BOSTON -- The sportswriters to my right in the TD Garden press box on May 13, 2013, were from Toronto. I had figured that fact easily enough through the night, listening to their comments. I surely knew it now. The sportswriters from Toronto were in a tizzy, an agitated Type-A buzz of plans and scheduling.
Dinner in New York would be …
The best flight to New York would be …
Maybe a Broadway play?
Hockey was still taking place on the frozen floor of the building, more than 10 minutes remaining in the seventh and final game of the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, but that was meaningless up here near the roof. The Leafs were ahead, 4-1, which was an indomitable, insurmountable bulge. Go to it, boys. Fingers danced across iPhone numbers. Discoveries were made. A succession of pleasant big-city tomorrows awaited in the next round.
We can go back to that place with the big baskets of bread …
The steak place …
I didn't say a word. I simply watched from my quiet post as all of this blew up in a grand and cataclysmic fashion. It was something to see.
* * *
"Never leave early" is the First Commandment of Sports Watching. Don't turn off the game on the television, no matter the score. Stick around. Stay to the end. Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing will happen. But that one percent? Or that one-half, one-quarter, one-eighth of one percent? Whatever it is? That will be the most memorable game you will see. The distillation of hours and hours of boredom is what makes that one game great, what makes it flat-out amazing. Tons of ordinary have to be processed to find the extraordinary.
The process resembles mining for precious metals, looking at a billion stones before finding one that shines. The announcers will go into an off-the-subject discourse about where to dine on good barbeque, or about who sang a certain rock song, or about what certainly will be a much better game the next night or the night after that or maybe as part of a Saturday televised doubleheader! Disinterest will rule. The bulk of the fans will have left the arena/stadium/ballpark. The voice from the other room will ask why any adult human being could still be watching a game so far out of control.
And then …
"There was a time halfway through the third period when there was a lot of frustration on the bench," Bruins coach Claude Julien said, after his team clawed back to win the game in overtime, 5-4, and advance to the next round. "At the 10-minute timeout, we kind of regrouped our guys and talked about having to switch our frustration to more of a determination and focus."
Something happens. What?
Is it as simple as mind over matter, frustration replaced by focus? Is it metaphysical, a sudden change in luck? Is it a word or action that one person says or does, starting off a fire, a contagion, a viral reaction in everyone else in the same uniform? Is it talent, finally taking charge? Is it a lack of talent on the other side or maybe a loss of focus on the other side? Or what? The rink, the field, the court suddenly is tilted in a downhill direction for the team that has trailed. A fog is lifted. A switch is pulled. Everything changes. The team that had been in charge suddenly is inept. The team that had been inept is invincible. Roles and conditions are turned upside-down.
The Bruins players had been as prepared for defeat as their fans. They pretty much had accepted it. Milan Lucic, the combative soul of the team, admitted he had been thinking about how sad he would be when the team was broken apart in the offseason through trades and free-agent deals. Surely that would be the case with a first-round playoff exit. Player after player said he "thought we were done."
A single goal changed everything. A pass from Lucic behind the net led to a shot by Nathan Horton in front of the net, which slipped past Toronto goalie James Reimer with 9:18 left in the game. This dropped the score to 4-2 and brought back the interest of the fans and players alike. The rest was downhill magic. The Bruins stormed poor Reimer. He held up admirably, but when the two-minute mark arrived, they removed their own goalie to give them a one-man advantage. The storm became unmanageable. With 1:22 left in the game, in the series, in the season, Lucic scored to drop the margin to 4-3. With 50.2 seconds left, Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron put a slap shot past Reimer to tie the score.
The building shook in celebration.
There would be some other grand comebacks this year in the city where I live. David Ortiz's grand slam with two outs in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the ALCS would lead to a 6-5 win, eventually leading to the World Series championship. Tom Brady seemingly would deliver a comeback per week, the most notable a 34-31 win against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos after trailing, 24-0, a score that had everyone to bed early on a Sunday night showcase. None would match the defibrillator-zap shock of the Bruins moment.
"The mindset was different," Lucic said about playing in the final two minutes with the goalie on the bench, the situation desperate. "In the regular 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.' The thought of them getting an empty-net goal, I don't think was in any of our minds. The mindset was definitely different."
No team had ever come back from such a large margin, so late in a seventh game in Stanley Cup playoff history. The tying goal was straight out of the plot for every sports movie ever made. (Team stinks. Team is dead in the water, gone. Something happens! Team is on fire! Team wins in the end! Everyone sings song!) (The Auburn University football team has worked very well with this plot this year.) The ovation for that tying goal, the unexpected energy that it brought, the surprise, was something to fold and put away, save, available to be brought out and discussed on future occasions.
The goal by Bergeron in overtime to win the game was almost expected.
* * *
I did not think much about the sportswriters from Toronto after the game or in the next six weeks. If I did, it was with a small smile. Too bad, boys.
The Bruins, revitalized by their near-death experience, cruised through the next two rounds of the playoffs, knocking out the New York Rangers in five games, the Pittsburgh Penguins in four. This brought them to the Stanley Cup finals with the Chicago Blackhawks.
After five rugged battles, the Bruins trailed, 3-2, in games and needed a win on June 24 to take the series back to Chicago for a final Game 7 showdown. When Lucic scored with 7:49 left in the third period to give the home team a 2-1 lead, this looked likely. The TD Garden shook again.
I sat next to a sportswriter from Boston. She had been wondering what her logistics would be for the next few days, home or on the road, but when Lucic scored, she took out the iPhone and started tapping the keyboard. She was worried about flights to Chicago. She was worried about a hotel.
She still was tapping with a minute and 16 seconds left when the Blackhawks' Bryan Bickell scored to tie the game. She might have wanted to resume that tapping, but there was no time, really, because 17 seconds later, center Dave Bolland scored for a 3-2 Blackhawks lead with 58.3 seconds left.
And that was that.
"It's terrible," Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "It's the total opposite of what happened with Toronto. We're up one and we're ready to go to Game 7. Then, all of a sudden, it's over."
Oh, yes, comebacks.
They can happen both ways.