The Bruins collapsed into a place in sports history Friday night that they will struggle to live down. And in the cruelest of coincidences, it was a penalty all too reminiscent of one of the most agonizing moments in franchise annals that helped deliver the defeat.
Three-to-nothing leads are apparently not this hockey team’s thing. The Bruins lost the seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Philadelphia Flyers last night, 4-3, after building a 3-0 lead in the series — and a 3-0 advantage early in the deciding game.
“The bottom line is we had a 3-0 lead in the series, we had a 3-0 lead tonight, and we blew them both,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “We have to take the responsibility that goes with it. Everyone.”
The Flyers’ Simon Gagne, who tormented the Bruins with four goals — including two winners — since returning from injury in Game 4 of the series — gave Philadelphia the victory, scoring on a power play with 7:08 remaining.
“We came out strong early, but [in the third period], we sat back and played not to win,” said the Bruins’ Milan Lucic, who scored twice. “We came out playing so well, and you’ve got to stick with that philosophy that got you that lead. We didn’t do that.”
The Flyers were on the power play because of a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty — a penalty that has haunted Bruins fans since 1979, when the same call late in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals against Montreal led to tying goal. The Canadiens prevailed in overtime and went on to win the Cup.
The ghost of Don Cherry reared its head again Friday, with a mixup involving Marc Savard and Vladimir Sobotka leading to disaster.
“We had a player [Savard] with his stick up like he wanted to make a change, then he changed his mind,” said Julien, hardly reluctant to pinpoint the cause of the blunder. “So we had the next center [Sobotka] jumping on”
Savard explained that he was coming to the bench for a line change, but didn’t spot anyone coming on for him and thought he should remain on the ice. That’s when Sobotka was told to head out.
In the aftermath, Bruins players struggled to find an explanation for how that could have happened.
“I saw two centermen out there, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ “” Lucic said of the penalty, which happened at the 8:50 mark of the final period. “Obviously something happened, there was a miscommunication and we had to get off before we got caught. We got caught.
“At that point of the game, you can’t be taking one like that,” he added. “They got a late goal, it wasn’t mean to be for us, and you’ve got to live with it.”
Mark Recchi, slumped at his locker and still wearing his sweater as the media entered the postgame locker room, said softly that he didn’t think the penalty should have been called. Teammate Shawn Thornton concurred.
“Well, I want to play a couple more years in this league so I don’t want to bad mouth [the officials] too much,” Thornton said. “I do think . . . I had a pretty good seat for the third period, and I was close to where the guy was changing and I think it was very, very, very gutsy call with seven minutes left with all of the other [expletive] that’s going on out there.”
The Bruins, the sixth seed in the East who would have had home ice against Montreal in the conference finals, are now left to wonder how it all went wrong — and they will be reminded time and again that it did. They join the 1975 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1942 Detroit Red Wings as the only teams in NHL history to lose a seven-game series after building a 3-0 lead.
In retrospect, the series turned in Game 3 when Bruins center David Krejci, who was emerging as the fulcrum of the offense and also is a stalwart defensive forward, broke his wrist on a Mike Richards hit.
In Game 4, the dangerous Gagne returned for the Flyers, and suddenly, Philadelphia had the deeper lineup, better health . . . and soon, the momentum.
While the Bruins players own a place in history that none of them want — the stench of this one will be attached to them until they accomplish greater things — it’s unfair to call the collapse an outright choke or to make Savard, who came back from a Grade 2 concussion and scored the winning goal in Game 1, a Buckneresque scapegoat.
Few expected the Bruins to get out of the first round against star goalie Ryan Miller and third-seeded Buffalo, and the seventh-seeded Flyers were regarded as an even matchup before Krejci’s injury. The loss was crushing and perhaps even inexcusable, but given the infirmary’s worth of injuries they endured late in the season, the Bruins deserve at least some kudos for being here in the first place.
“I know everyone wrote us off after that last Pittsburgh game [on March 18, a 3-0 loss in which the team was criticized for sluggish play and for not further standing up to Matt Cooke, who had previously given Savard a concussion on a questionable hit] and I know everyone did a great job of coming together and jelling and turning the season around,” Thornton said.
“As far as the 3-0 thing goes . . . it’ll be made out to be a little more because of the 3-0 lead, but if we we’re down 3-2 it would be regarded with a different mentality. We let Game 6 get away and Game 7 with a three-goal edge, so it’s one of those things you have to live with.”