BOSTON -- The questions seemed to be sensible. Tuukka Rask was the Boston Bruins goaltender, and the final three goals in the comeback must have been a magical sight from his end of the ice. Did he have a good view from behind that painted mask? Was there condensation, smoke in front of him that made everything seem surreal at a distance? Could he only see the colors, the fury, the upraised sticks as the red lamp was lit, lit again and lit yet again and the building itself seemed to shiver and shake? Did he …
"Well …," the goaltender said softly late Monday night.
"I was on the bench for two of those goals, wasn't I?" he said. "I couldn't see either of them very well from where I sat."
Sensible questions made no sense at all. That was how outrageous this game, this SEVENTH GAME, was in this Stanley Cup playoff opening series as the Bruins came back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to outlast the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-4, and move along to the next round against the New York Rangers.
Of course Tuukka Rask was on the bench when the Bruins scored twice in that FINAL MINUTE AND 22 SECONDS to tie the game. Six-on-five, both of those goals. Of course. That was how it all played out. Simply outrageous. Of course. This was the kid of game this was.
"Was this the craziest game you ever have been involved in?" Bruins coach Claude Julien, who has been involved in about a billion hockey games, was asked. "Where does it rank?"
"Probably the most draining, I would say," the round man replied. "To be honest with you."
This was a hockey game, a comeback, to remember in Boston for a long time.
The early parts of the game were awful. The night, the moment, seemed to devour these Bruins. They were a step slow, passes traveling to nowhere, rebound opportunities squandered, the Leafs coming back down the ice on fire. The coach, Julien, has bemoaned the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics of his club for the entire season. This was Mr. Hyde taking a long and public walk at a very bad time.
"There was time halfway through the second period when there was a lot frustration on the bench," Julien said. "At the 10-minute timeout, we kind of regrouped our guys and talked to them about having to switch our frustration to more of a determination and focus. There was a lot of emotion throughout the whole night and there was a lot of emotion from last night to tonight, a lot of things happening. I give my players a lot of credit for handling what happened [Sunday night], from the loss to after the game, to getting here today and being able to handle that and push those distractions aside enough to find a way to win a real important hockey game."
In the past 24 hours a sequence of irritations had occurred. To begin, the Bruins had lost, 2-1 on Sunday night in Toronto to officially squander the last part of a 3-1 lead in games they had built to start the series. Then they learned that a mechanical problem had grounded their return charter flight home. This meant they had to eat as a team at a hastily googled Mississauga restaurant, then check into a new hotel near the airport for the night, then return home on a 9:30 a.m. flight in recycled wardrobes to play a 7 p.m. elimination game. The Leafs had flown to Boston after the Sunday win, had a normal morning skate in preparation. The Bruins had mostly been able to go home for a shower, then come to work.
This was a bunch of distractions.
"It was unfortunate, but what can you do?" captain Zdeno Chara said. "There always are things you can't control. It's nobody's fault. Better that we didn't get to the airport and find that the plane had problems. This way we were able to go back, eat, then come home today. If anything, it made for a quick day."
For those first two periods -- no, for the first two periods and then the first half of the third period -- the travel grind seemed to matter. When the Leafs expanded a 2-1 lead to 4-1 with two quick scores in the third, the game absolutely seemed finished. The fans had that feeling. Some left, some booed, the majority mostly sat in their seats, dead, stunned, smiling only if the fan-cam asked them to act foolish. (A man tried to drink two beers at once, a highlight.) The players, too, had their doubts.
"To be honest," rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton said. "I kind of thought we were done."
How big was the hole? The thought arrived under more than one helmet that this was the end of this version of this team forever.
"When you're looking at the clock wind down with half a period left at 4-1, you start thinking to yourself, 'Is this the end of this group here?'" winger Milan Lucic said. "Because it probably would have been if we didn't win this game, but you've got to have bounces, you've got to have luck. You've got to have everything go your way and that's what happened there in the last 10 minutes of the third period."
The change actually began a minute before that 10-minute mark. Lucic was part of it. He came down the left side as part of the kind of rush that had been botched, manhandled, all night. This time there was no botch. He circled the back of the cage behind Toronto goalie James Reimer, came around the other side and fired a pass back to Nathan Horton. Horton fired the puck past Reimer at 9:18. The beast awoke.
Toronto 4. Boston 2.
"It was tough being on the bench and getting booed and looking at the time clock and watching those seconds count down," winger Brad Marchand said. "After Nathan got that first one for us, it started the climb back. We could see the emotion on the bench and guys starting to believe. That's what we needed."
"It's a lot better to be cheered than booed," defenseman Johnny Boychuk said.
A switch had been turned in the crowd. A switch had been turned on the bench. A switch had not been turned on the time clock. As the Bruins pressed the issue, chance after chance -- interrupted by Toronto two-on-one and single breakaways, stopped by Rask -- the clock ticked. When Rask was pulled for another skater around the two-minute mark, the Bruins were in obvious last-stand panic mode.
Or maybe not.
"The mindset was different," Lucic said. "In the season when you're in six on five sometimes you start thinking, 'I don't want to be on for that empty net goal.' This time it was 'We're going to score. We're going to retrieve the puck. We're going to score.' Them getting an empty net goal. I don't think it was in any of our minds. At least it wasn't in our minds. The mindset was definitely different."
One consolation bright spot on Sunday night had been a late, six on five goal by Lucic for respectability. Maybe that helped? Maybe, because with a minute 22 left one night later, Chara took a slapshot and Lucic was parked next to the crease and he collected the rebound and plunked it past Reimer.
Toronto 4. Boston 3.
"That third goal, after feeling you're out of it, all of a sudden you're back in it," Chara said. "When we scored that third goal, we gave ourselves a chance."
Julien called a timeout to rest his skaters.
"We've always had trouble with the killer instinct when we're ahead," Julien said later. "It's a fault of ours. But a strength of ours is the character you saw tonight. There's that fault, but then there's that character."
Rask returned to the goal for a few heartbeats, noise everywhere, everyone standing. The Bruins took control of the puck. Rask returned to the bench. Odd moments bring odd situations, and with 50.2 seconds, the 6-foot-9 Mr. Chara, a defenseman's defenseman, now was exactly in front of Reimer at the top of the crease. Patrice Bergeron, a center, was in the slot, playing where Mr. Chara normally would stand.
Confusing? Bergeron rifled a slap shot. Chara stood like a human wailing wall in front of Reimer. The goalie saw nothing. The garden ovation was something out a night of big-time wrestling, or the appearance of a certain singer from New Jersey.
Toronto 4. Boston 4.
There seemed little doubt what would happen in the overtime. The ice was tilted. The world had changed. The Bruins suddenly remembered they had played seventh games in six of their last seven playoff series. The Leafs suddenly remembered that they hadn't even been in the playoffs in over a decade.
"Just trying to chew up the clock, get the game down," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said in a description of how everything unraveled at the end.. "You know they scored that one goal that gave them some life, and then we got it to a minute and a half and you knew the goaltender was going to be coming out, and we give up a goal and we still had a chance with the goalie out, and they found a way to push one over the line. It seemed like we ran out of gas."
Julien told his skaters simply to shoot the puck at the Leafs goal. There was no need for perfection here. Quantity was far more important than quality. Shoot and shoot some more. Not a deep game plan, perhaps, but a proven overtime strategy.
And so they shot. And so they shot again. And so Bergeron, the captain, put the finishing shot past Reimer after some good work by Tyler Seguin in front of the net, and so the implausible, the nigh impossible, finally happened.
Boston 5, Toronto 4.
"Yeah, for sure it's one of the craziest games I've ever been involved in," Bergeron said. "We stayed resilient, that's what I can say. We found a way. Not necessarily the way we would've liked to play the whole game, but like I said we showed some character coming back, and we found a way in overtime. We had momentum at the end, I thought, and our legs were back. It felt good."
End of Boston story.
It felt good.