It was right around 9 p.m. on the night of May 13, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the magnitude of what was happening at TD Garden, or even a doctor to hop on the PA and make a time-of-death announcement.
When Leafs center Nazem Kadri scored to give Toronto a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7, putting the Bruins on the cusp of squandering a 3-1 series lead and again coming up short in a do-or-die showdown on home ice, even the most foolishly-optimistic souls that chose not to vacate the building had to have known they were about to witness the end of an era for their beloved Bruins.
Kadri’s goal was seemingly the final nail being hammered into the coffin for this group of Bruins, which had restored the so-called faith throughout the Hub of Hockey by capturing the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time in 39 years. Two years ago, this band of B’s appeared capable of becoming a dynasty. On May 13, they were on the verge of their second monumental playoff meltdown in four years and back-to-back first-round exits.
The Bruins didn’t just have one foot in the grave. They were lying down face first at the bottom of it, not even putting up a fight as the Leafs poured one shovelful of dirt after another on them.
And then it happened. The miracle of all miracles. The Bruins rose from the dead to score three goals in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation to force overtime.
Patrice Bergeron’s game-winning goal 6:05 into the extra session didn’t just save Boston’s season. It saved jobs — a number of them, in all likelihood. And for the time being, it kept the core of this team intact for at least one more chance at glory together.
You knew it, they knew it
The Bruins’ first-round exit against the Capitals in 2012 was disappointing, but it fell short of being outright devastating. The B’s had played a whole lot of hockey over the past calendar year and, like many reigning champions before them, appeared burned out by the time the postseason rolled around.
Fans and, more importantly, management, were willing to give this group a pass for their shortcomings that spring. A collapse against the Maple Leafs, however, likely would’ve led to sweeping changes.
“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?’ ” said winger Milan Lucic, who had two goals and seven assists in the first round. “It probably would have been (the end) if we didn’t win this game, but you’ve got to have bounces. You’ve got to have luck.”
Lucic himself might’ve been crossed off the B’s list of untouchable players were it not for his much-needed resurgence in the postseason. The hulking winger, who turns 25 June 7, had the most disappointing season of his six-year NHL career with just seven goals in 46 games.
While Lucic would be a highly coveted commodity, dealing him would require finding a trade partner that could both offer a good return and take on his $6 million cap hit. Furthermore, the Bruins would have to overcome the PR damage that’d come along with trading a fan favorite.
But if Boston wants to part with Lucic’s partner in crime, linemate Nathan Horton, GM Peter Chiarelli wouldn’t even have to lift a finger.
Horty makes it happen
Make no mistake about it: Horton’s 2013 season was just as bumpy of a ride as Lucic’s, as the right winger spent most of the year falling into and climbing out of lengthy slumps.
Heading into the postseason, it’d been a rough two calendar years for the former Panther. Concussed during the Cup finals in 2011, Horton was catching fire midway through the 2011-12 season when he sustained another head injury and was sidelined for the remainder of the campaign.
When he followed that up with a full-yet-inconsistent 2013 season, the writing seemed to be on the wall: Boston would let Horton walk at year’s end. But one has to wonder now, in the wake of more clutch play in the postseason, if Horton’s swayed management’s presumed approach.
Mr. Clutch during Boston’s Cup run, Horton’s been Michael Ryder-like in this year’s playoffs, taking his game up multiple notches when it matters most. Through Boston’s first two playoff series against the Leafs and Rangers, Horton had 12 points and was plus-14. Pretty good for a guy with one point in his final eight regular-season games, no?
Horton’s goal in Game 7 made it 4-2 and injected life into a team that looked like it had already accepted its fate.
“It was huge, because that goal just created the momentum,” Johnny Boychuk said of Horton’s goal. “The fans got into it; they stopped booing us. They started cheering and it helps when they’re cheering for you. It helped a lot.”
Prior to that, with Boston dead in the water, coach Claude Julien tinkered with his lines and had Tyler Seguin up with Lucic and David Krejci. The decision to put Horton back in that spot might’ve been a job-saver.
Claude: To laud or not to laud?
No stranger to the “hot seat,” Game 7 must’ve felt eerily familiar for Julien. Two years ago, he was in jeopardy of being canned had Boston been bounced in the first round by Montreal. In both instances, his troops came through with scintillating overtime victories to advance to the next round.
While the man that’s been behind the bench in Boston since the start of the 2007-08 season certainly deserves his fair share of credit for all that the Black and Gold have accomplished under his watch, his critics often make compelling arguments.
Sometimes stubborn to a fault, Julien has been guilty of sticking with lines, players or even overall strategies for too long, whether within one big game, a playoff series or over the course of an entire season. And for most of 2013, for one reason or another, the Bruins looked like an unmotivated bunch. The onus is on the players, but eventually — as we’ve seen time and time again — it’s usually the coach that takes the blame first.
Chiarelli, who didn’t mince words after the series in indicating that Julien would remain at the helm as long as he was GM of the team, praised his head coach for his work in Game 7.
“Claude did a good job in those last 11 minutes because — he did a great job — because the players have to generate the intensity, but you have to also — if you’re just running around like chickens with your head cut off, you’re not going to accomplish anything,” said Chiarelli. “That intensity, that desperation, but the composure to make the plays that they made, really the game plan.”
Julien was able to successfully rally the troops and got the most out of his big guns, but a pair of third-liners who played key roles in years past saw their regular-season struggles continue throughout the first round of the playoffs.
After a career-high 20-goal season for Boston in 2011-12, the Bruins didn’t want to let Chris Kelly walk away. They signed the versatile center to a four-year, $12 million contract that runs through 2015-16.
The first year of the deal was borderline disastrous. Kelly, who missed a good chunk of time with a fractured tibia, managed just three goals in 34 games and was minus-8 — which was narrowly edged out for the worst mark on the team by Rich Peverley’s minus-9.
Like Kelly, Peverley — who’s on the books for $3.25 million a year through 2014-15 — greatly underachieved this season. After notching 42 points in just 57 games a year ago, the fleet-footed forward managed just 18 points in 47 contests. Through 12 playoff games, nothing had changed for the duo, as they combined for a single point and were collectively minus-8.
With the salary cap dipping nearly six million dollars to $64.3 million next year, it’s possible the Bruins could use either one or both of the cap compliance buyouts each team was awarded following the lockout, which enables an organization to pay a player to leave without it counting against the cap. Boston’s win in Game 7 bought Kelly and Peverley a little more time to try to keep their names from winding up on Chiarelli’s list of potential buyout targets.
A glimpse of the future
On the flip side of things, the Bruins’ win in Game 7 also gave Chiarelli and Co. a good gander at the oft-maligned pipeline, which suddenly looks a lot more potent thanks to the performances of a pair of call-ups from Providence.
Matt Bartkowski, who looked incredibly more comfortable at the NHL level in his third pro season, stepped right in for Game 7, scored the game’s opening goal and logged a ton of ice time, helping Boston overcome the absences of injured defensemen Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, as well as Dennis Seidenberg, who got hurt on his first shift of the decisive tilt against the Leafs.
The German blueliner was replaced by Torey Krug in the lineup for the start of the second round, and the former Michigan State captain was dynamite. Krug scored four goals in five games to lead Boston past New York and added a skill-set we haven’t seen from any Bruins d-man in quite some time now, showing off his slick skating and stick-handling skills.
“Those guys have done a great job,” Julien said after Boston’s Game 2 win over the Rangers. “When you look at Krug, he’s playing against their third line a lot of times, which is (Brian) Boyle, and (Taylor) Pyatt, and (Derek) Dorsett, which are all heavy players, and he’s handled himself extremely well. Bartkowski’s playing against their top lines every once in a while, that (Rick) Nash line, but more so against (Derek) Stepan, and (Carl) Hagelin and (Ryan) Callahan. But he’s done a good job.
“And what can you say about Dougie Hamilton? Most of the time he’s out there against Nash, with Zdeno (Chara). But our young guys have done a good job and I couldn’t be happier for them. I’m extremely pleased with what they’ve brought to our team.”
Krug and Bartkowski’s emergence, as well as the presence of 7th Player Award winner and blue-chip blueliner Hamilton, might make a few of the veterans that have been around for a while expendable, even alternate captain and “glue guy” Ference — through no fault of his own — who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
So what now?
For now, this group will march on to the conference finals. This tight-knit bunch bought themselves some more time together with their comeback for the ages in Game 7 vs. Toronto, but how much?
“I don’t really like talking about what-ifs. We went through that in 2011 a thousand times and I got tired of it,” Chiarelli said. “You plan for different scenarios. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t. It would have been a disappointing loss and I’ll leave it at that. What I can say is that in that last half of that third period, our guys came together and you could see a push that I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
For now, this core group will carry on. What’s in their long-term future remains to be seen. In the short term, however, they’ve given themselves a chance to halt everyone spouting that 2011 was just a fluke dead in their tracks.
“Never write this team off,” Chiarelli said. “In my time here, there’s been some pretty good comebacks.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.