Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 4: Bruins reach Stanley Cup finals, lose heartbreaker

December 29, 2013 - 4:17 am
Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 4: Bruins reach Stanley Cup finals, lose heartbreaker. To see the previous entries, click here. After a miraculous playoff run that featured the Bruins overcoming a three-goal deficit against the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to win in overtime, posting a five-game victory over the Rangers in the semifinals and then coming up with a shocking sweep of the top-seeded Penguins in the conference finals, it seemed like Boston was destined to claim the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. However, it was all for naught, as the Bruins fell to a stacked Blackhawks squad in six games, losing the final contest in heartbreaking fashion at TD Garden. What was already a thrilling and dramatic Cup finals featuring three overtime games seemed set to go to a Game 7, as the Bruins held a 2-1 lead over Chicago in the waning minutes of Game  6. The Blackhawks opted to pull goaltender Corey Crawford for an extra skater, a move that paid off when Bryan Bickell tied the game with 1:06 remaining after receiving a picture-perfect feed from captain Jonathan Toews. While it seemed like the teams were headed to yet another extra period of hockey, the Blackhawks would score again just 17 seconds later, as Dave Bolland pounced on a rebound off the post to give Chicago the lead in stunning fashion with just 58 seconds remaining. It felt like a bad dream. Just a few minutes beforehand, the Bruins were still alive, ready to fight for the Cup in what certainly would be a memorable game at the United Center. And then it was over. "We had Game 7 in front of us," said Bruins center David Krejci after the game. "It was right there. I felt we played a pretty good game, and we lost it. We just gave it to them, basically." It was an unfortunate ending to what was an emotional and ultimately thrilling season for the Black and Gold. The Bruins, like every NHL team, had to deal with a compressed schedule in 2013 due to the lockout that lasted for 119 days. Starting with their opening faceoff on Oct. 11, the Bruins were thrust into a whirlwind schedule that had Boston averaging about four games a week. Boston had a lot of motivation entering the year, as the Bruins were looking to rebound from a disappointing 2011-12 campaign that ended when the then-defending Stanley Cup champions fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Capitals. It was the first time in four seasons that the Bruins failed to advance past the first round. By the time the 2012-13 regular season wrapped up in late April, the Bruins had once again posted a solid campaign with a 28-16-6 record worth 62 points and the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston was paced offensively by Brad Marchand, who led the team with 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 45 games. However, the Bruins regular-season MVP had to be goaltender Tukka Rask. Filling the huge void left by Tim Thomas, Rask stepped in and established himself as one of the top goalies in the league, finishing the year with a .929 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. While the Bruins were once again one of the top squads out of the East, there were concerns about whether the team could muster a deep playoff run, as the B's slumped into the postseason with a 6-6-2 record in April. As the Bruins opened their postseason play against the Maple Leafs, it seemed like Boston could put its fears regarding an early playoff exit to rest, as they jumped out to a seemingly commanding 3-1 series lead. However, Toronto would not go quietly, as the Maple Leafs reeled off two straight victories to set up a decisive Game 7 at the Garden. It seemed at first that Boston was doomed to repeat its disappointing 2011-12 campaign, as Toronto held an imposing 4-1 lead into the third period. However, this resilient group of players would not give in, as Boston slowly began its comeback with a goal from Nathan Horton. After Rask was pulled for an extra skater, the Bruins were able to tie the game in spectacular fashion, as goals from Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron sent the contest into overtime. Boston was able to complete its stunning rally 6:05 into the extra period, as Bergeron sent a juicy rebound past Toronto netminder James Reimer, giving Boston a a thrilling 5-4 win. It was the first Game 7 in playoff history in which a team won after trailing by three goals in the third period. Perhaps energized by their extraordinary resurgence against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins made quick work of their next two opponents, dispatching the Rangers in five games before sweeping the Penguins to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins' final opponent of the season would be the Blackhawks, who, led by a skilled core of Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Crawford, won the Presidents Trophy after finishing with the most points in the league with 77 (36-7-5 record) during the season. It was the first Stanley Cup finals to feature two Original Six teams since 1979. Game 1 was a draining opener for both teams, as the contest dragged into triple overtime before Andrew Shaw redirected a shot from the blue line past Rask at 12:08 to give Chicago a 1-0 series lead in front of an electric crowd at the United Center. It was the fifth-longest game in Stanley Cup finals history. Game 2 would follow a similar format as the series opener, with the teams heading to overtime. This time, it was the Bruins who took advantage, as Daniel Paille wristed a shot past Crawford's glove side at 13:48 to tie the series at one game apiece. The Bruins would jump out to a 2-1 series lead after posting a 2-0 win in Game 3. Rask was brilliant, as the Finnish netminder stymied the high-powered Blackhawks offense all night long en route to his third career playoff shutout. However, Chicago would not go quietly, as the Blackhawks reeled off victories in Games 4 and 5 before setting the stage for Boston's crushing defeat in Game 6. As Toews raised Lord Stanley's Cup for the second time in four seasons, members of the Bruins sat solemnly in their locker room, shocked at what had transpired in the final moments of the contest. "It's a tough, tough way to lose a game, tough way to lose a series," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara after the game. "We really felt that we wanted to play as hard as we could, obviously for a number of reasons, and playing for the city was one of them. Obviously we tried to have a better result, but it just didn't happen." Bruins coach Claude Julien reiterated his team's disappointment during his postgame press conference, noting that the players had a lot more to play for then just themselves, as the city of Boston was still reeling from the Boston Marathon bombings in April, and the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was on New Englanders' minds as well. "You know, at the end of the day, I think that's what hurts the most is in the back of our minds, although we needed to focus on our team and doing what was going to be the best thing for our team to win a Stanley Cup, in the back of our minds we wanted to do it for those kind of reasons," Julien said. "The City of Boston, what Newtown has been through, that kind of stuff. It hit close to home, and the best way we felt we could try and cheer the area was to win a Stanley Cup. I think that's what's hard right now for the players. We had more reasons than just ourselves to win a Cup." Despite enduring such a disappointing conclusion to the season, the Bruins still have a lot to proud off, as their resiliency, grit, and character helped lift the spirits of a hurting city during one improbable championship run.