- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- After Nathan Horton scored the lone goal in the Boston Bruins' 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night at TD Garden, an entire hockey region began to celebrate.
The building erupted in jubilation as the 17,565 began to chant in unison: "We want the Cup! We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"
The victory earned the Bruins a trip to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990. The players celebrated on the ice -- of course without touching the Prince of Wales Trophy -- and hugged each other and then continued the celebration in the locker room.
In the hockey world, there are no champagne celebrations. Only a few libations behind closed doors, because the Bruins haven't accomplished their final goal.
The Bruins will face the Vancouver Canucks for the right to hoist the Cup.
"That goal doesn't change," Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said. "You embrace this win. You celebrate it because it's something to be very proud of, but the end game is the same. Our goal at the start of the playoffs was to go all the way, and obviously that doesn't change. We've faced off against some very good teams and played some emotional series. You don't do all that and work that hard to just be satisfied now. It's something to look forward to after we enjoy this tonight."
Every player. Every staff member. Every fan of the Boston Bruins will celebrate this accomplishment.
But for one player in particular, his feat Friday has already been added to Boston sports lore.
Horton's third-period goal lifted a city and will never be forgotten, whether the Bruins win or lose the Stanley Cup. He didn't miss the net. Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson didn't make the save. Horton finished off a perfectly executed play that resulted in the game winner 12:27 into the third.
"It's awesome," Horton said. "What a feeling. It's nice; there are 28 other teams that would like to be in our position. And it's an unbelievable feeling, and we're going to the Stanley Cup finals. It's pretty nice."
Pretty nice? C'mon, gotta give the Boston fans a little more than that, Nathan.
"Well, it does feel good. It definitely feels good to get the game winner," he said. "But I mean, it feels better to know that we're going to the Stanley Cup. And it's all about team here and it's a pretty amazing feeling. In the end, it doesn't really matter who scores the goals but it does matter if you're moving on. And we are, so that's all that matters."
This is the reason the Bruins decided to acquire Horton via trade from the Florida Panthers last summer, even though he didn't have a single minute of playoff experience. He could score and could play physical, too. At times during the 2010-11 season, he showed signs of his potent talent. At other times, opponents shut him down. At times, his emotions got the best of him.
Not on this night. Not on the night when the Bruins needed him the most.
In between Games 6 and 7 of this series, Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas had a talk with Horton.
"I was just saying, 'Let's go,'" Thomas said. "I said something about 'do it again tonight, I know you're going to' and then I said, 'Let's do it together,' and sure enough, look who came up big. He's a big-money player; there's no doubt about it. A big-time player."
The play that resulted in the game-winning goal is something the Bruins have been attempting the entire series in order to break down the potent Tampa defense. Ference explained it as a situation he and partner Johnny Boychuk have been in about "50 times" during this series.
Ference made a strong pass to David Krejci, who gained control and moved the puck down low, to the right of Roloson. Krejci made a nifty and perfectly timed pass to the streaking Horton, who pumped it in.
Time and time again previously, Tampa would stifle the attack and force Boychuk to rim the puck around the boards in the Tampa zone.
"Finally, by Game 7, we had the perfect opportunity and timing for it to work," Ference said. "Instead of another dump in, we finally made a play and it worked. It's a tough system to break down. It literally took perfect timing by our forwards coming through to make it work."
Horton, who scored the winner in Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens in the conference quarterfinals, became the first player in Stanley Cup playoff history to have two Game 7-winning goals in a single postseason.
"He certainly has played like a big-game player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Overtime goals and winning goals. And I think for a guy who hasn't played in the playoffs for many years, he certainly has kept a lot of energy inside of him and a lot of obviously excitement to go out there and play the way he did."
In the first period, however, it appeared that Horton could be lost for an extended period of time after he suffered an undisclosed injury and needed to go to the locker room. He returned for the start of the second period and showed no ill effects. He would say after the game that it was just minor bumps and bruises.
"He's a great guy. He wants to be here and win really bad," Krejci said. "He just made some adjustments and came back and scored the game winner. He's got some big goals for us. Game 7 against Montreal and the game winner here."
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara sat in the corner of the Bruins' locker room and praised all his teammates for a perfectly played postseason game. The big man couldn't help but talk about the man of the hour.
"He's been obviously great in playoffs. He's got a few game winners, but he's just doing what's natural for him, using his size and strength and going to the net and creating room for other players," Chara said. "Obviously we are very happy for him. It's his first playoffs experience, and he's doing extremely well."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.