Bruins didn't think it would end like this

By Dan Hickling, Special to Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – It took a full season for the Boston Bruins to generate those sky-high Stanley Cup expectations.

It took barely a nanosecond – and an overtime goal by Carolina Hurricanes right wing Scott Walker(notes) (yes, that Scott Walker) to send those hopes crashing to the frozen TDBanknorth Garden floor.

Walker's goal, at 18:46 of what was a high-charged extra session, cut short what many believed was Boston's best chance to end its generation-long Cup drought (that's 37 years and counting).

That the East's top-seeded Bruins failed to make it even halfway through the playoff grind was disappointment enough. That they hauled themselves back from a 3-1 series deficit, only to be ousted as they were, was another punch in the gut.

"I don't think this is how we envisioned it ending," Bruins goalie Tim Thomas(notes) said. "But you have to give Carolina credit. They played a heck of a series."

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara(notes) echoed the sentiment.

"It's a sad way to end it," Chara said, "because we obviously had much higher goals and better expectations. We all know we could go further than that."

Those expectations were stoked by Boston's regular-season sprint to the best mark in the Eastern Conference, and the notion that they were well positioned to grab the Cup from whichever Finals foe the West could send them.

Their first-round four-game steamroll through the rival Canadiens, and their 4-1 blitzing of the 'Canes in Game 1 did nothing to quiet all that Cup talk.

"It seems so long ago," Thomas said, "but it was only seven months ago that a lot of people were picking us to barely make the playoffs. So this was a heck of a ride."

That was certainly true for Thomas, the 35-year-old one-time vagabond turned elite NHL goaltender.

Thomas will probably walk away with the Vezina Trophy, and thanks to a four-year, $20 million extension signed two months ago, is set for life.

But none of that was on his mind in the waning moments of the first overtime period.

Focusing on 'Canes' forward Ray Whitney(notes) was.

So Thomas didn't see Walker zipping in from the right side, sniffing for the rebound left by Thomas, who juggled Whitney's 15-footer.

"I made the save," he said. "But the rebound went up in the air, and I couldn't control it. Before I knew it, he [Walker] had already whacked at it. I didn't see him coming to the net. I was too focused at just making the save on the shot."

That it was Walker who netted the game-winner made the loss even more galling to the home crowd.

Walker, who was had been less than contrite, publicly, after sucker punching Boston defenseman Aaron Ward(notes) at the end of Game 5, was booed lustily every time he touched the puck.

None of that made a bit of difference to the Bruins as they wearily sat in their dressing room stalls, patiently enduring all the questioning.

"It wouldn't matter who scored it," defenseman Steve Montador(notes) said. "It wouldn't matter if ['Canes' goalie] Cam Ward(notes) scored it. A loss is a loss."

Even so, all was forgiven by the time Walker and Aaron Ward met for the traditional postseries handshakes.

"They were classy," Walker said. "I apologized for it [the confrontation] again. I can't say anything more than I am sorry. It was something that happened really quick. I said what I said to him out there, and they all shook my hand."

The window of opportunity for winning the Cup is rarely open for very long.

Hey, just ask the San Jose Sharks. Or the Buffalo Sabres. Or the Ottawa Senators.

And it could slam shut on the Bruins, too.

Peter Chiarelli, Boston's general manager, will have to do some fancy dancing on top of the salary cap in order to fit in all of his club's free agents.

Promising defenseman Matt Hunwick(notes), slick center David Krejci(notes), and enigmatic right wing Phil Kessel(notes) will all be restricted free agents on July 1.

All of them are in store for big raises above their entry-level stipends.

Chiarelli may not be able to keep them all, and if one of them is allowed to walk away, it just might be Kessel, who would bring back a haul of draft choices from any club that signs him.

Kessel, and his 36 goals, would likely be replaced by veteran right wing Marco Sturm(notes), who was shelved for most of the season by a knee injury.

Other changes are bound to be made.

Young goalie Tuukka Rask(notes) appears ready to make the jump from the AHL to back up Thomas. Late-season rent-a-winger Mark Recchi(notes) may finally be ready to retire at age 41.

But those are matters to be dealt with later.

For now, Bruins coach Claude Julien is just hopeful that his club will keep moving ahead.

"We took a step forward this year," Julien said. "But it makes you appreciate and respect the work that needs to be done to get to the Finals. It's going to take a lot more than what we've done this year to accomplish that."