The Bruins were trailing the Maple Leafs in the third period, 4-1. They had 11 minutes left in their season. Their fans at TD Garden were rightfully giving them the business.
“To be honest, I kind of thought we were done,” said Dougie Hamilton.
On the bench, the Bruins dipped their heads. They were approaching that time and situation when all that was left was to honor the game, play it the right way, and send the Leafs off into the second round with the respect they deserved.
“It was tough being on the bench, getting booed, looking up at the time clock, and watching those seconds count down,” Brad Marchand said. “But after [David Krejci’s] line got that first one for us and started to climb back, you could see the emotion on the bench. Guys started to believe. That’s what we needed.”
Belief is a funny thing. It can transform a dead-leg team to one that cannot be stopped. The Leafs, winners of Games 5 and 6, were in command. But in a span of 9:51 in the third period, the formerly stone-handed Bruins poured three pucks behind James Reimer to send the game into overtime.
Once there, Patrice Bergeron popped in the winning goal at 6:05 to give the Bruins a 5-4 win before 17,565 at a quivering Garden. The battered Bruins — they are down three defensemen in Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, and Wade Redden — will play the New York Rangers in the second round.
“Pretty crazy,” said Milan Lucic, the powerhouse who helped keep the pressure alive with a six-on-five goal at 18:38 of the third. “I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a game with anything like that.”
The four-goal outburst — Nathan Horton at 9:18 of the third, Lucic with 1:22 remaining in regulation, Bergeron at 19:09 of the third, and Bergeron in OT — not only extended the Bruins’ season. It promised that this current template will remain intact for at least another round.
Had the Bruins slinked out of the playoffs as losers of three straight to the scrappy Leafs, it’s possible that the higher-ups would have taken a sledgehammer to the roster. Players would not have been re-signed. Others would have been traded. Coach Claude Julien might have been shown the door.
All those thoughts flooded into Lucic’s head when the Bruins were down, 4-1. Lucic was probably not alone.
“You’re looking at the clock wind down with half a period left and you’re down 4-1,” Lucic said. “You start thinking to yourself, ‘Is this the end of this group here?’ Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game.”
The singular dilemma with this year’s group is its split personality. The Bruins showed no mercy in their 4-1 Game 1 punishment of the Leafs. They were resilient in the 4-3 overtime win in Game 4.
But they were equally meek in their back-to-back losses in Games 5 and 6 to gag away a 3-1 series lead. They scored just one goal in each loss. Reimer squirted out fat rebounds in both games. The Bruins never showed the will to plunge into the dirty areas in pursuit of those pucks.
It was the same story in Game 7. The Bruins came out roaring in the first. Matt Bartkowski slipped a wrist shot past Reimer at 5:39 to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
But the Leafs counterpunched with four straight socks. Cody Franson down low on the power play. Franson again from the right point. Phil Kessel on the rebound. And a Nazem Kadri tuck-in of a Kessel rebound at 5:29 of the third to seemingly send the Bruins in search of their golf clubs.
At that time, the 3-1 series lead was an afterthought.
“I’m a tired coach. I can tell you that much, trying to really find a way to get these guys to give us what we want out of them,” Julien said. “We make it tough on ourselves. We’re being honest here. Not being able to close it out in Game 5, we’ve had trouble. We’ve always had trouble with killer instinct. That’s maybe a fault of ours. But the strength of ours is the character you saw tonight.”
The comeback started at 9:18. Suddenly, the Bruins decided to play their game: heavy, physical, intelligent, relentless. Lucic wheeled around the net and connected with Horton in front for a snap shot to make it a 4-2 game.
With Tuukka Rask off for an extra skater, Lucic continued the rolling rally. Reimer punched out a steaming Zdeno Chara slap shot. Lucic, positioned in front, jammed in the rebound at 18:38.
With Rask off once more, Chara parked himself in front of Reimer. Chara shoved Dion Phaneuf out of the way. Reimer was staring into an eclipse. When Bergeron released a long-distance shot, all Reimer could see was a 6-foot-9-inch wall.
Just like that, the game was tied. The Garden pulsed.
In overtime, Tyler Seguin did the right thing. Seguin went into an area where he barely placed his skates in the six previous games: the front of the net. Bergeron had ripped off a shot that Reimer stopped. Seguin pursued the rebound, engaged Jake Gardiner, and kept the play alive. A second later, Bergeron rapped the puck past Reimer.
After the celebration, the Bruins lined up at center ice. They proceeded to participate in a turtle-slow handshake line. The Bruins made sure to congratulate the Leafs on their first-round effort. The hands they shook resembled their own from 2007-08 when they took the heavyweight Canadiens to Game 7 in the opening round.
“What could have been disastrous tonight ends up going in our favor,” Lucic said. “We’ve got to build some momentum off that. Lots to look forward to, and just happy to get past this round, which was another tough round. Hopefully we can keep it up.”