Patrice Bergeron put the winning touch on an extraordinary comeback, then raced into the arms of smiling teammate Zdeno Chara.
”It’s about finding a way and showing some character,” the Bruins’ best all-around player said. ”Everyone has to step up in the playoffs and tonight was my turn to do it for my team.”
James Reimer lay face down in the crease, the puck that Bergeron had just shot for the deciding goal resting right beside him.
”There’s no way to describe it,” the Maple Leafs teary-eyed goalie said. ”Just an empty feeling, really. It’s over and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Boston rallied from a three-goal deficit with 11 minutes left in the third period and beat Toronto 5-4 on Bergeron’s goal at 6:05 of overtime on Monday night to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Thursday night at home against the New York Rangers.
The desperate Bruins regained their aggressiveness just in time after squandering a 3-1 lead in games and trailing 4-1 in the third period of Game 7. They had scored just three goals in the previous eight periods before getting four in the final 16 minutes of the series.
Nathan Horton scored at 9:18 of the third period and then, with goalie Tuukka Rask pulled for an extra skater, Boston tied the game with 51 seconds remaining in the period on goals by Milan Lucic and Bergeron in a span of 31 seconds.
Three years ago, the Bruins blew a three-goal lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Flyers. Philadelphia won, completing a comeback after losing the first three games.
On Monday, the Maple Leafs felt the momentum slipping away.
”It can be a killer when you give up a lead like that and we’ve been there before,” said Boston’s Brad Marchand, who had a poor series but assisted on the winning goal. ”We know what it’s like, so we wanted to make sure we jumped on that and came out hard, and we did that” in overtime.
According to information provided by the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bruins are the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period. The last time the Bruins overcame a three-goal deficit in the third period of any playoff game was in 1990 when they beat the Hartford Whalers 6-5.
”It was one of the crazy ones I’ve been part of,” said Bergeron, who assisted on Lucic’s goal with 1:22 left in regulation. ”We found a way, not necessarily the way we would have liked to play the whole game, but, like I said, we showed some character coming back in the game and we found a way in overtime. We had the momentum, I thought, and our legs were back. It felt good.”
Cody Franson scored twice and former Bruin Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist for Toronto. Reimer made 30 saves.
But it was the one he missed that ended his team’s season. With Tyler Seguin poking at the puck in front of the net and the Maple Leafs trying to steer it away from the crease, Bergeron shot from about 20 feet and Reimer couldn’t make the stop.
”I was trying to be pretty even-keeled,” Reimer said. ”There was time left, they could come back and they did.”
He could have used more help from his teammates.
Matt Bartkowski scored the first goal after Franson flicked the puck between his legs and right to the Bruins rookie. And Bergeron scored the last one when Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner appeared to steer the puck to him while trying to clear it away from the net.
”I thought we ran out of gas,” Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. ”We knew they were going to come with a push.”
Franson tied the game at 1 with a backhander off a rebound four minutes after Bartkowski scored. Then the Toronto defenseman, who had just four goals in the regular season, scored his third of the series at 5:48 of the second period. Kessel made it 3-1 at 2:09 of the third, tapping in a rebound, and Nazem Kadri gave the Maple Leafs their three-goal lead just over three minutes later.
”We gave ourselves a very good chance to win this series, and we gave it away,” Franson said. ”It’s that simple.”
The win ended a rough stretch in which the Bruins lost 2-1 in Toronto on Sunday night and didn’t leave until Monday morning because of mechanical problems with their airplane.
Now the 2011 Stanley Cup champions have two days to rest and prepare for another series against one of The Original Six after eliminating the Maple Leafs.
”They had us on the ropes and we’re glad we’re done with them,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. ”Drained is obviously the key word. The emotions of this game had us going in all directions.”
NOTES: The first two games of the Eastern semifinal are in Boston on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon. The Rangers will host the next two games on May 21 and 23. … Dennis Seidenberg, the Bruins’ No. 2 defenseman, played only 37 seconds before limping off following a leg-on-leg collision with Matt Frattin. Julien said he would know the extent of the injury better Tuesday. … Toronto was in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. … Kessel and Horton each scored four goals in the series. … Last season, the Bruins lost Game 7 in the first round to the Washington Capitals 2-1, also in overtime.