BOSTON (AP) — Four straight goals. Four straight losses.
The symmetry was too much to bear for the Boston Bruins.
“I’m in shock right now, actually,” Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk said after watching the Philadelphia Flyers rally from a three-goal deficit in Game 7 to win 4-3 and complete their comeback from a three-game hole in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Disappointed is an understatement I guess. We were up 3-nothing and it was just like the series: 4-3.”
It was an odd ending to an odd season, one in which Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Tim Thomas earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team but lost his form and his NHL starting job before the Vancouver Games even began. The team didn’t respond to the blindside hit to the head by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke that knocked Marc Savard out with a concussion — at least not in a way that satisfied the Boston fans.
Instead the Bruins fought until the final weekend of the season for one of the last berths in the Eastern Conference, winning on the final weekend to qualify as a sixth seed. Boston upended the Buffalo Sabres in the first round and, when the top two seeds also lost, earned the home-ice advantage against Philadelphia.
The Bruins jumped to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven conference semifinals, but the Flyers won Game 4 in overtime and then added victories in Games 5 and 6 to force the decisive game in Boston. The Bruins opened a 3-0 lead before the Flyers scored four straight to advance to the conference finals against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
“I wouldn’t say we choked,” Boychuk said. “We had a chance to close it out in overtime. … It could have gone either way in the last two games. If you want to say we choked, I’m proud of the way we battled and I’m just in shock that were not playing anymore.”
It’s destined to be an odd offseason as well: Despite their strong finish, the Bruins own the No. 2 pick in the draft, thanks to a trade that sent disgruntled scorer Phil Kessel to Toronto last summer. The pick — likely to be either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, both Ontario Hockey League stars — is the team’s highest since it took Joe Thornton first overall in 1997.
“Obviously there is going to be a bitter taste in your mouth for all this summer,” forward Milan Lucic said. “But at some point you have to try and get over it. Who knows how long it is going to take?
“Hopefully we can take some things out of this and we can learn a real valuable lesson that we can’t take anything for granted at all. I think everyone in this room is going to have that bitter taste in their mouth, and hopefully everyone uses that to come out hungry and work even harder to push more to start off and have a good start to next season.”
But it wasn’t the start that was the problem.
The Bruins were 21-12-7 after beating the Flyers in the New Year’s Day Winter Classic at Fenway Park, then won just two of their next 16 games. Tuukka Rask replaced Thomas in net and helped the Bruins reach the playoffs, then outplayed Olympic MVP Ryan Miller in the first round.
But after taking a 3-0 lead in the second-round series, the Bruins couldn’t finish.
“Killer instinct was missing,” Bruins forward Mark Recchi said. “What are you going to do? It’s over now. And another long summer to think about it.”
It’s the fourth straight Game 7 loss for the Bruins, the third year in a row they’ve lost a deciding game and the second consecutive season in which they’ve lost the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals at home.
“It’s two years in a row that we’ve gotten this opportunity and just haven’t done it,” Recchi said. “I think that you just don’t want this to happen again if you’re a player. It’s not a very enjoyable feeling right now.”
The Bruins also lost at home in the first round to Montreal in 2004, but forward Patrice Bergeron said this one’s worse.
“We were in control,” he said. “You know, we were in control of the whole series, and (that) wasn’t the case in ’04.”
The Bruins joined the 1942 Detroit Red Wings and the 1975 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only NHL teams to lose a best-of-seven series after taking a 3-0 lead. The only other team in a major North American sport to blow a 3-0 lead was the 2004 New York Yankees, who watched Boston win four straight to take the AL pennant.
Those Red Sox went on to win the World Series and end an 86-year drought; then they won it all again in 2007. The Celtics hung their 17th banner in 2008 and the Patriots won three Super Bowls from 2002-05, leaving the Bruins with by far the longest title drought in Boston.
It’s been 38 years since Bobby Orr skated around the old Boston Garden with the Bruins’ last Stanley Cup, in 1972. Twice they have kept the slump alive by giving up power-play goals after a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty.
The Red Sox prolonged their drought with wall-clearing popups by light-hitting catchers, slow-rolling grounders through the legs of slow-moving infielders and a manger with more confidence in a tired and aging starter than his tired and aging relievers.
Current manager Terry Francona, who took over in 2004 and won the World Series twice in his first four years, had his own problems to worry about.
“To be honest,” he said after Friday night’s game in Detroit, “I don’t even know how many men are supposed to be out there.”