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BOB RYAN

No question, Bruins went down hard

Let's establish this: The Bruins played hard. They skated hard on every shift, they were diligent about finishing every check for every one of the 3,600 ticks on the clock, and they were still buzzing around Jose Theodore as the curtain slowly fell on the 2003-04 season.

Effort was not an issue.

"It's disappointing," confirmed coach Mike Sullivan. "I thought our guys played extremely hard. We had our chances to score goals [Monday]. We probably deserved a better fate. But that's the nature of sports."

Is it ever. If it's Justice you want -- and, yes, that was a completely fascinated David Justice in attendance at his first Stanley Cup game -- turn on "Law and Order," or some such thing. Our sports promise a lot, but justice is never on the menu. In this field of endeavor, Justice ain't got nuttin' to do wit' nuttin'.

"Go back to Game 4," agreed Canadiens mentor Claude Julien. "I thought we deserved a better fate. But in playoff hockey it's not about what you should get. It's about results. We concentrated on getting the result."

It was, quite frankly, the single most important Bruins game of the new century. It may even have been the single most important Bruins game of the last 25 years. (Modern Bruins history starts with "Too Many Men On The Ice.") With an opportunity to lock in a new/revived fan base, with an opportunity to demonstrate to Jeremy Jacobs the wisdom of actually Going For It (finally!) and with an opportunity to avoid the hurt and frustration and possibly even the humiliation of losing, for the first time in franchise history, a series in which they held a 3-1 lead, the Bruins could not secure the required result. The Bruins lost Monday night's Game 7 by a 2-0 score, and, as a result, their season is over.

It would have been bad under any circumstances, but why, oh why, did it have to come against the hated Habs? Didn't the Bruins defuse this Montreal thing a long time ago?

"It was like being a little kid in the '80s again," said one person of my acquaintance. "I was sitting there with my father, saying, `Dad, why can't we beat the Canadiens?' "

Ordinarily, we could say, "Wait till next year." But if you've been following the NHL, you know there may not be a next year. The armies are forming for what most hockey pundits say will be the mother of all hockey labor disputes. The common assumption is that when the horn sounds in the final game of the Stanley Cup finals, it will signal the beginning of a nuclear autumn, winter, and spring. Training Camp '04 is an "if," not a "when."

So it would have been nice to squeeze out as much enjoyment and satisfaction as you could from this year's activity. Those memories were going to have to carry you through till whenevah.

For the Bruins, the last good memory was that of Alex Kovalev flopping around in mock agony at the blue line, knocking Sheldon Souray off the puck. That was immediately followed by the sight of a flying Glen Murray picking up the loose biscuit and rifling it past Theodore to win a big double-overtime game that put the Bruins up, 3-1, with Games 5 and (if necessary) 7 scheduled for the Fleet.

Oh, boy, does last Tuesday evening seem like a few eons ago now.

The truth is that this series was won, not lost. The Canadiens took over in Game 5. Mike Sullivan & Co. had no real answer to Montreal's first line of Saku Koivu, Kovalev, and Richard Zednik. Their numbers were not synthetic, misleading, or circumstantial. This trio accumulated 10 goals and 14 assists in the seven games, and they became more and more effective as the series wore on.

Boston's No. 1 line was ineffective, to be polite. By Game 6, Sullivan had to break up the 700-Pound Line in the hopes of generating a little offensive pizzazz. And the Bruins were very active Monday, generating chance after chance. The result? Nothing you could point to on the scoreboard.

Some of this was due to alert Montreal defense, some of it was due to the great Theodore, and some of it was due to the lack of so much as one proverbial lucky bounce, like, for example, the Kovalev shot that hit the goalpost to Andrew Raycroft's right and came directly onto the stick of Zednik, who fired a shot into the upper right corner of the net -- a goal for which Raycroft bore zero responsibility.

No, he didn't know where the puck was after it hit the post. Frankie Brimsek, Jacques Plante, and Patrick Roy wouldn't have, either. In a 4-1 game, it wouldn't have mattered. In a 0-0 game it was everything. C'est la guerre, mon ami.

Raycroft was as poised and professional after the game as he had been while it was in progress.

"I absolutely won't forget this one," he said. "One-nothing [Goal No. 2 was an empty-netter with 7.8 seconds to go]. Montreal. Game 7. At home. No, I don't think I'll forget it. I will take this experience home with me, and somewhere down the line, it will pay off."

The Kid is a keeper.

Sullivan is right. This team did deserve a better fate. Joe Thornton deserved to be healthy for this series. He's too good a player to go 0-0--0 for seven games, and who knows what would have happened if he weren't playing with torn cartilage in his rib cage? Michael Nylander, who along with Sergei Gonchar was brought here to push this team into the conference finals, at least, was magnificent, as was the bouncy Sergei Samsonov, who commanded the attention of every Montreal player and every spectator in both buildings every second he was on the ice. There was a lot of good stuff going on in Games 1 through 4, and no one can say that Game 7 was a clunker. Both teams deserved that one.

But if Montreal had lost, it would have been saluted for extending a 104-point team to seven games. Instead, it is the Bruins who have lost, and instead of euphoria, there is gloom and confusion. Will the fans who rediscovered this team after the Super Bowl (and after the Gonchar and Nylander acquisitions) stay aboard? Will the devoted fans look at their own bottom line, and reexamine the extent of both the financial and emotional investments in a franchise that has let them down so often in the past three decades? Will there even be a next season?

The season is over. No more hockey. Montreal didn't need that result. The Bruins did.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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