After the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins in Game 6, in their home barn Sunday to tie their quarterfinal series at 3, the players sported ear-to-ear grins and displayed an air of confidence.
They had battled back from the brink of elimination twice to force a Game 7 back in Boston. They liked their chances. They liked their young legs and youthful enthusiasm. Very few players had postseason experience, but they developed a belief they could win the series against the team that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago.
In fact, they had won twice in Boston already in the series. Their confidence only grew as the Maple Leafs built a startling 4-1 lead Monday.
There was shock in the building among the home fans.
When center Nazem Kadri scored at 5:29 of the third period to make it 4-1, it appeared there would be an extended period of garbage time at TD Garden that would only rub the Bruins’ noses in defeat.
But the rest of the game belonged to the Bruins.
The Maple Leafs helplessly watched at Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron scored to tie it, with the final two goals in regulation coming with Tuukka Rask off for an extra attacker.
When the Leafs retired to the room at the end of regulation, they vowed to forget what had happened and win it in overtime. But they came out still shellshocked and it was Bergeron and the Bruins who won it.
“It’s extremely tough to put into words,’’ said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf. “We had a team down and out and we just let them take over the game and climb out of a hole that they never should’ve came back from.’’
Phaneuf looked like someone who had just been slapped in the face.
“It’s extreme disappointment,’’ he said. “Every guy really just . . . [it was a] seven-game series that was extremely hard-fought. Give Boston credit. They are a team that played an extremely hard series. We came into their building tonight, Game 7, and we played 55 minutes of really good hockey. It’s extremely disappointing any time a year comes to an end. It’s probably the toughest loss I’ve ever had in pro hockey.’’
Phaneuf emphasized that he didn’t think his team’s psyche was demoralized after regulation. Instead of celebrating their advancement to the conference semifinals against the Rangers in their first trip to the postseason since 2004, their 4-1 lead had evaporated into thin air.
Something like that is tough to overcome, particularly by a young, inexperienced team.
“In our room, it was, ‘What’s done is done.’ There was no feeling sorry for ourselves that we gave that lead back,’’ said Phaneuf. “We said we wanted to get back to playing our game. Game 7 overtime came down to one shot, we had to regroup.’’
But they couldn’t and now they are left to ponder what might have been.
“It’s just an extremely tough loss of a game and a series,’’ said Phaneuf, looking every bit as hollow as he felt.
When asked about the experience factor playing a role, Phaneuf tipped his cap to the Comeback Kids.
“Give Boston credit, it was a hard series,’’ said Phaneuf. “I think everyone watching, everyone involved, [saw that] both teams played extremely hard. I’ve got a lot of respect for their team and how hard they played and I have a lot of respect for how hard we played.’’
At the start of the season, Phaneuf said the goal was to change the team culture, to elevate the expectations. If nothing else, the Leafs have done that.
“I thought we played hard all year for each other,’’ said Phaneuf. “It’s just extremely disappointing right now. We let a team that was down and out back into a game when it should never have happened.’’