So this is how a championship reign ends. A turnover, a shot, a bounce, a backhand, a red light. And then, pandemonium amid a swarm of sweaters you won't find for sale in the home team's gift shop.That's how it ends. That's how it's over. With Capitals forward Joel Ward, a 31-year-old who collected all of six goals this season, pouncing on a rebound of a Mike Knuble shot and flipping it past helpless Bruins goalie Tim Thomas at 2:47 of overtime. That's how the curtains fell on the Bruins' season with a 2-1 defeat, how they became the seventh defending champion in nine years to bow out in the first round.
Ward did to the Bruins what the dearly missed Nathan Horton did to the Canadiens and Lightning last season en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 39 years: He scored the Game 7 goal that extended his team's season and extinguished an opponent's. With two more first-round Game 7s scheduled for Thursday, such endings are beginning to feel like they're somewhere between inevitable and predestined in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Bruins never saw this particular ending coming down the way it did.
"I'm probably in shock," said Thomas in the Bruins' locker room afterward. "I really believed that we were going to win tonight. I thought that. I really had a deep feeling that this wasn't the end of the road for us tonight. That this wasn't going to be the last game of the season."
Added Dennis Seidenberg, the indefatigable defenseman who was the Bruins' best player in the series, "It's just a weird feeling. One minute you're battling to move on to the next round, and the next minute you're standing here talking about being done. You wonder what time practice is tomorrow, but there is no practice."
So this is how a championship reign ends. With Andrew Ference wrapping a consoling arm around Thomas, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner last postseason but just pretty good this time around, along the boards while awaiting the ceremonial postgame handshake.
With the Bruins giving proper acknowledgement to their Capital conquerors, who won three games on Garden ice, limited the Bruins' trio of Tyler Seguin, David Krejci and Milan Lucic to nine points in seven games, all decided by a single goal, got a performance from rookie goalie Braden Holtby that was hardly Drydenesque but certainly reminiscent of Steve Penney, and ultimately prevailed in a taut, tense series that saw one team lead by two goals exactly once, for about three minutes during Game 5.
And it ends with the Bruins and the fans mutually acknowledging each other, the players raising their sticks in salute as they trudged off the ice while the remaining fans roared a thank-you and farewell. There will be no need to get the Duck boats ready, no parade to anticipate on a June afternoon this year, yet the disappointment seemed to come with an appreciation of all the good fortune and hard work that was required to make the best memories happen. The Bruins spoke often in their championship aftermath of understanding what winning the Cup meant to Boston, and to a man they embraced their place as part of the fabric of city. It was as evident in defeat last night as it was in victory last June.
The Bruins sure tried to do it again, and they believed they could do it again, could become the first repeat champions since the Red Wings in 1997 and '98. "I had the picture in my head of holding the Cup again this year,'' Thomas said. The effort was never more evident than on Tyler Seguin's goal at 14:27 of the second period in which he lunged to tip a loose puck past Holtby while fending off Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who was holding the Bruin's stick and perhaps a couple of limbs. That knotted it at 1-1 after Matt Hendricks gave the Caps a first-period lead.
The way the building was rocking after probably the grittiest goal of Seguin's young career, the tie felt like a Bruins lead. But they couldn't turn the momentum into results, with that anemic power-play (2 for 23 in the series, 0 for 3 Wednesday) again devoid of any signs of cohesion or electricity. An opportunity with the man-advantage in the final minutes of regulation was so ineffective that the Bruins almost appeared to be killing a penalty, not trying to take advantage of one. And while the Bruins outshot the Capitals, 32-27, coach Claude Julien lamented the lack of truly legitimate scoring chances.
One golden opportunity did come around 30 seconds into overtime, and if you could choose any Bruin to score the winner, wouldn't Patrice Bergeron be on your short list? The do-everything forward, playing through an upper-body injury that is ill-defined but limited him to the point that he could not even take faceoffs (he won 59.3 percent during the season; the Bruins won just 27 of 59 last night), nearly won the game and the glory. Bergeron found himself with the puck on his stick near the left post and some open space between Holtby and the back of the net. But his shot flew wide.
"It just exploded, it kind of rolled off my stick,'' Bergeron said. "The puck was bouncing and I just tried to go quick obviously and the puck wouldn't settle.''
We'll find out in the coming days the extent of the injury he suffered in Game 5. And chances are we'll wonder, how did he ever play with that?
"I don't want to use that [as an excuse] tonight,'' Bergeron said. "I'll let you guys know.''
So this is how a reign ends. With Zdeno Chara answering questions in Slovak in the far left corner of the quiet locker room while Bergeron converses softly in French over on the right side. Seidenberg fulfills his duties with the media scrum while standing just to the left of a sign that reads, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.''
While the players offer their hushed postmortems, Bruins president Cam Neely walks in wearing an expression like you just introduced yourself to him as Ulf. He shakes one player's hand, doesn't say a word to anyone, and exits through a black curtain at the other end of the room.
That is how a championship reign ends. With a hard-fought defeat to an opponent that made excellence a habit just a little more often. And with a black curtain failing to camouflage how difficult it is to accept.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.