BOSTON - When the Bruins skated off the TD Garden ice on Wednesday night and down the tunnel, there was no more sense of hope.
All hope had been left on the ice, along with the scattered gold rally towels that had made their way down from the stands.
The men in the Spoked-B had gone through their handshake line with the men in Bleu, Blanc et Rouge, saluted the crowd for their undying support and headed to the locker room to try and process what had just happened.
Game 7. A 3-1 loss to the rival Habs. It likely hurts just reading the words alone.
"You’re never satisfied in playoffs unless you win and you go all the way," said Brad Marchand, trying to adjust to the shock to the system that is losing a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"But we didn’t play our best hockey at the right time and that’s what you need to do in playoffs. You need to play your best hockey of the season in playoff time and we didn’t do that."
It had been 224 days since Opening Night, just under a year since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. There was unfinished business, and the Bruins didn't get it done.
"No, no. You can’t [process it]. It’s been five minutes since the game was over," said Patrice Bergeron, who stood in front of his stall, as he tried to formulate words for all of the gathered reporters. "You can’t, and it’s going to take a while to sink in."
The hardest part for the Bruins, is knowing that they didn't give it their best shot. They didn't find a way to fight through it, like they usually have.
"You can’t really, there’s no words to explain it," said Bergeron. "I mean, obviously, got to give them credit, but we didn’t execute and we didn’t score the goals that we needed to get the momentum."
As the series went on, the Bruins found themselves countlessly chasing the Habs. They played one game - Game 5 - at a higher level, but never reached their full potential that we saw during the regular season en route to the Presidents' Trophy.
They were primed for another long run.
"This time of year, you've got to play your best hockey of the year," said Head Coach Claude Julien, meeting with media just about an hour after the final buzzer had sounded.
"And I don’t think we got to that point. I don’t think we played badly, but we certainly weren’t playing as well as we could, to be a team that would move ahead."
The Habs had put a damper on the night, just 2:18 in, when Daniel Weise powered in a feed from Daniel Briere after being wide open at the top of the goal mouth. It was the tale of the series, the Canadiens often scoring first, stealing momentum, and putting the Bruins back on their heels. Lost coverage, missed assignment, Tuukka Rask out to dry.
"I can’t really tell you," said Johnny Boychuk, of the timid and tentative start the Bruins had, trying to find their legs and emotion in the first 20 minutes.
It wasn't because the veteran defenseman was keeping any secrets - he was just trying to wrap his head around what had happened, stopping to shake his head every so often as he searched to find the words.
"I’m just trying to take it all in," Boychuk went on. "That it’s the end of the season."
"It’s tough to swallow. We have such a good team; to even think that our season is over right now is…just trying to process it because we have such a good team it shouldn’t be."
"I'm just trying to process the loss right now."
Every Bruin was the same, trying to find the words, trying to take in the feeling. Each Bruin has his own personality, though, so the visible emotions varied throughout the room.
"Just disappointing," said Milan Lucic, his anger and frustration showing immediately. He's always been one to wear his emotions.
"We have such a good group of guys, a good team. For us to be going home now is a tough pill to swallow, because we have a great team in here."
"It’s unfortunate, the way it has to end. I mean, we got ourselves up 3-2 in the series and were unable to get the job done - especially with the group that we had here and the season we were able to put together. It’s going to be tough to swallow this one and deal with it for the rest of the summer."
"It’s frustrating. I don’t know what else to say. We lost. We let our fans down. We had a great opportunity with a team like this, and like I said, it’s a tough one to swallow."
Lucic and the Bruins gave the Boston faithful much to cheer for this season.
"That’s it," said the winger. "It sucks. There were high expectations, we wanted to get back there, and we felt like we had a good enough team to win, and we didn’t."
The scoresheet at the end of the night showed that the Habs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, off the goal from Weise and a two-on-one goal from Max Pacioretty off a turnover. Jarome Iginla gave the Bruins life late in the second period with their first goal since the third period of Game 5, on the power play, off a tip from Torey Krug. But the bounces never went the Bruins' way.
Iginla's rebound chance less than five minutes into the third period went just outside the post. It would have tied the game. The Bruins kept pushing, and pushing, but Briere got the bounce on the man-advantage, with his shot going off Chara's skate and in behind Rask. It gave Montreal their 3-1 lead.
As it went all series, the Bruins couldn't earn their luck.
"It’s one of those things that any goal can make a difference in a game," said Chara, graciously and calmly answering a steady stream of questions for nearly the entire media availability in the Bruins' locker room postgame.
"That first goal I think gave them a lot of energy, a lot of jump, and we were kind of trying and chasing and working really, really hard, but," he paused to take a deep sigh, recounting what had just happened. "We just needed that one goal to get us going again, you know?"
"It's hard, there’s no question. You get to Game 7 and you think you can find a way," said Iginla. "It’s a great group of guys here, it’s a great team. And you know, we didn’t get it done."
"Montreal played well, they played hard. It was a tough, close series. But we didn’t get it done. It sucks right now. This is as good a team as I’ve ever played on, and guys worked hard and work hard and compete hard. And you get to Game 7 there and you know that somebody’s season is ending, and it sucks that it’s ours."
"I’ve been in the league a long time and guys here have been here a long time. You’ve got to have things. You can be a very, very good team, which we are. But you also have to – there’s lots that goes into it and you’re playing other good teams that want it badly too."
"That one goal, that one shot that could give us the life that we needed," Bergeron lamented, of what the team needed.
The Canadiens capitalized on their opportunities and their power plays, and made the Bruins pay on their mistakes.
"Well, it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day I don’t think we deserved to win today," said Rask. "We made defensive mistakes and it cost us the game."
"We did that at times in the regular season, but when it’s playoffs it’s going to cost you games or a series, and now it did, so you know we can’t cry about it but that’s reality and we have to move on."
"Those are things we have to face and look at and say, you know what? That’s of our own doing and we have to live with that," said Julien.
The uncharacteristic defensive play that defined the Bruins throughout this series had shown itself during the regular season, albeit in spurts. It mostly happened once Dennis Seidenberg suffered his season-ending injury in December, as Boston went through an adjustment period on the back end.
"If you don’t play well, there’s a lot of pressure and you just got to hope that your young players will learn from that and go from there," said Julien, of the young players in their lineup.
It was tough to take positives from the devastating loss, but if Julien was going to find them, he was going to focus on his inexperienced players finding ways to play beyond their years.
"Those guys came in this year — when you lose Seidenberg, you lose one of your top two Ds and they come in and Bartkowski, Hamilton I thought was becoming a really good player for us. Bartkowski, Krug, those guys — Miller coming in in the middle of the season, never played an NHL game before. Give those guys credit — they did a great job of allowing us to have a good year."
"So there’s no doubt that there was maybe a lot on their plate in these last few games and maybe could tell a lack of experience and the nervousness. But it’s not just those guys. We had seven first-year players — some a little older than others — but seven first-year players in our lineup. And I’m not using that as an excuse, I’m just saying that to me that stood out tonight as far as guys maybe not being at the top of their game."
The veterans no doubt put the accountability on themselves.
"I would lie to you if I say it’s not disappointing, especially after the season we had. We, for sure our goals, which, were much higher than obviously finishing in the second round, so of course it is disappointing," said Chara.
"People can talk about it, guys can talk about whatever they want, but like I said, as a top centerman, if you don’t put the puck in the net in two rounds you don’t give the team the chance to win the game or the series," said David Krejci, placing blame on his shoulders for never finding the back of the net this postseason.
"I felt like I could have put the puck in the net a couple times, but I didn’t, so I didn’t do my job in the playoffs."
"Again, we didn’t win and we’re not moving ahead because we didn’t play as well as we can," said Julien, when told that Krejci was putting that weight on his shoulders. "I think as a team we didn’t seem to find our rhythm that we had for most of the year and so I don’t think I’m going to turn to David Krejci and point the finger at him because there’s more than just one player. I think we have to take the blame here as a team and that’s what I intend to do."
"They won the series, fair and square. They were the better team tonight, and you have to respect that. So it’s up to us to move on, and them to keep moving toward their goal."
So, as the words soon cease for the Bruins on the 2013-14 season, they'll leave this one behind with missed opportunities and lost hope.
What could have been? We'll never know.
"It’s really tough. I think we expected to go all the way this year," said Marchand. "It’s very tough; it’s very disappointing. It’s hard to really put into words. It’s – we expected a lot more."
"Especially when you think you have a great team, and we did have a great team," said Rask. "But it goes to prove again that winning the regular season doesn’t mean anything, and you know, played a pretty decent first series, and then this series, as I said, you know we kind of didn’t take that next step and improve our game, and that’s it."
"That’s just the reality, and we have to live with it."
They'll live with the shock, and eventually, slowly but surely, it will turn to motivation for yet another season of unfinished business.
"You do have some high expectations," say Bergeron. "That’s how it’s been here for a while now."
"Definitely far from being where we would have liked to go, and definitely not happy with the result."
"You know , we would have liked things to go different. But it didn’t," lamented Iginla, quietly, through glassy eyes.
It will take some time for the end of the season to sink in.
"It’s going to be a while. You know, especially when you know that you have a team that was so good and consistent throughout the whole season, and you have a good enough team to win more than one series," said Chara.
"It just, for sure, it’s something that you’re going to be thinking about. I’ll be thinking about it quite a bit."
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