BOSTON — The Leafs’ exit from the playoffs was another 18-wheeler going right off a cliff. Sudden, shocking and final.
Up 4-1 over the Boston Bruins nine minutes into the third period of Game 7 Monday night, Toronto seemed destined to add to its history with a third straight win to seal a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the series. That hadn’t happened for the franchise since the 1942 Stanley Cup final against the Detroit Red Wings.
But with a snarling Milan Lucic leading the way back for Boston, a stirring series comeback turned into total collapse.
Boston reeled off three straight goals — including two with Tuukka Rask off for the extra attacker — to tie the game at 4-4. Then Patrice Bergeron scored at 6:05 of overtime to cap a miraculous 5-4 recovery for a Bruins team that seemed to be on life support.
"They had us on the ropes," said a relieved Boston coach Claude Julien. "We’re not going to sit here and lie."
The Bruins are the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"It just seemed like we ran out of gas," said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle.
"Losing is tough and losing the way we did after a 4-1 lead, there’s nothing you can say to explain how and why it happened," he added.
There will be a lengthy post-mortem once the emotions subside.
It had looked like two early goals by defenceman Cody Franson would be enough to propel Toronto into the next round. Up 2-1 to start the third period, Toronto got goals from Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri to pad the lead to 4-1 by 5:39.
Nathan Horton, set up by Lucic, got one back at 9:18. Then Lucic made it 4-3 at 18:38 and Bergeron tied it up at 19:09.
Cue an unlikely overtime and chalk up the miraculous recovery for Boston as the Bruins blitzed the Toronto goal. The Leafs could not clear the puck and Bergeron snapped home a shot.
"It’s one of the craziest ones I’ve been a part of," said Bergeron, who was held to one goal in the first six games before collecting two goals and an assist in Game 7.
"That was unbelievable," said Boston defenceman Johnny Boychuk. "That’s one thing you’re going to remember probably for the rest of your life, because it was such a comeback, that everybody probably thought that we were done and (it) showed what kind of character there is in this dressing room. Never say die, more or less."
Toronto goalie James Reimer lay face down on the ice as the Bruins and their 17,565 yellow-and-black faithful celebrated.
"There’s no way to describe it," he said of his emotions at the time. "Just an empty feeling really. It’s over and there’s nothing you can do about it."
Boston outshot the Leafs 35-28 including 17-6 in the third period and 5-2 in overtime.
The Toronto dressing room was like a morgue as players faced the media one by one.
"I don’t think any of us will be able to sleep too great tonight," said Kadri, his face a mask of pain. "We understand that we kind of gave it away a little bit."
Reimer called it one of "definitely the top five lows of your life."
"I don’t know what happened to us — 4-1, you can’t lose that game," said Kessel.
Captain Dion Phaneuf seemed in shock.
"It’s extremely tough to put into words," he said slowly. "We had a team down and out and we just let them take over the game and climb out of a hole that they never should have came back from."
Phaneuf offered his respect to the Bruins, but still seemed unable to comprehend what had just happened.
The Bruins advance to play the New York Rangers, who blanked Washington 5-0 in another Game 7.
It marked the first time the Bruins have come back from a three-goal deficit in a playoff game since April 11, 1990, when they trailed the Hartford Whalers by a 5-2 score in the third period but went on to win 6-5.
Carlyle reserved judgment on the officiating, but seemed to suggest Toronto was owed some calls. But he wasn’t complaining. And he tried to take some positives from what was a major-league kick in the gut.
"What we did is we proved that we can compete and this is a sharp learning curve for some of our younger players that this is what it’s going to take. And we did a lot of good things but we still didn’t find a way to close it out. So that’s the difference: one goal, one bounce, one bodycheck, one blocked shot could have made the difference for a win or a loss in the series. And we laid it out on the line and we played hard.
"The most disappointing part for me is we lost two games in our building and when you’re in the playoffs, very rarely can you afford to lose two in your building in a seven-game series. It makes the mountain that much more difficult to climb."
The Bruins won Game 1 in Boston and Games 3 and 4 (in OT) in Toronto. The Leafs took Games 2 and 5 in Boston and Game 6 in Toronto.
Julien called it the most draining game he had been in and admitted he called a timeout in the second period in a bid to refocus the frustration on the Bruins bench.
Coming off a Game 6 loss at the Air Canada Centre the previous night, the Bruins had been forced to stay in Toronto overnight due to a plane malfunction. Nothing seemed to be going right for a team that had wobbled in the final days of the regular season, its schedule and psyche ruined by the ugly Boston Marathon bombings
Until the final minutes of Monday’s third period when the Bruins offered a sporting version of Boston Strong.
The capacity crowd, which had been disgruntled most of the night, partied as it waited for an overtime period that never seemed in the cards.
The fourth-seeded Bruins, who dug their own hole by failing to finish off the Leafs in Games 5 and 6, started well but soon found themselves short on defencemen, discipline and inspiration. Upset at the officiating as the game wore on, the Boston players seemed preoccupied with a jab here, a punch there.
It was as if they were more interested in getting even on the ice than the scoreboard.
Boston began to looked tired and dispirited. The opportunistic Leafs, in contrast, grew in stature and confidence.
Franson, who had four goals in 45 games during the regular season, upped his playoff points total to three goals and three assists in seven games. Kadri and Kessel both had a goal and an assist while linemate James van Riemsdyk had two assists
The last Toronto defenceman to score two goals in a playoff game was Tomas Kaberle on April 14, 2003, against Philadelphia.
Matt Bartkowski, profiting from a Franson turnover, opened the scoring for Boston.
Inside the TD Garden, a sellout of waved yellow towels. Back in Toronto, blue-and-white Leafs fans gathered at Maple Leaf Square.
After Game 6, Julien had talked of his Jekyll and Hyde team this season. The question facing Boston fans was which Bruins team would show up Monday.
The Bad Bruins — the team that exited the 2012 playoffs by losing Game 7 to Washington in 2012 and the one in 2010 that won three games against Philadelphia only to lose the next four. Or the Good Bruins — the team that won the Cup in 2011 by winning Game 7s against Montreal, Tampa Bay and Vancouver in the final.
He got both Monday.
"We know that we have to be better," said Julien. "We can’t keep playing well in spurts and not so well in other spurts. There’s got to be some consistency."
Julien asked for a 60-minute effort and the Bruins came out bristling. David Krejci’s line had three shots on goal in the first shift, including a two-on-one on Reimer.
Both team had injury issues.
Fifth-seeded Toronto was without injured centre Tyler Bozak (upper body) while Boston had problems on the blue-line with Andrew Ference and Wade Redden (undisclosed) both out.
Toronto’s Joe Colborne played for the second night in a row while Dougie Hamilton and Bartkowski filled in on the Bruins blue-line. Defenceman Dennis Seidenberg dressed but only saw 37 seconds ice time on two shifts in the first period after an apparent injury.
That left Boston with five defenceman, two of whom had seen limited NHL action.
Franson scored two and set up one — for the opposition.
His ill-advised pass between his legs from the boards inside the Toronto blue-line. It went straight to Bartkowski who skated in from the point and ripped a wrist shot past Reimer.
The fans started chanting Reimer, Reimer in derision. They should have been thanking Franson.
But the defenceman redeemed himself with two straight goals to give Toronto the lead.
The Bruins’ frustration was exemplified in the second period when Lucic, reacting to an unnoticed slash from Phaneuf as the Toronto captain was on his butt behind the goal, was penalized for roughing. Lupul then knocked Rask’s mask off with his knee in a goalmouth collision, enraging Chara.
As a franchise, the Bruins are now 13-11 in Game 7s (12-7 on home ice) compared to 12-10 for Toronto (5-9 on the road).
Going into the series decider, Boston had outscored the Leafs 17-14 and outshot them 238-206. Toronto had outhit the Bruins 304-254.
The Boston win tied the all-time playoff ledger between the two teams at 34 wins apiece with one tie.
The shocking finale leaves a sour taste in the mouth of a Toronto team that has surprised many under Carlyle, who succeeded the fired Ron Wilson in March 2012.
The Leafs were in freefall at the time, mired in a 1-9-1 slide.
"I’ve never had a team fall off a cliff like this before, I’ve had dips, slumps, rough patches, but this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff, I don’t know what happened," then GM Brian Burke said at the time.
While Leafs fans will have months to go over this wreckage, Julien offered some kind words for the Leafs.
"I saw a team grow …. As an opposing team coach, I saw that team get better and better. We’re glad we got rid of them because they kept getting better."
Asked how he would describe the game to someone who had missed it, Boychuk offered up: "Too bad for them."