BOSTON – Overtime. Game 7. Montreal-Boston. If you played with a tin-foil ball in the basement, a tennis ball on the driveway or a puck on a pond, you dreamt of a moment like the one Nathan Horton(notes) lived on Wednesday night. He fired one shot, one shot all game, one shot that deflected off someone in front, but that one shot came 5:43 into OT, slipped past Canadiens goaltender Carey Price(notes) and made the difference in an epic playoff series between Original Six rivals.
The Bruins didn't lift the Stanley Cup with their 4-3 victory. This was only the first round, believe it or not. But they lifted a tremendous weight off their shoulders. Had one shot taken an unlucky bounce and slipped into their net instead, the story would have been about another playoff loss to the hated Habs, another Game 7 failure, more blown leads, the job security of coach Claude Julien – all the things that have been hanging over their heads no matter how long each individual Bruin has been in Boston.
"Well, this is huge," said Horton, who arrived via trade last summer and scored his second overtime winner of the series. "And definitely with what happened last year, we can put that in the past now."
At least they have given themselves the chance to. The Bruins advanced to the second round to face the Philadelphia Flyers, the team that eliminated them in the second round last year after they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7.
Could there be a more perfect opponent?
"I'm not going to lie: It's a good opportunity for us to hopefully exorcise some demons," Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference(notes) said. "We learned lessons from last year, no doubt about it, and we're not afraid to talk about those lessons. We've got a chance to try to make things a little bit better this year."
There were flashbacks to last year's Flyers series – and deeper, darker moments of Bruins history – throughout Wednesday night. After taking a 3-2 series lead and failing to close out the Canadiens in Game 6, the Bruins took a quick 2-0 lead. Then Canadiens coach Jacques Martin called timeout, as Flyers coach Peter Laviolette did last year when down 3-0 in Game 7. Then, sure enough, the Bruins blew it. The hockey gods seemed out to get them.
Just look: Dennis Seidenberg(notes) dropped the puck for Mark Recchi(notes) during another brutal Bruins power play. Recchi, the 43-year-old graybeard, the settling influence who had scored his 57th career playoff goal earlier, couldn't settle the puck on the choppy ice in the middle of the rink. Turnover. The Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec(notes) took off on a breakaway and scored short-handed. Tie game, 2-2.
Oh, no. Not again. TD Garden was tense, silent. Not only had the Bruins blown that lead to the Flyers last year, they had lost a Game 7 the previous two years. And they had lost 24 of their 32 previous playoff series to the Canadiens, whose latest incarnation was an undersized, unrelenting team that had pulled off back-to-back Game 7 upsets of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins last year.
Not good. There were gasps at the great chances and close calls afterward – David Krejci(notes) backhanding a shot over an open net, goaltender Tim Thomas(notes) stoning Jeff Halpern(notes) on a breakaway.
But then Kelly missed a chance to pad the lead when Price denied him on a breakaway, and the place deflated just as fast when Patrice Bergeron(notes) took a high-sticking penalty with 2:37 to go and P.K. Subban(notes) tied the game again with 1:57 to go in regulation. There hardly could have been a more sickening sight for Bruins fans than Subban of all people, the brash 21-year-old, viewed as a conniving diver in these parts, blasting a slap shot past Thomas on a power play.
"I was like, 'Can it never be easy?' " said Bruins great Cam Neely, now the team president. "That was the first thing [I thought]. It was like, 'Man, it's just never going to be easy.' But I guess that's what makes it a little sweeter."
It still isn't going to be easy.
Neely and general manager Peter Chiarelli have publicly set the bar for success as winning at least the second round, not the first, and the Bruins have problems. Despite Horton's two OT goals, the top line of Horton, Krejci and Milan Lucic(notes) didn't do enough in this series.
The power play didn't do anything at all, despite the addition of Tomas Kaberle(notes) before the trade deadline. The Bruins became the first team in NHL history to go seven games and win a series without scoring a power-play goal, going 0-for-21 and actually getting outscored thanks to Plekanec's shorty.
The Bruins came back from a 2-0 series deficit for the first time in franchise history – after going 0-for-26 in that situation – and eked out three overtime victories in a series in which the teams tied in goals, 17-17. Recchi admitted when Horton's shot found the back of the net in OT, it was "a big relief."
"If I would have said I knew we were going to win, I'd be lying," said Thomas, a 37-year-old vet. "I knew we had the potential to win, but it could have went either way, the way they just kept battling back. That's what overtime's all about. I think I've got a few more gray hairs in my beard."
This was just the beginning. The Flyers await Saturday. There is much more to prove. And as Horton said, the Bruins have learned first-hand that "anything can happen in the playoffs. You're up 3-0 or down 2-0, and things can turn."
But yeah, this was sweet, and the Bruins wanted to savor it as much as they could. Finally, things had turned their way. Standing in his spot in the dressing room after the game, Thomas glanced down at his wristwatch. It read about 10:30 p.m. ET. He said he deserved to revel in this victory at least until midnight.
"I guess as a group it was nice to reward our fans with that,” Julien said, "because they’ve been punished enough."