Bryan Bickell and the Blackhawks withstood the wrath of Zdeno Chara and an early 2-1 series deficit to come back and beat the Bruins in a dramatic Game 6, with a two-goals-in-17-seconds outburst started by Bickell's tying tally. (Getty Images)
We thought they were a team of destiny. What we learned is that fate often has a way of being cruel.
Following the unspeakably tragic events of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Bruins humbly aimed to simply provide a distraction, a return to normalcy, a chance to put minds at ease with a few hours of entertainment when they reopened their doors on the night of April 17 for a game against the visiting Buffalo Sabres.
But from the moment the 17,565 on hand that night united with Rene Rancourt for the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” until the stunning conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final on June 24, the Bruins became something far greater than a mere mental or physical excursion for a grief-stricken community.
From sea to shining sea, Boston’s iconic Spoked-B became a rallying cry, a symbol of strength and resolve for a galvanized town to take pride in, and one for an entire nation to eagerly lend its support to.
As the Black and Gold marched toward their ultimate goal, one couldn’t help but sense the hockey gods had been paying close attention and were pulling all the right strings.
Boston mounted a miraculous comeback in Game 7 of the first round to defeat Toronto in a fashion that statisticians say occurs, roughly, every 5,000 years. After breezing past the Rangers, the Bruins managed to sweep a juggernaut Penguins squad that stole Jarome Iginla from them at the deadline and entered the series as the odds-on favorite according to just about everyone in North America with a mailing address west of Route 128.
It was poetry in motion. A story for the ages. And as the Bruins held a 2-1 lead with under two minutes to play in Game 6 over Chicago, a Game 7 for all of Lord Stanley’s marbles now visible on the horizon, the Hub of Hockey collectively gripped the corner of the page and prepared to turn to the final chapter of this heartwarming tale.
But in the span of 17 seconds, that tale went from heartwarming to heartbreaking.
Words couldn’t describe it
With 1:16 left in regulation, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews set up Bryan Bickell for a tap-in atop the crease that tied the game at 2-2. As yet another overtime in the series seemed like a formality, a shot from the point deflected, came back off the post and past Tuukka Rask.
Dave Bolland banged it home and flung his gloves off in celebration. A once-jubilant crowd that’d just sat back and prepared itself for some bonus hockey was left stunned.
“Yeah I guess so. It felt like we had it, you know?” David Krejci said when asked if the Bruins gave the game away. “It feels like we lost it. We had a Game 7 in front of us. It was right there. I felt we played a pretty good game, and we lost it. We just gave it to them, basically.”
It was a strange season for a number of reasons for the Bruins. Someone other than Tim Thomas was the clear-cut No. 1 goalie for the first time since 2004. Thirty-four games were lopped off the schedule due to the latest lockout, which led to a condensed schedule and a bunch of overworked teams limping to the finish line.
The Bruins had trouble finishing the regular season, watching the Northeast Division slip away. They also had trouble finishing games, very much unlike the days when Thomas was between the pipes. So, it only felt fitting that the team that consistently coughed up leads throughout the regular season would ultimately fall on their own sword again on the big stage.
“Yeah, well, we’ve done it to somebody else, so we got to feel how it feels being on the other side,” said Tuukka Rask, comparing Chicago’s crazy comeback to Boston’s similar, last-minute surge against the Leafs. “This season we were known to lose a couple of leads, even in the regular season, we were up by goals and we lost the games. I guess that sums it up pretty good.”
The road to recovery
When the Flyers completed their historic comeback from an 0-3 series deficit against the Bruins in 2010, many feared that being part of such an embarrassing collapse would leave a scar that would never quite heal for every member of the Black and Gold.
A little more than a year later, more than 10 members of that group were lifting the Stanley Cup high above their heads, proving a full recovery was entirely possible.
Now, many are left debating what kind of effect the nightmarish end to their 2013 championship quest will have on the Bruins going forward. Can they shake those last-minute defensive meltdowns? How about the images of the Blackhawks skating around TD Garden with hockey’s holy grail high above their heads?
“You’re going to remember forever,” said defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who was on the ice for Bolland’s game-winner. “You remember winning it, but I think you remember losing it a little bit more, now that we have had that happen.”
Those final moments, that 17 seconds of failure, will forever be re-examined by every Bruin on the roster, regardless of whether they were on the ice for either of Chicago’s shocking strikes.
“I don’t know what happened. It just did, you know?” said Krejci, who was on the ice for Bickell’s tying tally. “But it is what it is. You never want to lose a game like this. You never want to lose a season like this. But we did. It’s not even a point to say that it’s going to make us stronger in the future. It sucks that we lost. It’s going to hurt for a while. That’s about it.”
In 2012, a burnt-out Bruins squad failed to repeat as Stanley Cup winners, and Boston’s bid was almost over before it started, as the Black and Gold fell to the Capitals in the first round.
Knowing how hard even a 48-game campaign was to get through, what it takes to make it through the gauntlet that is the NHL playoffs and all that has to go right to go the distance, it would be easy to see how the thought of going through that all again would seem mighty daunting for a team that came oh so close to accomplishing its mission in 2013.
“You don’t come this far to lose, right?” said Milan Lucic. “I mean, it would have been easy to quit two months ago in that Game 7 against Toronto when we dug deep to get ourselves through that game. There’s no reason why we can’t dig deep and find a little bit extra to get ourselves through this one.”
While letting the opportunity to capture their second Cup in three years slip through their fingers will never be easy to come to grips with, nothing could completely sour what the Bruins have accomplished on and off the ice over the last few months.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a tough year for the city with everything we went through between Newtown and here in Boston of course,” winger Dan Paille said. “I think sports just kind of get everyone’s minds off of some bad things and kind of embraces everything around you. And then I think with our run as far as we went, I think it definitely could have helped a lot of people. I guess that’s all you can ask for as an athlete and having an enjoyable time being at the games.”
While the Bruins and their wild playoff run were something the community turned its attention to for an escape from the grim reality facing them, the players were consumed by just as much raw emotion as those they aimed to provide some semblance of relief for.
“I think the guys handled it as best they could, and we gained a perspective of what our role was in this city, and also some perspective on what’s important in life in the bigger picture,” defenseman Andrew Ference said. “We’re playing a sport. I think everybody feels fortunate to be doing that, and you see what some of the other people are going through. I think it was easier for us to turn the pages on the trying times, and a lot easier to dig deeper I think when we needed to dig deeper for an extra little push.”
Championship or not, Boston treated its fans to one incredibly entertaining playoff run. The team helped a reeling city get back on its feet, and in the midst of handling all of that adversity, every member of the already-tight band of Bruins became just a little bit closer.
“I think so. Like you said, just with what we went through as a city with the marathon stuff, and also with what happened in that Toronto series as well,” Lucic said when asked about the team coming together in the face of adversity. “I think it does make the group closer. And getting back to this point, right now it’s an empty feeling with not being able to come out of it with a Cup.
“But I think if you look at it, it was a lot of fun playing playoff hockey and getting to the Stanley Cup Final again. So our group is as tight as it ever was. That’s the big reason why we want to be back here next year.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of the New England Hockey Journal.