June 25, 2013

Watching Boston's Cup hopes get dashed in an instant

By Jesse Connolly

Defenseman Andrew Ference and the Bruins came into Monday night looking to tie the Stanley Cup Final up at three games apiece. (Getty Images)

"What do you think for tonight?"

It's probably my least favorite question when it comes to the ever-unpredictable sport of hockey, but it sure is an effective conversation starter. In all likelihood, it was probably at the heart of every chat you had at work as you passed the time until 8 o'clock, just as it was likely said a thousand times across the two dozen tables at the media dining area on the third floor of TD Garden prior to Game 6 on Monday.

No one really ever knows beyond a shadow of a doubt what's in store, but predicting what lied ahead for the Bruins and Blackhawks was flat-out impossible.

After taking a 2-1 series lead with an incredibly comfortable, 2-0 victory in Game 3, the Bruins world-renown defense fell apart in a 6-5 loss in Game 4, and plagued the Black and Gold again in their 3-1 setback out in Chicago that put their backs up against the wall. 

Ask me to put my money where my mouth was, and I'd have bet that the Bruins' run was about to come to an end. Even if it pained my always-optimistic sister -- "You told mom you don't think they're going to win :(" she disappointingly texted me -- Patrice Bergeron's mysterious injury woes and Boston's lackluster showing in Game 5, as far as I was concerned, pointed to the Blackhawks putting this series to bed.

Boy did I feel silly for doubting the hometown team when 20 minutes were in the books.

Tyler Seguin set up Chris Kelly for a goal 7:19 into the first period of Game 6. (Getty Images)

Boston attempted 32 shots to Chicago's eight in the opening 20 minutes of play and took a 1-0 lead into the second period thanks to Chris Kelly's second tally of the series. 

But as the second period wore on, this feeling of familiarity began to creep in: We were watching Game 2, but with the roles reversed. With the Bruins about to squander their third power play of the night, Zdeno Chara stepped up on his side of the red line but the Blackhawks quickly breezed by him.

Jonathan Toews sent a shot through Tuukka Rask's five-hole as Andrew Shaw stepped out of the box, tying the game up at one goal apiece. The Bruins continued to falter, as the tide undeniably turned with Chicago taking over the momentum.

Jonathan Toews scored just as a Boston power play expired in the second period. (Getty Images)

It really hit me during that second intermission: For the first time in their three playoffs together as a pairing, Chara and Dennis Seidenberg were a cause for concern on just about every shift they hopped over the boards for. And with No. 33 and No. 44 taking on their usual half-a-game's-worth-of-ice-time pace, that led to a lot of hairy moments on the soup-like ice surface on a hot summer's night on Causeway Street.

With doom and gloom in the air, and the tension leading to an eerily quiet crowd to start the third, the Bruins of the first period suddenly returned.

With 7:49 to go in regulation, Milan Lucic forced a turnover behind Corey Crawford's net. David Krejci grabbed it and threw it back in front for No. 17. We all know there's no cheering in the press box, but as the puck found twine and the crowd erupted, a calm, firm "yes" escaped from my lips.

Game 7 suddenly seemed realistic again. Memories of how the Bruins fared the last time they forced such a scenario in the Stanley Cup Final came flooding back. Just like that, the ultimate prize appeared to be in reach again.

Milan Lucic gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead with under eight minutes left in the third. (Getty Images)

After NEHJ colleague Andy Merritt examined the replay on a nearby TV in the press box, I asked him how many times Lucic whacked at the puck. I wanted to know the intricate details, assuming it'd wind up being the "Play of the Game" in the postgame breakdown.

With 5:39 to go, Kelly went to the box for high-sticking, giving the Blackhawks a golden opportunity to knot things up. But when they failed to capitalize, and the Black and Gold stood just 219 seconds away from victory, I couldn't help but think, "Man, I've gotta find some way to get to Chicago." 

As Crawford vacated his crease for an extra attacker, the win seemed so close that Boston's rabid fans could taste it. And then the unthinkable happened. 

As Toews received a pass near the goal line to the right of Tuukka Rask, there was that split second where you know something bad is about to happen. It reminded me of the lone car accident I've ever been in, and that millisecond in which I saw someone about to rear-end me at full speed. That millisecond feels like an eternity, and there isn't a damn thing you can do.

Lucic was in the slot, but Chara was essentially all alone in front with three Blackhawks ready to bang away. The puck landed on Bryan Bickell's stick, and No. 29 in white buried it to tie the game at 2-2.

As I looked up at the replay, unable to hide my own variation of the McKayla Maroney "disappointed face," a writer to Andy's left began to vehemently bemoan the fact that yet another game in this series was headed to overtime. The Bruins and Blackhawks were exhausted, and so were the men and women that have been covering every minute of this series. 

Just 17 seconds later, Dave Bolland lifted the weight of the world off that weary scribe's shoulders. But in doing so, he made every Bruins fan on hand feel like someone dumped 12 tons of bricks atop them. A shot from the point was deflected en route to Rask and hit the post. Bolland buried it, giving the 'Hawks a 3-2 lead with a little more than 58 seconds to play.

Dave Bolland whipped his gloves off after scoring the game-winner with 59 seconds left. (Getty Images)

The Bruins went from 80 seconds away from a victory that'd force a winner-take-all Game 7 to a minute short of overtime to 58 seconds away from their season ending. With their hearts effectively ripped out, the Bruins' bid to tie the game was a hopeless one. As the clock struck triple-zero, and Crawford began shedding his equipment, all the questions in the world began to rush to my mind as the jubilant Blackhawks leaped over the boards to celebrate their second championship in the last four years.

Did that really just happen? What do I say? What do I tweet? What am I going to write about this moment for the website, or for the magazine now? What am I supposed to feel?

"There are and never will be words to describe this moment," I tweeted out before walking in a haze to meet up with colleagues seated on the other side of the rink. We watched quietly, lost in our own thoughts, as Patrick Kane accepted the Conn Smythe before Toews and Co. trotted the Cup around the Garden ice.

And then the attempt to rationalize sets in: The better team won. The Bruins probably should've been out in the first round against Toronto, and only made it here thanks to a full-fledged miracle.

But the heart has its say, too: That didn't really just happen, did it? What a Bruins way to lose a game, to end a season, to come so close to glory only to fall short. 

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hands the Cup to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. (Getty Images)

After the elevator took us down to the third floor and we made our way to the Zamboni entrance, it was time to reflect and feel that sense of gratitude as we took our first steps out onto the ice, with a sea of media members, family and friends scattered from one end of the rink to the other.

We almost didn't have a hockey season. This team was on the cusp of another ugly first-round exit that would've led to the firing of Claude Julien and the dismantling of a roster that did something no Bruins squad had done in 39 years, and one that almost accomplished that same feat just two seasons later, rallying from a three-goal deficit in Game 7 against the Leafs and sweeping a stacked Penguins squad that stole Jarome Iginla from them at the deadline -- and was the consensus pick to win this year's title -- in the process.

As for me? I've never hid from the fact that I grew up rooting for the Boston Bruins, and I take a lot of pride in being able to maintain some sense of that while remaining objective when it comes to doing this job. And don't be fooled: It is a job, it is work, and it can be a real grind. 

Nevertheless, I thank God every day for its perks.

Actor Jim Belushi takes a photo of himself alongside Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane. (Photo: Jesse Connolly)

Even if it felt like, as The Salem News' Phil Stacey described it, "someone breaking into your house and throwing a party," being out on the ice after Game 6 was an unbelievable experience -- from watching Dan Carcillo, surrounded by family and friends, lifting the Cup high above his head, to Patrick Kane hugging Chicago superfan Jim Belushi, to former UVM standout Patrick Sharp holding his young daughter while talking to a reporter, it was a chance to see a Cup celebration up close and personal. Not many people get an opportunity like that, and who knows when one will come my way again.

Fellow NEHJ scribes Andy Merritt (left) and Ty Anderson (right) flank me for a quick photo on the TD Garden ice after Game 6.

It's a shame someone had to lose this series which -- and I truly believe this -- came down to the two best, most complete teams in the NHL in 2013. Unfortunately for yours truly and 99 percent of those of you reading this, it was the Bruins reduced to the role of Stanley Cup bridesmaids this time around. 

This one will sting for a while -- probably for even longer than usual, given its gut-wrenching conclusion. But before you know it, the 2013-14 season will be upon us. The wounds will be healed. Hope will be renewed. Playoff hockey will return to Boston and New England will again set its sights on another Stanley Cup for their beloved Black and Gold.

And somewhere up on the ninth floor at TD Garden, no matter how snarky my tweets may be or overly-critical my recaps may seem, my fingers will always remain figuratively crossed that the next NHL champions will call the Hub of Hockey home.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com