Third straight early exit feels the worst

BOSTON -- Joe Thornton stood tall in the Bruins' somber locker room after his team's historic collapse that hurt him more than his damaged ribs.

"We had such a good year," he said. "This loss was devastating."

The words came slowly from Boston's captain after Monday night's 2-0 loss to Montreal in Game 7.

He had taken shots to dull the pain and played in all seven playoff games against the Canadiens. Easing the pain of the team's third straight first-round elimination may be tougher with the possibility of a labor dispute that could shorten or cancel next season.

"We don't know if we're going to play or not," 6-foot-4 Thornton said after his scoreless series. "So this is going to last a long, long time."

The Bruins lost for the first time in 18 series in which they took a 3-1 lead. The Canadiens had been 0-12 when trailing 3-1. So it's not surprising that Thornton, his injury limiting his effectiveness, considered the pain of the loss greater than the ache of his torn rib cartilage.

Boston entered the series seeded second in the Eastern Conference. The midseason acquisitions of veterans Michael Nylander, Sergei Gonchar and Jiri Slegr helped. Rookie Andrew Raycroft emerged as a top goalie.

The Bruins were 27-8-6-3 in their last 44 regular-season games. Then they lost three games in five days to the seventh-seeded Canadiens, two of them in Boston.

They played well in Monday night's finale after having some defensive lapses in the previous three games. But Richard Zednik's goal with 9:08 left in the game on Montreal's first shot of the third period was the turning point. He also scored an empty-net goal.

He made it 1-0 when the puck ricocheted directly in front of the net after Alexei Kovalev's shot hit the side of the goal.

About a half hour after the game, Raycroft was asked whether he had replayed that goal in his mind.

"Six thousand times," he said. "I played it exactly the way I wanted to play it."

The Bruins know the series never should have come to that after they won Game 4 on Glen Murray's overtime goal. The Canadiens then won 5-1 in Boston and 5-2 in Montreal, setting up the seventh game.

"I thought we got our bad games out of the way," Raycroft said.

The Bruins have won just one playoff series in 10 years and none in the last five. They've had seven coaches over that span, but Mike Sullivan's job appears safe after his first full season.

Two years ago, Montreal was seeded eighth when it knocked off top-seeded Boston. Last year, New Jersey eliminated the Bruins.

Three seasons, three first-round exits.

"This is going to hurt the most," forward Mike Knuble said. "I thought we had a lot more hockey in us as a group, and that's the most disappointing."

The Bruins rebounded well after an early-season slump. Thornton led them in scoring; Murray scored 32 goals; 18-year-old rookie Patrice Bergeron far exceeded expectations; and defenseman Nick Boynton developed as a team leader

Only six teams gave up fewer than the 188 goals Boston allowed. The acquisitions of defenseman Gonchar, an offensive threat, and Nylander -- both from Washington in early March -- helped the attack.

So the Bruins' expectations were high entering the playoffs, but Montreal goalie Jose Theodore got better as the series went on and stopped 32 shots in Game 7.

Before the series, Sullivan's only description of Thornton's problem was an "upper-body injury," hoping to minimize the chances opponents would target the affected area. After the series, Sullivan revealed its true nature. Some players miss six weeks with torn rib cartilage, but Thornton sat out just six days after getting hurt with two regular-season games left.

"He was absolutely miserable the first couple of games," Knuble said.

"Considering the pain he was in, he's the toughest guy I know," Boynton said.

Thornton doesn't expect to need surgery, so he should be fine by next season, whenever it begins. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15.

Since few Bruins are signed beyond this season, the makeup of the team could change substantially by the time play resumes.

That's one reason the players took their elimination so hard when they had thought they were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

"We just expected bigger and better things," Knuble said. "We didn't have our best two weeks is what it comes down to."