Johnston: No words for Maple Leafs’ collapse

Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer. (AP/Charles Krupa)

BOSTON – They sat in stunned silence, the Toronto Maple Leafs brain trust, looking at one another with basically nothing to say.

There were really no words for what transpired at TD Garden on Monday night, especially mere minutes after one of the most shocking collapses in Leafs history.

To lose a game you led by three goals with 11 minutes to play would be crushing if it happened in February; to do it in Game 7 of a playoff series is nothing short of soul-destroying.

No team – not one – had ever blown that big of lead in the third period of a seventh game in NHL playoff history. At least not until now.

“I don’t know what happened to us,” Leafs winger Phil Kessel said after the 5-4 overtime defeat to his former team. “(Leading) 4-1, you can’t lose that game.”

But they did and the season is over. It ended prematurely for a team that both exceeded expectations and found a very hollow ending to its unexpected journey.

How strange.

The Garden had started to empty after Nazem Kadri made it 4-1 for Toronto at 5:29 of the third period. It was the first goal of the series for the young centre and seemed to bode well for the more important games to come.

Across the way on the Boston Bruins bench, players started to wonder about what the off-season might bring. Would the core of the 2011 Stanley Cup champions be dismantled?

“When you’re looking at the clock wind down with half a period left at 4-1 you start thinking to yourself: `Is this the end of this group here?”‘ forward Milan Lucic said. “Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game.”

On the out of town scoreboard the Rangers were handily beating the Capitals. That meant the second round would start in Toronto. Home-ice advantage was well within reach for the youthful team that could.

How about that?

“I don’t think many people gave us a shot to win this series and with 10 minutes to go in the third period it looked like we were going to,” Kadri said.

Except Boston would not go quietly in those remaining minutes.

First Nathan Horton beat James Reimer with a wrist shot through traffic at 9:18. The scoreboard read 4-2.

“Still some life in the Bruins,” said Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play man Jim Hughson, correctly reading the situation.

Sophomore Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner, who reaffirmed his importance to the organization despite some blunders in this series, was on the ice and returned to the bench.

He sensed a change in his teammates. There was suddenly a bad feeling in the air.

“I thought we were good up until their second goal,” Gardiner said. “After that, it seemed like there was kind of a downhill slide from there. … We sat back.”

If only their legs could have moved as fast as their minds.

However, even with the nervous energy building, time was getting away from the Bruins. Plus Toronto had been oh-so-desperate and Reimer had been oh-so-good in securing huge victories in Game 5 and Game 6.

Surely they would find a way with the finish line closing in.

Not long after Matt Frattin fired wide on a breakaway, Bruins coach Claude Julien summoned goalie Tuukka Rask to the bench – hockey’s ultimate desperation move, the longest of longshots when you need two goals.

This happened to be a night for longshots.

With the puck buzzing around the Leafs zone, Reimer couldn’t hold on to a Zdeno Chara point shot into his catching glove. Lucic shoveled it home at 18:38.

The big winger could be seen mouthing the words “One more!” as he celebrated with teammates.

It came 31 seconds later.

The roof nearly caved in when a Patrice Bergeron wrist shot from the point sailed past four players, including the six-foot-nine Chara parked right in front, and into Reimer’s net.

The Toronto players hung their heads on the bench. They had tried to stay upbeat but the weight of the moment was impossible to ignore.

After Rich Peverley failed to convert a sparkling chance to end it for Boston in regulation, finally (mercifully) the Leafs retreated to the dressing room to try and catch their breath. They had an 18-minute intermission to try and save their season.

“When you’re coming in here 4-4 there’s a little bit of shock maybe,” Reimer said. “But at the same time we were saying to ourselves: `We would have taken overtime coming in this morning.’

“It’s no big deal how it got there, you can’t worry about that.”

Perhaps some of the more positive members of the fanbase spent the intermission thinking back to 1993, when Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime of Game 7 to pull off a surprising first-round win over Detroit.

“Unbelievable,” Borschevsky said after ending that series.

Getting past the Bruins here would have given the fans a similar unforgettable memory.

There were even some early chances from Joffrey Lupul, who earlier in the day had spoken about wanting to be a hero. “You can’t be afraid of big moments,” he said.

Hours later Lupul was one-timing a shot from the high slot that Rask had to extend a pad to stop. He followed that up with a wraparound chance that was also kept out.

That ended up being the final registered shot of the Leafs season.

The decisive moment came with the men in the blue and white sweaters looking completely out of gas. They were trying to do something – anything – to clear the puck out of their zone and get a change of players.

Instead Gardiner inadvertently cleared it on to the stick of Bergeron, who quickly beat Reimer at 6:05.

The Leafs goalie crumpled to the ice and sprawled out motionless on his stomach. When he eventually got up he fired the puck in frustration.

The collapse was complete.

“One minute you think you’re going to win the game, you’re up 4-1, and then 20 minutes later it’s all over,” Gardiner said. “I think it will be a good learning experience for our group. We’re going to be ready to come back next year and be an even better team.”

Maybe that was on the minds of the Leafs management group and coaching staff as they gathered in a small room with looks of disbelief all over their faces.

It appeared to be a quiet gathering.

Down the hall, Carlyle took to the podium and did his best to explain what had happened. He felt the team had done enough this season to earn back some respect – a goal he set back at training camp in January – and he thought they had proved they could compete with a top-notch team like the Bruins.

“We did a lot of good things, but we still didn’t find a way to close it out,” Carlyle said. “One goal, one bounce, one bodycheck, one blocked shot could’ve made the difference for a win or a loss in the series.”

They didn’t get it and now the season is over and there are so many unanswered questions.

Only tonight wasn’t the kind of night to look for answers.

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