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Bruins pull off a comeback for the ages

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 14, 2013 01:50 AM

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Did that really happen? It wasn't just some weird, fleeting hockey dream, too improbable to be real, right. Tell me it didn't vaporize when you opened your eyes.

This is legit. Like the Flutie's Hail Mary, and Vinatieri's kick through the snow-globe conditions, and Roberts's steal ... this happened, this night where reality was so amazing that hyperbole became an understatement. It did. Right?

Please, tell me we all saw the same incredible plot twists unfold at TD Garden Monday night. Because no one is going to believe us if our stories don't jibe.

Here's what I saw: I saw the Bruins rally from an impossibly deep 4-1 hole with 10 minutes left in the third period, turning certain defeat into a season-saving 5-4 overtime victory against the poor, tortured Maple Leafs.

I saw the Bruins pull off a victory for the ages, one that doesn't require the context of how the rest of the postseason plays out before it takes its place among the greatest of comebacks in Boston sports history.

I saw the Bruins – our maddening, beloved Bruins – become the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 when trailing by three goals in the third period.

I saw Patrice Bergeron – beloved, but maybe mildly maddening in this series – score the tying goal with 51 seconds left in the game and the season, then double up with the winner and series clincher 6:05 into overtime to save it all.

I saw Bergeron get that winner by pouncing on one more plump James Reimer rebound, the red light flashing as confirmation that this one found the back of the net. And then I heard those famous words of Jack Buck echo in my mind:

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdpImFSHhDA">I don't believe what I just saw.</a>

Do you believe it? Tell me you saw it all, too. Tell me that Phil Kessel wasn't vindicated and victorious, that Cody Franson (two goals) didn't join the likes of Joel Ward, Simon Gagne, and Scott Walker as recent Bruins postseason tormentors.

Tell me you didn't turn off the television or leave the Garden in hopes of being the pace car on the Mass Pike.

Tell me you stuck around, savored the postgame bedlam, the delirious chaos on a night that for so long felt like disaster, like the end of something that mattered.

That is how it felt, isn't it? Even the players, 16 of whom were around for the run to the Stanley Cup two years ago, knew that defeat assured changes.

Foremost, this core group will be remembered for the championship. That's only right. But many of them were around when they they lost four straight to the Flyers three years ago after taking a 3-0 series lead. The legacy for the likes of Tuukka Rask and Tyler Seguin would not be untarnished.

And had they lost this, after taking a 3-1 series lead ... well, let's just say the hypotheticals regarding whose jobs would be lost and who would be traded were flowing on Twitter and such before the puck was dropped for Game 7. Scapegoats were already being lined up on the blueline for a quick and unforgiving trial.

The perception of this core of Bruins didn't just change in the furious final minutes. The course of Bruins history changed. Even some players admitted letting the minds drift toward thoughts of inevitable change when the outlook was bleakest.

"You're looking at the clock wind down, with half a period left at 4-1, and you start thinking to yourself, is this the end of this group here, because it probably would have been if we didn't win this game,'' said Milan Lucic, whose goal with 1 minute and 22 seconds remaining cut the margin to 4-3. "You've got to have bounces, you've got to have luck, you've got to have everything go your way, and that's what happened in the last 10 minutes there."

"Unbelievable,'' added defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who provided 28 minutes and 30 seconds of relentless effort in the absence of Andrew Ference, Wade Redden, and Dennis Seidenberg, the latter of whom played just 37 seconds because of an apparent leg injury. "That's one thing you're going to remember probably for the rest of your life. Everybody probably thought we were done."

Their bosses included, most likely. When it was all over, team president Cam Neely stepped on the ninth-floor elevator looking like he just played a Zdena Chara-esque 35 minutes himself.

Silent but for a thank-you to the doorman, he wore a look not befitting the president of a team whose team had just completed a comeback as exhilarating as it was improbable, but the look of someone who spent the first half of the third period staring a three-goal deficit and pondering difficult but inevitable changes.

He may have been exhilarated, and perhaps the NESN cameras caught him giving a trademark metacarpal-shattering high-five to Peter Chiarelli after Bergeron's winner, but he looked exhausted.

So did coach Claude Julien, who may well have been the first casualty had they lost.

"I'm a tired coach, I can tell you that much, trying to find a way to get these guys to give us what we want out of them,'' he said. "We make it tough on ourselves. We're being honest here. Not being able to close it out in five [games], we've always had trouble with the killer instinct. That may be a fault of ours, but the strength of ours is the character that you saw tonight.''

Character was a word that recurred no matter which Bruin was in front of the microphones. And perhaps that's the most reassuring development to emerge from this game, this series – despite the frustrations of recurring lost leads during the regular season and the unnecessary drama of this series, at least we now know that they will never quit.

The resilience of a champion – that character – remains intact as the Bruins play on.

"It looks like it's going to be the Rangers [in the second round],'' Lucic said, and indeed he was correct. "Boston-New York, Red Sox-Yankees, Giants-Patriots, Knicks-Celtics this year, and now we have this. So two cities that there's a lot hatred between in sports, and from a fan's perspective and a player's perspective, it's something to look forward to.

Game 1 between the Bruins and Rangers is Thursday. It's a rivalry matchup in the Stanley Cup playoff, which essentially assures that it will be memorable, probably even epic.

But before you look forward, look back again. What we saw Monday night, well, heck yes, it really happened. But tell me you saw it, too. Because I'm not going to be ready to stop hearing about it anytime soon.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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