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Season ends with a whimper and not a bang

No one is going to forget this ending. Sports fans have longer memories than most, so images remained burned in our hearts and minds for years. Bruins-Canadiens 2004 is going to be like that, too: Painful to watch and impossible to forget.

This is how a promising hockey season ended at the FleetCenter last night. The Bruins lost a 3-1 series lead, the confidence of their fans, and Game 7 of their conference quarterfinal series with their rivals for life.

The final was 2-0, and it's still hard to figure out what's more frustrating. Is it losing to the hated team that the organization's fathers and grandfathers also lost to? Is it the biggest playoff collapse in franchise history? Or is it the feeling that the 104-point regular season is as useless this morning as one of those Mylar blankets from yesterday's Marathon?

A few minutes after it was over, all you could hear was a cluster of cheering fans from Montreal. You never forget those sounds, especially when all you want is silence. This was the season in which the prodigal Bruins began moving toward reconciliation with many of their hardened fans. They made it as far as the front porch, but now it seems as if they've run off for the hills again.

No one is going to forget this. This series hurts worse than the loss to the Devils last year, the loss to Montreal two years ago, and even the loss to the Capitals in 1998. At least the '98 Caps made it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

These Canadiens probably aren't going to the Finals. Even if they do, that will make everyone feel worse. The Bruins had a 3-1 series lead. They were outplayed and outworked in Games 5 and 6. They played well in Game 7, but they still walked away with the consolation prize.

All of this happened on a fantastic day in Boston, an 85-degree afternoon that reminded us there really can be a spring in New England (in these parts, we don't put the turtlenecks away until May, and even that comes with some skepticism). The Red Sox took care of the Yankees by 2 o'clock, two Kenyans were crowned as Marathon champions by 2:30, many state employees on holiday were happy long before Happy Hour, and Bruins-Canadiens provided the teary nightcap.

"I thought we deserved a better fate tonight," Bruins coach Mike Sullivan said. "But that's the nature of sports." The rookie coach said he was disappointed and that "I thought we had a real good hockey team and we put ourselves in position in the postseason [to win]."

You want to hear something really cruel? They played well last night.

No Bruins fan wants to hear that right now or for the rest of the month. The game was not great enough to offset the expectations of the season. The game was not great enough to fill the pit that will exist when the league goes dark in the fall. There is a stubborn spirit in the NHL air, and a lockout seems inevitable. The local idea was that the Bruins would load up before the lockout, advance in the playoffs, and then think about the labor situation in the morning.

But that morning was supposed to arrive closer to June, not 10 days before May. As far as local fans are concerned, hockey hell froze over and it still wasn't enough. Jeremy Jacobs spent money. Jacobs talked. Jacobs gave his management team the company credit card and allowed it to purchase Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander.

Who knows what's going to happen now? A few people in Black & Gold land aren't going to want to pick up the phone the next few days. People -- bosses, friends, family members -- are going to want answers for this historic stumble.

At least we do have some context for Joe Thornton's one-punch, no-point series. The captain went down in a heap late in the regular season against Washington and basically disappeared. Sullivan revealed last night that the captain's upper-body injury was actually torn rib cartilage. The team said it should have taken six months to heal and Thornton returned in a week.

"Most players I know wouldn't have played under those conditions," Sullivan said. "I thought Joe had his best game tonight."

No one will forget the injury. And no one will forget Thornton's penalties, his punch, and his pointlessness.

There are lots of memories and questions. Like: What will happen to general manager Mike O'Connell? He did a good job of assembling the team, from placing his trust in Andrew Raycroft to selecting Sullivan to coach.

But when your team does this, someone has to be the scapegoat. The goat is unlikely to be Jacobs or the next powerful man on Jacobs's (Corporate) Ladder. That would be Harry Sinden. Harry isn't going anywhere. O'Connell is next on deck.

If O'Connell goes, he'll be able to talk a long time about the night that did him in. He'll remember that it was one of those tight games where one goal was obviously going to win it.

It was scoreless after two periods, and scoreless after 50 minutes. Then there was Richard Zednik scoring with about nine minutes to play. Everyone in the building, from Nomar Garciaparra and his teammates to fans in the cheapest seats, probably knew Zednik's goal was trouble.

When the Canadiens scored on a late empty-netter, beer and popcorn flew from the upper deck. Angry fans bolted from their seats, shocked that yet another Bruins team got stuck on the first-round treadmill.

It was a sad way to end a wonderful season. It was a sad and unforgettable way to end what had begun as a wonderful day.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is 

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 Game 7: Habs 2, B's 0 | Gallery

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