It was the worst possible first-round matchup the second-seeded Bruins could have drawn.
“At the end of this series, you look at their team and you look at ours,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “They were the better team. They had more guys going than we did. They played us tough.’’
The Capitals swiped elements of the Bruins’ game and bludgeoned their opponents by fulfilling a perfect game plan. The Bruins have thrived on making other clubs pay for their mistakes.
That’s exactly what Washington did on the winning goal.
Benoit Pouliot had wound up in center ice to hammer the puck into the offensive zone. Once the Bruins drove the puck deep, they would have executed a line change.
But Pouliot’s dump-in clanged off Knuble’s shinpads. Knuble immediately sprinted forward to trigger the counterattack. Pouliot and Mike Mottau, who had been charging forward to get off the ice, were going in the wrong direction.
Knuble and Ward took off for a two-on-one rush against Greg Zanon. Pouliot tried to race back into the defensive zone to fend off Knuble. Thomas got a piece of Knuble’s backhand shot. But after the puck hopped back into the slot, Ward was in position to backhand the rebound past Thomas at 2:57 of overtime.
Jordan Caron slammed his stick into the glass. Chris Kelly swiped the puck out of the net and flung it away. Thomas usually wastes little time dashing off the ice after allowing such goals. This time, he slowly got to his skates.
At first, Thomas wasn’t sure what had happened. After looking around, he understood.
“I don’t have a picture of it in my head,’’ Thomas said of the winning goal. “You just hear the crowd. You see them going crazy. So you know something happened.’’
Ward and Knuble stamped exclamation points on a game they dominated. On nearly every shift, the fourth-liners, along with center Keith Aucoin, made plays. They were better than fourth-line counterparts Caron, Daniel Paille, and Gregory Campbell. By using their speed and brawn, they wore down Boston’s fourth line and gave the Capitals the energy they needed.
Conversely, the Bruins played - not just in Game 7, but for stretches throughout the first round - like a team whose energy had been used up. There is a reason a champion hasn’t repeated since 1998. It is as difficult a task as there is.
“That’s why nobody’s done it in a long time,’’ Thomas said. “Having said that, I thought we had a better chance than most. I thought if we could get past this first-round hurdle, we would pick up some energy and momentum.’’
In Game 7, the Bruins had to play from behind. At 11:23 of the first, after Milan Lucic couldn’t carry the puck out of the zone, the Capitals beat Thomas. After taking a pass from Jason Chimera, John Carlson winged a point shot that Matt Hendricks tipped past Thomas (25 saves), giving Washington a 1-0 lead.
The Bruins punched back in the second period. It took a big-boy shift from first-liners Lucic, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Lucic started the play by thumping Karl Alzner along the end boards in the offensive zone. In turn, Seguin kept the forecheck alive by winning a puck battle against the wall. Krejci gained control of the puck and gave it to Andrew Ference, who put a shot on goal.
Holtby kicked out Ference’s shot. Holtby then got a piece of Johnny Boychuk’s follow-up bid. But the rebound trickled past Holtby. Seguin fought through Alzner and Carlson to poke the puck over the goal line at 14:27.
The Bruins never got closer. The beards they hoped would grow for another six weeks will meet razors. On Friday, instead of practicing for their second-round opponents, they will conduct exit interviews at the Garden.
“It’s going to take a couple of days to sink in,’’ Patrice Bergeron said. “We obviously weren’t ready to be done right now.’’