It was not a good New England winter for ice. Maybe that was a sign.
The Boston Bruins, Stanley Cup champions who skated until mid-June in the glorious spring of 2011, are done for the season. The Spoked-Bs were sent home Wednesday night, losing Game 7 of their first-round series to the upstart Washington Capitals, 2-1, in the third minute of overtime, in front of a stunned TD Garden sellout crowd.
Winger Joel Ward scored the winning goal, muscling the puck past Tim Thomas after a rush by former Bruin Mike Knuble.
“We had to really grind it out,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “It was a challenging year for the guys. At the end of the day when you look at your team, your team wasn’t playing its best in this series.’’
It’s somewhat of a shocker. We thought there would be another two, four, six weeks of playoff hockey, but now the bull gang can melt the cold sheet and switch to parquet for the rest of the spring. The NBA postseason doesn’t start until this weekend and already hockey is done for the year.
The duel was one of the greatest first-round series in sports history.
Bring on the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks. Bring on the NFL draft. Bring on the (gulp) Red Sox. We won’t see the Bruins again until September.
“We definitely had obstacles this season,’’ said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “We can be proud of a lot of things we did. It’s sports. That’s the way it is.’’
Though the Bruins did not win, their fortnight fight was one of the greatest first-round series in the history of sports. All seven games were decided by a single goal. Four of the games went into overtime; two of the other three were won during the final two minutes of regulation. Aggregate final score, Washington 16, Boston 15. The road team won five of the seven games. It was great theater and there was little to choose.
But it stings for the Bruins to lose to a team that gave up more goals than it scored during the regular season; a team coached by a Boris Yeltsin lookalike, tough guy Dale Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau in November. Washington’s 22-year-old rookie goalie, Braden Holtby, goes down in the books as the player who made the difference. Throughout the series, he did a reasonable impersonation of Ken Dryden, circa 1971.
“It’s what hockey is all about, winning in overtime in the seventh game,’’ said Hunter. “It’s something special and well-deserved by our guys.’’
Going into Game 7, there wasn’t much allowance for the possibility of defeat in Bruins Nation. It was the Bizarro Red Sox dynamic at work: Game 7, everything on the line, and a universal expectation that things would work out perfectly for the locals.
Former Bruin Reggie Lemelin - best known as the goalie who finally beat the Canadiens, in 1988 - was the designated pregame flag bearer. Lemelin yielded the floor to anthem legend Rene Rancourt, and Causeway Street’s Claude Rains belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner,’’ punctuating his performance with his customary double fist pump. Game On.
Washington took a 1-0 when lead when Matt Hendricks tipped home a wrist shot from above the right circle by defenseman John Carlson with 8:37 left in the first period. Milan Lucic’s failure to clear the puck was instrumental in the goal. Failing to score on a late-period power play (Boston scored only two power-plays goals in the seven games), the Bruins trailed, 1-0, after one.
The Bruins tied it with 5:33 left in the second when Tyler Seguin got his stick on a puck that was resting in the crease after Holtby stopped a right-point slap shot by Johnny Boychuk. Scrambling past a pair of Capitals defenders, Seguin dived on the ice, extended his stick, and poked the puck over the line.
The Bruins outshot the Capitals, 25-13, in the first two periods, but it was 1-1.
The Bruins had a good chance to win in regulation when Jason Chimera went off for holding with 2:26 left in the third, but the Bruins could not score.
As often happens, it ended quickly and suddenly in overtime.
It was the 23d Game 7 in Bruins history, the seventh Game 7 over the last five years. The Bruins were eliminated in a Game 7 in 2008, 2009, and 2010, before winning three Game 7s (an NHL first) during last spring’s magical run to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
Boston fans are truly blessed when it comes to Game 7s. Madison Square Garden Thursday night hosts its first Game 7 in 17 years. The Bruins have hosted five in the last five years and the Celtics won memorable Game 7s against the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers when they won their last championship in the spring of 2008.
“This is hard,’’ said Bruin Patrice Bergeron. “I think we have a lot of character in this room and showed it all year. It’s tough to swallow and realize that it’s over. Last year we got the bounces and got our way. That wasn’t the case tonight and it’s really hard to think of anything other than what just happened.’’
There was honor in this defeat, but it’s hard to feel anything good now. The Bruins played 25 playoff games last spring and won three series in a seventh game. Now it is April 26 and the Hub hockey season is over.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.