Bruins’ bid to repeat ends in first round

At some point, the magic had to wear off for the Boston Bruins. The defending Stanley Cup champs just hoped it wouldn’t be now. Not this early. Not against this team. Not on their home ice.

After winning an NHL-record three Game 7s en route to the franchise’s sixth championship last June, the Bruins felt like a team of destiny. And as this year’s taxing first-round series against the Washington Capitals wore on, you couldn’t help but feel like that luck — the same good fortune that helped them to do-or-die wins over Montreal and Tampa Bay and Vancouver last year — was on their side once again.

But the Bruins couldn’t come up with more Game 7 heroics Wednesday night in front of a rowdy TD Garden crowd, and Joel Ward’s series-clinching goal 2:57 into overtime gave the Capitals — an underachieving longshot with an interim head coach — a 2-1 victory, dethroning the champs far earlier than anyone in the Boston locker room expected.

“I’m shocked; I expected to win tonight,” Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. “I really had a deep feeling that this wasn’t going to be the end of the road for us tonight, and this wasn’t going to be the last game in this arena.”

But as the teams shook hands at center ice and the Bruins faithful showered their team with melancholy applause for a season that was both well played and not played well enough, the reality set in that this was the end of the road — that there would be no more miracles in Boston this time around.

“It’s just a weird, empty feeling,” Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. “…For the first few minutes, and even right now, you wonder what time practice is tomorrow. But there is no practice. It’s going to be a long summer, but we have to get ready for next year again.”

It was about as close a series as you could possibly have drawn up, and hardly one that suggested that the No. 2-seeded Bruins were the runaway favorites coming in.

Wednesday’s 2-1 final score marked the first time in NHL history that a six- or seven-game series had every game decided by one goal, and nearly every game came down to the wire. Tuesday’s game was the fourth to be decided in overtime, and the winning goal in two of the other games — Game 3 in Washington and Game 5 in Boston — came in the final two minutes of regulation.

So to say the teams were evenly matched would be quite the understatement.

“I don’t know why people would even think that it would have been one-sided when you look at their team,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “I don’t believe they’re a seventh-place team. There’s too much talent on that team to be that, and they righted the ship at the right time.”

Washington took a 1-0 lead in the deciding game with 8:37 left in the first period when a wrist shot from defenseman John Carlson was deflected in front of the net by Matt Hendricks and past Thomas, who had 25 saves. The goal stopped a 139:03 Game 7 shutout streak for Thomas, who’d last given up a Game 7 goal in the third period of the Bruins’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal clincher against the Canadiens last year.

The Capitals, who showed little gusto on offense and almost appeared as though they were playing for a 1-0 win, managed to hold their slim lead until late in the second period when Boston tied it up on Tyler Seguin’s second goal of the series.

After a long Bruins possession, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby kicked away an Andrew Ference slap shot, then stopped a rebound by Johnny Boychuk. But the rookie netminder failed to maintain control of the puck after the second shot and allowed it to trickle out behind him, toward the front of the net.

With the puck resting just inches from the goal line, Seguin dove in head-first, beating two Capitals players to the puck and tapping it in to knot the game with 5:33 left in the second.

To no one’s surprise, a tense third period ended without a game-winner — though the Bruins had a golden opportunity late after a questionable holding call against the Capitals’ Jason Chimera gave the Bruins a two-minute man-advantage with 2:26 in the game — and a potential Patrice Bergeron game-winner trickled just inches wide of an open Capitals net early in the overtime period.

Then less than two minutes later, Boston’s Benoit Pouliot tried to clear the puck to allow for a simple Bruins line change when disaster struck.

The clear hit off of Washington right-winger Mike Knuble’s shin, stopping the puck and starting a 2-on-1 for the Capitals going the other way. Thomas deflected Knuble’s shot, but left the rebound for Ward, who put it home for the win, sending the Washington bench into a frenzy before it spilled onto the ice.

“To come in here and to beat Boston, the Stanley Cup champions … it took everything we had,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “It came down to seven games, one goal. That’s unheard of. That’s everybody buckling down.”

At the other end of the rink, it almost felt like a passing of the good-luck baton — an unfortunate ending for a Boston team that had everything go its way this time last season.

“A couple bounces here and there can take you a long way,” Seidenberg said. “Last year those bounces went in our direction, and this year they didn’t. It’s that close. You’ve got to work for your luck, and this time it didn’t happen.”

And just like that, the Bruins’ dreams of becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98 were put to rest.

“I thought we had a better chance than most,” Thomas said of a potential repeat. “I thought if we could get past this first-round hurdle that we would pick up some energy and momentum. I had the picture in my head of holding the Cup again this year, and I believe that this team still had what it took to get it done.”

If Boston had Cup-worthy talent, it wasn’t on display Wednesday, and now the Bruins will have to wait until next year to try to reclaim their post atop the Eastern Conference.

“It’s just disappointing to be done in April and you’re used to going into May and June,” Boychuk said. “… We’re used to going, you know, all the way, and to be done now, it’s like — it’s kind of hard to even understand.

“It’s like you can’t even believe it’s over.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner