ATLANTA -- It's finally over.
The Bruins' 2005-06 season came to a merciful conclusion yesterday with a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers before a sellout crowd of 18,637 at Philips Arena. It was the fifth consecutive one-goal loss for Boston and the 32d of the season. So close and yet so far.
The Bruins finish 29-37-16, marking their fewest victories since 1999-2000, and the fourth time in the last 11 seasons they have failed to reach 30 wins. For coach Mike Sullivan, it might have been the final time behind the Boston bench, as his future with the troubled franchise, like many of the players', remains cloudy.
Will veteran Brian Leetch, a certain Hall of Famer, retire at age 38? Will the club let defenseman Hal Gill walk away as an unrestricted free agent? Will the Bruins trade netminder Andrew Raycroft, who played in just two of the final 21 games? There are far more questions than answers.
One player who is safe is goalie Tim Thomas, who made 31 saves yesterday and has performed admirably.
''It's one of the best worst years I've ever had," said Thomas, who finished 12-13-10. ''It's great to get the opportunity and show that I can play in the league, but I wish we could have pulled it off a little better."
For Gill, it will be up to him to decide his fate once a new general manager is named. He said he'd like to remain with his hometown team but won't know his future for a while.
''Obviously, the Bruins are in kind of a mess of a situation," said Gill. ''So once that settles, maybe we can get something done. If not, I'll move on and we'll see. I'd love to stay but I know the nature of the business and that doesn't happen too often."
It wasn't an easy season for Gill, who was a lightning rod for fans' frustrations. He was even booed Thursday night when his name was announced after he assisted on a goal in the loss to Montreal.
''I don't think it bothers me directly as much as it bothers me that my family is up and listening to that," said Gill. ''As long as the guys in the room appreciate what I'm doing and the organization, then I'm fine. When you don't win, nothing good happens. It's not like people are going to praise a team that loses. Certain guys take the fall, I guess."
The Bruins had a chance to win yesterday, as they had on so many occasions this season. They raced out to a 2-0 lead midway through the opening period. Mariusz Czerkawski potted his eighth goal of the season when he beat goalie Mike Dunham through the five-hole with a slapper from the top of the left circle at 7:40. Marco Sturm scored his 29th when he took a pass from Patrice Bergeron and redirected a shot through Dunham's pads at 10:35.
The Thrashers closed within one when a pair of defensemen combined for a goal. Niclas Havelid fired from the blue line and Andy Sutton got his first of two when he tipped it past Thomas at the 12-minute mark.
At 15:09, Atlanta center Marc Savard was awarded a penalty shot when he was hauled down on a breakaway by Glen Murray and Milan Jurcina. But Thomas played it well and Savard's forehand bid failed.
The Thrashers pulled even at 16:41 when center Jim Slater landed a wrister from the right circle between the legs of Thomas, making it 2-2.
Bruins veteran Travis Green cashed in a shorthanded breakaway at 5:31 of the second, beating Dunham on a high backhander for his 10th of the season.
But, as has been the case all season, the lead wasn't safe once the dreaded third period rolled around. At the six-minute mark, the Thrashers converted during a two-on-one break when Slater sent the puck to the net from deep in the left circle and it caromed off the left skate of right wing Scott Mellanby at the top of the crease and past Thomas to knot it at 3-3.
Sutton came through in the clutch at 9:09, teeing up a slapper from the right circle that buzzed past the glove of Thomas and into the top right corner of the net.
That was enough to keep the Thrashers' playoff hopes alive, and the Bruins returned home for a long summer.
For Leetch, there will be a time of reflection before any decision is made about his future.
''There's plenty of time when you don't make the playoffs," he said. ''I'll wait to see what the Bruins do first and things get settled, and if they tell me they're going in a different direction, then I'll start looking at options from there."