BOSTON – A bowl of orange slices was left at Jacob Lauco’s booth. An uneaten chocolate almond bar with coconut was left in Pavel Zasha’s cupboard. The dumpster next to the Hampus Lindholm spot can be overflowing with water bottles and tape.
Chief Equipment Manager Keith Robinson neatly stacked rolls of black and white tape in the corner of the dressing room. Assistant Equipment Manager Keith Papineau wiped the blades of Dmitry Orlov’s skates and hung them above his locker.
Goaltending coach Bob Essensa slung his backpack over his right shoulder and walked out of the coaches’ office. Assistant coach John Gruden followed shortly after, his shirt collar and tie open anywhere.
Everything in the room looked as if it usually happens after a match.
But it was not an ordinary game, and now there are no other games. The Bruins’ historic season ended after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Panthers. Every achievement in the regular season means nothing.
“At the moment it is difficult to process anything,” said Captain Patrice Bergeron, his eyes still wet with tears. “We are shocked and disappointed.”
These conclusions are not new to Bergeron. Sunday marked the 12th time the 37-year-old lost his final game in the qualifiers.
However, Bergeron’s pain may be too keen for two reasons. First, his 170th postseason game may have been his last. Bergeron suffered a herniated disc in his back in Game 82. Whether he’s willing to put his body through more NHL hardship remains to be seen. Bergeron will take some time to discuss his future with his family.
“It’s obviously very emotional,” David Pastrnak said of the possibility of saying goodbye to Bergeron and David Krejci. “You never know. You can’t stop time. You think about yourself too. The career goes by so fast. That’s definitely going to hurt. As time goes on in the next couple of weeks, months, it’s going to hurt more.”
Secondly, of all the years, this was the time Bergeron did not expect it to end so quickly.
The Bruins were the best regular season team in NHL history. Bergeron (Selke Trophy), Linus Ullmark (Vezina Trophy), and coach Jim Montgomery (Jack Adams Trophy) can all take home the June appliances for being the best at their positions. Bruins were stacked all over the place. General Manager Don Sweeney emptied his wallet seeking help at the trade deadline.
All of these things favored the Bruins in the first round.
They took a 3-1 series lead over a Florida team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs until Game 81. In Game 7, the Bruins poured three straight punts past Sergey Bobrovsky to take a 3-2 lead in the final minute of regulation. .
Trauma always accompanies an early end. This is particularly the case with the 2022-23 Bruins.
“It’s a tough one,” said Brad Marchand, the captain-in-waiting, awaiting Bergeron’s decision. “We were hoping to make a good long journey here together. It’s tough for everyone.”
The Bruins didn’t expect this to happen. They were at full health in Games 6 and 7 after Craigsey’s return. Kano is at home. Montgomery had the luxury of making Nick Foligno and Conor Clifton, two important players during the regular season, healthy scrapes on Sunday.
But for many stretches of Game 7, an unfamiliar problem emerged as it did throughout the first run: fear.
The Bruins looked scared. Too afraid to play. Very quick to defer to a teammate. Meanwhile, the Panthers have played with swagger, desperation, and grit throughout the series—elements that have eluded the Bruins so much.
“I thought we were just looking forward to playing pucks,” said Montgomery. “We don’t play the normal possession game when we had it. I thought we pushed and checked too hard. But we were checking too much because of our puck game.”
The Panthers directed their aggression into the overtime winner. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett won their battles under the Bruins goal line. By the time Bennett got his hold of Carter Verhaeghe, Tkachuk had done his job by putting a screen on Jeremy Swaiman. The No. 2 goalkeeper couldn’t get a bead on Verhaeghe’s release.
Meanwhile, Swaiman was put in a terrible spot: winning Game 7 after sitting out for six straight games. The Bruins did Swaeman and Allmark no favors by grinding the latter into dust. The Bruins had no choice but to ask Swaiman to save the day.
He almost did in overtime. Swaman Tkachuk frustrated on a breakaway. Swaiman was forced to drop a two-on-one from Verhaig and Anthony Dockler after a Charlie McAvoy donation.
Goal-oriented mismanagement was one of the reasons the Bruins were now a punchline. They mishandled the puck during the first round. Montgomery shook his lineup to the point where unfamiliarity settled. Pastrnak did not raise his performance until Games 6 and 7. Lindholm struggled the entire series.
The Panthers deserved to win. The Bruins were, in the past, Paper Tigers. They could not face the seriousness of the situation.
So they are left to cry and hug and think about what went wrong and wonder what will happen next. They don’t have answers.
“This is difficult,” Marchand said. “Obviously, we expected a lot different results this year and this series. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. That’s going to hurt for a long time.”
(Top photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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