Commentary

Boston familiar with athletic heartache

Nightmare on Causeway Street drags Bruins Nation to depths of fandom

Updated: May 16, 2010, 1:28 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- A day later, the nightmare on Causeway Street is still real.

It will be a recurring horror show for a long time, too. After trying to figure out exactly what went wrong for the Boston Bruins, and what went right for the Philadelphia Flyers, one thought came to mind: The agony the Bruins and their fans are feeling, and likely will feel until the Stanley Cup returns to Boston, is exactly what the Red Sox faithful felt for much of 86 years before the club finally broke its World Series drought in 2004.

In 2004, of course, the Red Sox erased a 3-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series en route to a World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. We all know what the Red Sox have been able to do since that magical year.

[+] EnlargeMilan Lucic
AP Photo/Michael DwyerWhile few expected Milan Lucic and the Bruins to fare well when the postseason began, no one could have seen an ending like this.

On Friday, the Bruins were on the wrong end of a historic comeback as the Flyers battled back from a 3-0 series deficit, and a three-goal hole in Game 7, to win the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Bruins are becoming what the Red Sox used to be.

Boston has not seen Lord Stanley's cup since 1972. Wait, check that: Former Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque returned to Boston with the Stanley Cup as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 for a ceremony on the steps of City Hall.

Since 1972, the Bruins have reached the Stanley Cup finals five times and lost each time. Boston lost to the Flyers in 1974, the Canadiens in 1977 and 1978, and the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and 1990.

Of course in Game 7 of the 1979 conference semifinals, there was the infamous too-many-men penalty that allowed the Canadiens to tie the game, which they then won in overtime. Like something out of a Stephen King novel, the Bruins suffered an eerily similar demise in Game 7 against the Flyers on Friday night at the Garden.

In 2004, the Bruins finished the regular season as the best team in the Eastern Conference and gained a 3-1 lead on the eighth-seeded Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Montreal came back and won that series.

In 2009, the Bruins again finished as the best team in the conference with visions of Stanley Cup grandeur only to lose to the seventh-seeded Hurricanes in overtime of Game 7 of the semis at the Garden.

This season, no one picked the Bruins to accomplish what they were able to, particularly after an injury-riddled and lackluster regular season. And no one ever could have imagined it would come to this.

The collapse by the Bruins will be dissected time and again by the organization, its players and its fans.

Here's why the Bruins lost the series:

Flyers made adjustments: Under coach Peter Laviolette, the Flyers made the proper adjustments against the Bruins' attack. The Bruins were generating most of their offense by getting shots from the point, so the Flyers shut down Boston's blueliners by blocking shots and keeping the puck to the perimeter.

Injuries: It's not a coincidence the Bruins went 0-4 after David Krejci suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Game 4. It's also not a coincidence the Flyers went 4-0 when Simon Gagne returned to the lineup after missing time with a foot injury.

The Bruins also were missing Marco Sturm, who suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Game 1, and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who did not play at all in the postseason because of a lacerated tendon in his left forearm. Fellow blueliner Mark Stuart only returned to the lineup in Game 4 after missing more than a month with an infection in his left hand.

Injuries were felt on both sides.

Even though Gagne was able to return in Game 4, the Flyers were without Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere for the entire series, and lost goaltender Brian Boucher in Game 5.

Here's why the Bruins lost their three-goal lead in Game 7:

No killer instinct: With a 3-0 lead in the first period, the Bruins were cruising and doing everything perfectly. They were relentless on the forecheck and backcheck and were playing physical hockey. The Bruins were dominating the game and winning all the battles until they had a brief mental lapse that cost them dearly.

At 17:42 of the first period, the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk gave Philadelphia its first goal and suddenly it was a game again. The Bruins allowed the Flyers to capitalize early in the second period too, when Scott Hartnell scored at 2:49 to cut Philadelphia's deficit to one.

Boston had a chance to put the game out of reach, but couldn't stop the bleeding once it began. The Bruins could not match their intensity from the first period and the Flyers gained control and ultimately won as a result of a power-play goal at 12:52 of the third period.

Goaltending: Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was very good during the regular season, especially down the stretch when the Bruins were fighting for a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The 23-year-old rookie was solid again in the first round against the Sabres and their world-class goaltender Ryan Miller. Rask was good in the first three games against the Flyers, too.

[+] EnlargeTuukka Rask
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireWhile the Bruins rode Tuukka Rask for a while, he may have run out of gas in the last four games.

So then what happened?

Coach Claude Julien would never admit it, but Rask appeared fatigued in the last four games against the Flyers. The collapse wasn't completely his fault, but when Boston had a 3-0 lead in Game 7, he had to play better than he did.

"Tuukka's been great all year," said Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron. "He's been great throughout the series. He's been impressive as a rookie coming in and just taking care of business every time he was between the pipes. He gave us a chance [Friday] night, but it's a team effort, a team thing. You win together and you lose together."

The Bruins organization had concerns a season ago when Rask crumbled in the Eastern Conference finals of Calder Cup playoffs for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. The Hershey Bears beat the P-Bruins in a best-of-seven series in five games. In Game 5 of that series in Providence, Rask allowed five goals, most of which he should have stopped.

It was clear he was tired and worn down.

Could Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli have the same concerns about Rask this season?

After the Game 7 loss, Julien wasn't about to put the blame on his goaltender.

"It's hard to stand here when you've just lost a series to start pointing fingers at individuals," said Julien. "I'm not going to do that. He's done a tremendous job to bring us to where we are right now. When we were fighting to make the playoffs, he was there for us. He was huge for us. And he was huge for us in the playoffs as well.

"As a team, when you blow a 3-0 lead, we could have all been better. So we're going to take this loss as a group and not start pointing fingers at individuals."

The Bruins' collapse will be one of the most talked-about choke jobs in professional sports for generations to come, especially around here. For the first time, Bruins fans can empathize with the Red Sox and Yankees.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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