Heaven on ice

Bruins came full circle on incredible road to Cup

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 19, 2011

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It’s not as though agony followed by ecstasy is anything new in this most sporting of cities. The Red Sox put their fans through a hellish torment in 2003 before lifting them to paradise in 2004. So it also was this year for the Bruins, who followed the greatest collapse in hockey history with an unprecedented triumph that brought Lord Stanley’s chalice back to Boston for the first time in 39 years.

“You’ve been waiting for it for a long time, but you got it,’’ goaltender Tim Thomas proclaimed to the spoked-B fandom after he’d backstopped the clinching 4-0 victory at Vancouver last Wednesday. “You wanted it, you got it. We’re bringing it home.’’

No team in NHL history had won three seventh games and no Bruins club had lost the first two games of a playoff series and survived. Until this one did. Nobody was predicting that publicly last autumn, when the players came to camp with memories still raw from last season’s conference semifinals, when Boston blew a 3-0 series advantage and a 3-0 lead in the final game at the Garden. “It’s unfortunate,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “We can’t erase it. It’s there. We have to live with it.’’

The front office had resolved to move forward with essentially the same cast, signing veterans Dennis Seidenberg, Mark Recchi, Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk, and Daniel Paille to contract extensions. But management also traded defenseman Dennis Wideman to Florida for forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell during the offseason and signed forward Tyler Seguin, the second overall pick in the draft.

Though the season started inauspiciously with a 5-2 loss to Phoenix in Prague, the 12-day European excursion was valuable for team bonding. “We’ll be through some ups and downs during the season,’’ Recchi figured, “and the time we’ve spent together will help us ride those out.’’

The ups and downs had the quality of an old Revere Beach roller coaster ride. After winning seven of their first nine outings, five of them on the road, the Bruins dropped four of five in December, and then lost another four of five. Even after general manager Peter Chiarelli gave Julien a vote of confidence, speculation persisted that the coach might be fired if his team didn’t produce.

“Whatever’s being said out there or whatever goes, that’s out of my control,’’ Julien said.

The maddening undulations continued into February and beyond. The Bruins would win 9 of 12, including 6-0 and 7-0 whitewashes of Ottawa and Carolina, then lose four of five. They pummeled the Canadiens, 8-6, before a delighted home crowd, then lost to the Red Wings, 6-1, two nights later. They won six in a row on the road for the first time since 1972, then lost six of seven, three in overtime.

By then, though, the cast of characters had changed. Marc Savard had been sidelined for the season with a severe concussion. Chiarelli had traded top prospect Joe Colborne and two high draft picks to the Maple Leafs for defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who was supposed to stabilize the punchless power play. He also dealt Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart to Atlanta for speedy forward Rich Peverley. “It’s a strong message to our team and to our fans that we want to win and we want to be successful,’’ Chiarelli declared.

The stronger message was a 7-0 victory over Montreal on March 24 that gave supporters hope that the club would right itself in time for the playoffs, where Boston would go in with the No. 3 seed as divisional champion.

“We all knew this was a huge game,’’ said captain Zdeno Chara, whom Canadiens fans had wanted hung from a lamppost after he’d driven Max Pacioretty into a stanchion and given him a fractured cervical vertebra and a severe concussion. “Not just because of what happened in the last few weeks, but in the standings.’’

But the Bruins were in trouble immediately against Les Habitants in their postseason series. After Carey Price shut them out, 2-0, in the Garden opener behind two goals from former Boston College star Brian Gionta, Montreal scored two in the first 2:20 of Game 2 and went on to stifle the hosts, 3-1.

Boston had lost all 26 playoff series in which it had lost the first two contests and since it had lost all three meetings at Bell Centre during the regular season, it seemed likely the Bruins could be swept. But they made a stand in Game 3, going up, 2-0, on goals by David Krejci and Horton and relying on their goaltender to slam the door.

“It was a necessary win,’’ said Thomas, who made 14 of his 34 saves in the final period of the 4-2 victory. “Playing in Montreal is not easy, so it was a gut check for us and we got the job done.’’

It took a remarkable comeback but Boston snatched away Game 4, coming from two goals down just before the midway point to win, 5-4, on Michael Ryder’s goal after 1:59 of overtime after Chris Kelly had tied the game with 6:18 left in regulation.

“I hope people feel like they got their money’s worth because it took two years off my life,’’ cracked Thomas, who made 34 saves as his comrades evened the series.

Yet the angst only increased back home, where Boston had to go to double overtime for its 2-1 victory in Game 5 and avoid returning to Montreal for an elimination game.

“It’s an incredible feeling,’’ said defenseman Andrew Ference after Horton had scored the winner on the rebound of Ference’s blue-line wrister after nearly 90 minutes of play.

The Canadiens made a last stand in their building with a 2-1 triumph, scoring on five-on-three power plays to force the series to the limit at the Garden.

Though the Bruins went up, 2-0, in the first half-dozen minutes of the finale, their special teams sabotaged them, allowing Montreal to draw even on a power-play goal and a shorthander. Then, after Kelly put his mates ahead, P.K. Subban scored another man-up goal to send the series to overtime, where Horton heard another WOO! after he scored the winner after 5:43 on his only shot of the night.

“That was a nice reward for the fans,’’ said Julien, “because they’ve been punished enough.’’

The great avengers With one nemesis disposed of the Bruins took on another in Philadelphia, which had risen from the dead to kill them a year earlier. This time, though, Boston never let the Flyers take wing, grounding them in four games while outscoring them, 20-7. The opener at Wells Fargo Center was surprisingly easy as Brad Marchand and Krejci, who’d dislocated his wrist against the Flyers in 2010, each potted a pair of goals and the Bruin penalty killers erased three in the third period, including a five-on-three. “Great way to start,’’ remarked Horton after the 7-3 victory.

A reprise in Game 2 figured to be unlikely. James van Riemsdyk scored after just 29 seconds, the Flyers added a power-play goal, and the visitors were down, 2-0. But Kelly and Marchand brought them level with two in 85 seconds later in the period and Thomas submitted his finest performance of the postseason, making 52 saves and holding his attackers at bay until Krejci scored the winner after 14 minutes of overtime, firing the puck just beneath the crossbar.

“It easily could have been 8-1, 8-2 at one point,’’ Marchand conceded. But once Thomas had stoned the Flyers in their own building and put them two games down, they were all but finished.

Back on Causeway Street, Game 3 was a breeze as Chara and Krejci each scored in the first 63 seconds and Thomas contributed 37 saves to put Boston up, 3-0, in the series.

The closeout was definitive as Milan Lucic’s power-play goal got the Bruins up and running and a couple of empty-netters sent Philadelphia home with another 5-1 spanking.

“To be honest, I’m glad that it’s over, I’m glad that it’s done with,’’ said Thomas, who stopped 142 of 149 shots as Boston reached the conference final for the first time since 1992. “Because the longer that series would have went, the more talk about last year. And I’ll say it hopefully exorcised some demons.’’

Lightning ahead Up ahead, though, were unfamiliar goblins, at least in the postseason, and Boston received a nasty jolt at home in the opener from the Lightning. Three Tampa Bay goals in 85 seconds knocked the Bruins on their backs as the visitors cruised to a 5-2 decision. “We pretty much gave them every single one of them,’’ said Kaberle, whose killer turnover accounted for the third.

The Bruins quickly were back on their heels in Game 2, when Adam Hall scored after just 13 seconds and they soon found themselves in a pond hockey game. Even after they scored five goals in the second period, with Ryder and Seguin putting in two apiece, the hosts had to hang on behind Thomas’s 36 saves to eke out a 6-5 triumph.

Boston couldn’t keep getting involved in freewheeling all-skates, so its 2-0 victory in the first game in Florida was satisfying.

But the visitors couldn’t duplicate it in Game 4, despite going up, 3-0, in the first period on two goals from Patrice Bergeron, who’d missed the first two games of the series after sustaining a mild concussion in the Philadelphia finale. The Bruins gave up three goals in less than four minutes during the second period and went on to lose, 5-3.

Had it not been for Thomas, who made 33 saves after conceding a goal on the first shot, Boston might well have lost Game 5 at home and been facing another elimination game, this one on the road. Instead, goals by Horton and Marchand were all it needed in a 3-1 triumph.

Krejci’s hat trick and Thomas’s 32 saves couldn’t make up for three power-play goals in Game 6 and after a 5-4 loss the Bruins came home again with the season on the line.

There was no room for error in a finale that may have been the most enthralling and dramatic in Cup history, an old-time duel with no penalties and no goals until Horton steered in Krejci’s deft pass off a Ference feed with just 7:33 to play.

“That was as close to a perfect game as you’re ever going to get,’’ said Thomas, who made 24 saves as Boston advanced to the Cup Final for the first time since 1990 with a 1-0 victory.

Icy resolve The Bruins played as close to another perfect game as they could in the opener at Vancouver, but one defensive breakdown wrecked them and third-liner Raffi Torres scored the only goal with 18.5 seconds to play. The second loss was more wrenching, though, since Boston had led, 2-1, after two periods on goals by Lucic and Recchi. But Daniel Sedin knotted things midway through the third and Alex Burrows, whose biting of Bergeron’s finger in Game 1 had gone unpunished, scored a shocking winner after 11 seconds of overtime though Boston had won the faceoff.

After Ference’s chip along the boards had been picked off by defenseman Alex Edler, Sedin had set up Burrows, who skirted Chara, went behind the cage, and popped the puck into the empty net after Thomas had slid out of the crease trying to stop him on the other side.

What turned the series around was a late hit on Horton by defenseman Aaron Rome, who blindsided him with a shoulder to the jaw early in Game 3 at the Garden and sent him to the hospital with a severe concussion that finished Horton for the season and got Rome suspended for the duration. The sight of their stricken teammate on a stretcher awakened the Bruins’ traditional “All For One’’ spirit and they responded with a jaw-dropping knockout on four second-period goals, including two on special teams, and four more in the third. “It wasn’t pretty, it was Boston hockey,’’ Ference said after the 8-1 triumph, the club’s biggest playoff output since 1983.

There was more of the same in Game 4, which was preceded by icon Bobby Orr waving the team flag and capped by Horton appearing in the dressing room after his mates had evened the series with a 4-0 victory behind two goals by Peverley and 38 saves by Thomas.

But when the series returned to Rogers Arena the script reverted, too, as the Canucks shaded Boston, 1-0, on a billiards maneuver. The Canucks, noting Thomas’s propensity for leaving the crease, had defenseman Kevin Bieksa fire a puck wide from the point that bounced off the boards and came out to Maxim Lapierre, who knocked it off Thomas and into the cage.

“It’s not hard if you’re playing in the paint,’’ observed Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. “It’s an easy save for me, but if you’re wandering out and aggressive like he does, that’s going to happen.’’

It was unwelcome advice from a rival who’d been pulled twice at the Garden after conceding a dozen goals and Thomas resolved to stay with his style. “I have a pretty good idea of how to play goalie,’’ he said. “I’m not going to be taking suggestions or advice at this time.’’

Luongo played in the paint when the series went back to Boston but with the Cup available for the taking he was made to look like an overmatched Mite as the Bruins put three goals past him in the first period, then quickly greeted replacement Cory Schneider with another. “Four bad minutes and the game was gone,’’ said defenseman Christian Ehrhoff after Marchand (5:31), Lucic (6:06), Ference (8:35), and Ryder (9:45) had scored the four fastest goals (4:14) in the history of the Final. The slapdown made not only for an early celebration by the fans but keen anticipation for the players.

“It’s coming down to one game,’’ said Recchi after the Bruins prevailed, 5-2. “This is what we dream of when you’re little kids playing street hockey.’’

The Cup is ours Game 7 at Vancouver was sheer fantasy. Once Bergeron rapped in the first goal at 14:37, the visitors kept playing as if they were at home, crashing Luongo’s gate all night while Thomas (37 saves) stood sentinel at the other end.

Once Marchand concluded a dervish move with a second goal at 12:13 of the second and Bergeron added a sliding shorthander amid a goalmouth scrum barely five minutes later, there was no doubt. The Cup was coming back to Boston. “We never, never quit and that’s what I’m proud of,’’ said Julien. “They’re so deserving of what happened here. It’s not a fluke. It’s something they earned.’’

There was no doubt about who’d win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s Most Valuable Player. Thomas, who hadn’t played a minute of the 2010 playoffs, hadn’t missed one this time and his Iron Butterfly sangfroid carried the day. “Yeah, I was scared,’’ Thomas confessed. “I faked it as well as I could and I faked my way all the way to the Stanley Cup.’’

After he and his teammates — including a suited-up Horton — held the silver mug aloft and smeared it with kisses, the Bruins stashed it on their chartered jet and took the red-eye back home. “Show us the Cup,’’ chanted the welcome-home crowd in front of the Garden. “Show us the Cup.’’ So their captain brought it over for a display before his teammates began showing it around town.

“It’s ours,’’ Chara declared. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. We worked so hard for so long and we are so happy to bring the Cup back to Boston after so many years. It’s a very special day.’’

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