The season was not supposed to end this way for the Boston Bruins
, the class of the Eastern Conference.
They weren't supposed to bow out in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, two hurdles short of their ultimate goal -- especially not in Game 7 on the home ice they had earned with their performance through the 82-game grind that is the NHL's regular season.
But hockey can be a cruel game, and Boston's season came to a sudden end in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at a packed TD Banknorth Garden -- when Carolina's Scott Walker
, of all people, silenced the raucous crowd with a flick of the wrist that propelled an overtime rebound past Tim Thomas
for a 3-2 victory in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
Just like that, Boston's 116-point season was a distant memory … the first-round sweep of the Montreal Canadiens
nothing more than a painful reminder of what could have been … the resiliency of fighting back from a 3-1 series deficit against these Hurricanes now nothing more than an exercise in futility, thanks to one puck swatted out of midair and into the net
"It comes down to one shot," rookie Byron Bitz
said, comparing Walker's goal to a "knife in the heart."
Those vagaries of fate left the Bruins shaking their heads and ruing what could have been in a dressing room that was unnaturally silent, except for the occasional frustrated outburst from the off-limits areas.
"It's a tough night," said first-line center Marc Savard
, who gutted out Game 7 after being injured in a knee-on-knee collision with Chad LaRose
in the third period of Game 6. "It's going to be a tough night. We were down 3-1 (in the series) and we gave it all we had -- and when that last goal went in, it hurt. It hurt every guy.
"We're like brothers in here. We get along great and we kept battling for each other and it's just too bad we came up short."
The difference between these teams was oh so fine.
Boston actually outscored Carolina 17-15 in the seven-game series. But aggregate score does not count in a playoff series. The first team to four wins and, thanks to Walker, the Hurricanes got to four wins after 441 minutes of back-and-forth hockey that won't soon be forgotten by anybody involved.
"It was a great series," Carolina forward Chad LaRose
said. "It's good to be over with and it's good to be on the winning side. You have to give the Bruins mad credit over there. They were great. We should have had this series when we had them down 3-1. For them to battle back, that's a character team and they are going to be good for a long time over there."
Platitudes from another team, however, were not what Boston was after this postseason.
"Obviously, this is a huge disappointment and rightly so," Boston coach Claude Julien
said. "We can say what we want, but we had higher expectations than this -- and I am glad we did."
But with unmet expectations comes disappointment.
Perhaps nobody was more disappointed than Thomas, who was brilliant throughout the postseason. He entered Game 7 leading all playoff goalies with a 1.80 goals-against average and had a stellar .937 save percentage through 10 games.
But neither that nor his 34-save performance Thursday night mattered once he failed to gobble up Ray Whitney
's shot in the dying moments of the first overtime, an oversight that allowed Walker to etch a permanent place among Carolina's growing list of postseason heroes.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed, you know," Thomas said. "I made the save, but the rebound went up in the air and I couldn't control it."
Now Boston can't control how it will be perceived by outsiders after not reaching an Eastern Conference Final berth that many felt was a lock after the Bruins ran away and hid from the rest of the conference in the regular season.
Still, the Bruins have nothing to be ashamed of, says Bitz, the rookie forward who was so good in the final three games of this series.
"I don't think anybody is going to hang their head," he said. "We came up on the wrong end this time, but I think we'll walk out of here with our heads held high. It's a great group of guys we have here."