"I lost the game for us," Blake Wheeler said blackly as the Bruins' 6-foot-5-inch right wing sat in his locker stall yesterday, a straight back and a stony face, and tried to absorb the disappointment.
With St. Louis goalie Chris Mason on the bench as the Blues scrambled for the tying goal in the final minute, Wheeler had the puck on his stick near the red line, and the open net in view. He missed, winging a shot wide.
Though David Krejci got a slap at the rebound, Blues defenseman Barret Jackman slid into the net to block the shot, giving St. Louis one last chance. The Blues scooped up the puck and rushed down ice, David Backes scoring the tying goal with a shoulder-high swat of Keith Tkachuk's rebound at 19:59.
After a scoreless overtime, the game proceeded to a shootout and Wheeler took Boston's first shot. He skated toward Mason, veering right, and deftly pulled the puck out wide. With the goalie beat, he ripped a forehand at the net, ringing it off the right post.
"The open net [was the worst]," said Wheeler, "because they came down and scored the goal that tied the game 10 seconds later.
"It's any hockey player's worst nightmare come true. We did a great job in the third period, and blew it away in eight-10ths of a second."
The surprise catch of this year's training camp, Wheeler has played in each of the Bruins' 46 games, earning praise from coaches and teammates alike as the University of Minnesota product has produced 13 goals and 16 assists. But yesterday he was just an anguished rookie, shouldering the blame for the Bruins' 5-4 shootout loss to the Blues at TD Banknorth Garden.
Wheeler, who played on a line with David Krejci and Michael Ryder for 23 consecutive games, was moved to Marc Savard's wing yesterday, with Chuck Kobasew manning the other side. P.J. Axelsson took Wheeler's spot on Krejci's line. Bruins coach Claude Julien, saddled with injuries to six critical players, said he made the change just to get a different combination.
"I think it was pretty obvious that Savard, with losing his wingers [Phil Kessel to mononucleosis and Milan Lucic to a shoulder injury], wasn't getting as much offense as usual," Julien said, "so everybody was keying in on Krejci's line. We had a little more balance, but again, we certainly don't have the depth that we had. You work with what you've got."
Kobasew scored a beautiful goal at 4:26 of the first, rapping in a centering pass from Wheeler. But the desultory Bruins offense couldn't keep up the pace and St. Louis had a 2-1 lead early in the third.
"We changed lines and we have to get used to each other," said Krejci. "It's not always easy when you switch linemates, but I can't use those as excuses. I don't think we were ready to win the game."
Wheeler was comfortable with his new linemates, a sentiment echoed by Axelsson.
"I thought we played great all game, with the chemistry," Wheeler said. "We moved the puck around the net, we had a lot of scoring chances, and I thought we had a pretty good game."
The teams scored five goals in the game's last five minutes, reaching a 4-4 tie on Backes's high ball. The play was scrutinized in a long video review, then upheld as a goal.
"I was right beside him," said defenseman Shane Hnidy. "He knocked it out of the air and it was a goal. It's hard to tell, it's going so fast. You have to play it as a goal and play the next shift."
Julien did not share Wheeler's assessment that he alone was responsible for the loss.
"I think there's some mistakes that were made before regulation even ending that got them back in the game," the coach said. "There's more to the story anyways than him missing the open net and missing in the shootout. It should never have got to that.
"We had a 4-2 lead with three minutes left. With the type of team we are, there's no way they should have got back in the game. We have nobody else but ourselves to blame for that loss."
But Wheeler, 22, couldn't be discouraged from taking the blame.
"It's great to contribute to a team and their success all year," Wheeler said, "but when you feel the other side of it, it definitely hurts. Just to know how hard these guys fought all game to get back and pretty much get the win.
"To have it fall on my shoulders and to blow it, it hurts pretty bad."