On hockey

Infamy revisited one too many times

Defenseman Johnny Boychuk was a beaten man at the end of Game 7. Defenseman Johnny Boychuk was a beaten man at the end of Game 7. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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Awful? Worse than awful. The Bruins tomorrow night should be playing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, but instead they are framed in shame after last night’s diabolical 4-3 loss to the Flyers.

“We had a 3-0 lead in the series. We had a 3-0 lead tonight. And we blew both,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “There are no excuses.’’

In a season-ender that will live with them forever and a day, like the ball that rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, the Bruins essentially dismissed themselves from the 2010 postseason — and they underscored their own undoing by getting caught for having too many men on the ice with 11:10 gone in the third period.

Too many men. Haunting. Almost sadistic. A ghost from more than three decades ago, dating to an identical call at the Montreal Forum in 1979, revisited the Boston bench on Causeway Street, and had Vladimir Sobotka jumping on the ice as a sixth, and most unwanted, Boston skater. Only 1:42 later, Simon Gagne used the power-play advantage to pot the winner, completing one of the most dramatic comebacks in Stanley Cup history for the Flyers, and driving a stake into the heart of Bruins fandom.

Seconds before Sobotka jumped, Marc Savard raised his stick, a gesture meant to signal that he wanted to come off the ice. Sobotka, noting after the crushing defeat he heard his name called when Savard’s stick went up, jumped over the boards and into action. But Savard, playing in his 808th NHL game, opted instead to remain on the ice, leaving the officiating crew with no choice but to whistle the infraction.

“I was coming back,’’ Savard acknowledged. “I’d seen that no one jumped, so I stayed on. I’m not sure what happened after that. I went back and got the puck. And then . . . I don’t know.’’

A delayed reaction on Sobotka’s part? A poor read by Savard? Probably a little bit of both, a touch of Alphonse and Gaston that added up to a fatal faux pas.

“A player came to the bench with his stick up,’’ Julien explained flatly, noting that the officiating crews have been diligent about whistling the penalty in the playoffs and that players had to be mindful of the call. “[The player] changed his mind.’’

Asked again later about the infraction, Julien added, “He changed his mind — he decided to stay on the ice. If you are going to come off, you’ve got to come off.’’

No margin for error, said Julien. A number of Boston players, including Mark Recchi and Johnny Boychuk, were miffed that the penalty would be called, especially in a seventh game, especially with the score tied (3-3), but their coach wasn’t going there. It was a botched bit of communication, according to Julien, and when Savard gestured for the change, then there couldn’t be any turning back.

“I just heard my name,’’ explained a sullen Sobotka, when asked to identify who called his name for the change. “I don’t want to talk about it.’’

Earlier, Sobotka said he saw Savard signal for the change and jumped on the ice when his name was called.

“I thought he was coming for a change,’’ said Sobotka. “I didn’t see he was going for backcheck.’’

Decades before, with a chance to make it to the Cup finals, it was a botched change between Stan Jonathan and Don Marcotte that set the Canadiens up for the killing strike. Then-coach Don Cherry openly accepted the responsibility for the bollixed swap. But just as players must be accountable for everything involving their sticks, they must be held accountable for making seamless, legal line changes.

The onus was on Savard to get off the ice. If Sobotka had been caught napping, so be it. Better that the team skated one man short (not a penalty), than skating with an extra man, no matter how inconsequential his presence might have been at the time. Sobotka, with a bunch of Flyers hootin’ and hollerin’ to get the officials’ attention, quickly darted to get back to the bench. Too late.

All in all, though, the Bruins never should have been in a spot where getting one measly math problem incorrect should have undone their season. The biggest issue was that they blew a 3-0 lead, one they built in the opening 15 minutes. Just as they inexplicably blew a 3-0 series lead, they booted away a three-goal advantage, beginning with a James van Riemsdyk strike with 2:48 remaining in the first period. They then went into near dormancy, unable to generate speed or shots, when they came out of the first intermission. With less than nine minutes gone in the middle period, goals by Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere had it tied, 3-3.

They lost their legs. They lost their courage. Their goalie, Tuukka Rask, was good at times, but did not provide a 10-bell save that could have advanced his team to the next round. Rask is a good young stopper who one day may be an elite NHL goalie. Last night showed he is not there yet.

But the spotlight of history will not shine brightest, or hottest, on a Boston attack that went limp, or a good goalie still making his postseason bones. Rather, the burning glare of time will focus on Savard’s raised stick, Sobotka as the unwanted sixth man, and a colossal miscue that acted as the crowning dunce cap to one of the most infamous flops in Stanley Cup history. Only the ’42 Red Wings, the ’75 Penguins, and the 2010 Bruins have ever tossed their 3-0 ticket out the train window.

“Not a fun way to go down,’’ said Milan Lucic, who knocked home two of the three goals in the first period. “The whole series went like the game went today. We had a 3-0 lead, but for some reason . . . we weren’t able to pull it off.’’

Too many men redux. Almost too hard to believe.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at

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