UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The rules of hockey require that three periods be played. There are no TKOs, no mercy rules, no rain-shortened finishes or seven-inning doubleheaders. Nothing but sheer effort and exhaustion across 60 minutes of skating, or in the case of playoff hockey, maybe a couple of overtimes thrown in.
But Wednesday night, in a dilapidated New York building already scheduled for a date with a wrecking ball, against a team bound and determined to extend Nassau Coliseum’s run for at least one more playoff series, it really only took two periods for the Bruins’ 2021 dream to end. The scoreboard will forever show this second-round series clincher as a 6-2 Islander win, but any accurate retelling of this story knows it was the second period that was the Bruins undoing.
Gone in the onslaught of Islander offense, two goals by Brock Nelson and another by Kyle Palmieri for a 4-1 lead at the end of two. Gone in the haze of Bruins’ mistakes, one turnover by defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, one bad pass by goaltender Tuukka Rask amounting to two easy goals by the Islanders.
Left in their place? The worst kind of burden in sports, that of regret and unfulfilled promise.
Ultimately, that is the story of this Bruins team, one poised for a deep playoff run on the wings of a legitimate Stanley Cup dream. With a deep roster topped by the best first line in the game, bolstered by trade deadline acquisitions that boosted the second line to excellence, packed with experienced leadership and balanced with youthful energy, the Bruins were Boston’s best hope for some hardware.
Until they weren’t.
And now, with bedrock veterans Tuukka Rask and David Krejci facing the free agent exit that ushered past foundational pieces Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug out the door, with all-world captain Patrice Bergeron taking his 17 years of NHL beating and his 35-year-old body into the final year of his contract, the weight of that lost opportunity feels awfully heavy.
“It does,” a dejected Bergeron said after the loss, sitting beside linemate Brad Marchand for a postgame Zoom interview. “That core is getting older one year to the next and it’s disappointing in that way. You have a good team, you have an opportunity, and you know they don’t come that often, especially later in your career. You want to make the most of them.”
Marchand, lifting his head from his hands, couldn’t help but concur.
“You can’t take any opportunity for granted,” he said. “Again, that’s why this is a tough one to lose because we really felt we had a good group to make a good run this year.
“It’s disappointing. We expected a longer run in the room, felt we had a group that could go really deep this year. I think it came down to a couple breaks, they capitalized on a couple opportunities they got and we didn’t on the other end. There were some games we really outplayed them and came up short. That’s the playoffs. Things like that happen.”
This was a playoff run that opened with such expectations for the Bruins, cast in the shadow of Charlie McAvoy’s hopeful musing, “Why not us?,” but finished on the wrong side of the handshake line in Round 2, a six-game series loss pushing the Islanders to a date with Tampa for the right to go to the Stanley Cup for the second straight year, pushing the Bruins back against a wall. It was a wall that came tumbling down across a second period that will go down in Bruins’ infamy.
By the end of 40 minutes, a team already without injured defensemen Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo, a team that found itself down its best remaining defenseman for more than six minutes in that second period thanks to an unpenalized Palmieri cheap shot to the head of the indispensable Charlie McAvoy, found itself down by three goals, and, for all intents and purposes, down and out in the game, and thus, the series.
“They’re a good team, first of all, let’s start with that,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They play well in this building. They played a better defensive game in this building than they did in ours. They knew tonight if they locked it down, that was their best chance to win. They didn’t want to get in a trade chances type of game [in Game 7 in Boston].”
What a shame we won’t live out those best two words in sports, because as this series showed, and as Game 6 reinforced, this was everything playoff hockey is about, and everything a potential elimination game should be. A stick-sliding, bodies-flying, pucks-bouncing, boards-rattling night reflective of the deepening enmity, escalating gamesmanship, and alternating dominance that coursed through the series.
From eight games split in the regular season to six more meetings in the playoffs, these teams were sick of sharing the same ice. From one veteran coach accusing the opposition of cheating (Barry Trotz to Bergeron) and one rising coach needling the other side for a little Eddie Haskell-style play-acting (Cassidy renaming the ‘I-can-do-no-wrong’ Islanders as the New York Saints), there was plenty of drama both on and off the ice.
Local fans showed up wearing halos and marched into the building serenaded by a parking lot brass band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.” They brought their annoying orange towels and their mocking “Tuuuuu-kkkkkk-aaaa” chorus. By the time that second period ended, it was only a matter of time before they broke out their best material. Amid third-period alternating chants of “Boston Sucks” and “New York Saints,” the Bruins tried to claw their way. back, but the damage was done, the season over.