By Allan Muir
They had it. The Maple Leafs had it! Game 7, on the road, in Boston. A 4-1 lead over an exhausted, depleted Bruins squad midway through the third. Control, absolute control. It was just a matter of running out the clock before Toronto booked a date in the second round with the New York Rangers. With home ice. Home ice!
And then, just like that, everything changed.
Nathan Horton buried a Milan Lucic pass from the slot to make it 4-2 at the 9:18 mark of the third period but, oddly, the Bruins barely reacted. To them, the game was still out of reach, the goal felt like another too-little, too-late marker, like the one Lucic scored in the final minute Sunday night. Nothing to get excited about.
It barely fazed the Leafs, either. As time wound down they stuck to their plan, working the boards, active sticks in the lanes, clearing the zone, keeping it simple. Sitting back a bit, maybe, but not too passive. Matt Frattin almost got the goal back on a breakaway, but the puck rolled off his stick just as he tried to shoot. That's OK; time was melting off the clock.
Then, with 2:04 left, Tuukka Rask headed to the bench and the Bruins, finally, found the full measure of desperation that had eluded them since the game's opening minutes. Work it around, work it around. Patrice Bergeron to Zdeno Chara. A shot from the point, uncontested. Not a Leaf within 20 feet. Where was the pressure? The rebound fell right to the stick of Lucic, the one Bruin who had something going all night. He banged it home and made it 4-3 with 1:22 remaining.
That one was different. That one meant something. And Toronto knew it immediately. You could see it etched deeply on the stunned face of every Leaf on the bench. That "this isn't happening" look.
Out they came for the face-off. Bergeron won it, of course. He went 16-of-22 on the night. Almost unbeatable. Rask bolted for the bench and the Bruins swarmed the Toronto end. This time Chara got to the front of the net, a 7-foot-tall screen planted in front of Reimer. The puck came to Bergeron, alone in the high slot. He held it, held it ... and the Garden erupted before Reimer even realized it was behind him.
There were 51 seconds left on the clock. That's all the Leafs had to do, hold on for 51 lousy seconds.
Overtime was still to come, but by that point an air of inevitability has settled over the visitors. The Leafs had it. They earned it. But when Bergeron pounced on a fat rebound coughed up by Reimer 6:05 into OT, Toronto finally choked it away.
GALLERY: NHL's Great Game 7s
The Leafs were the better team in the series, spending more time in control of the play than the Bruins. But in the end, they couldn't match Boston's experience, the palpable calm the Bruins exuded as they reeled the most important game of the season back in, then landed it.
Four unanswered goals. Amazing. No one will remember that the Bruins played like the Skating Dead for probably 45 minutes. They'll simply remember that the Bruins never gave up. That they found a way. And that, in the end, it was Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand, the most maligned of Boston's underperforming forwards, who combined on the OT winner to seal the greatest comeback in Game 7 history.
But over there, on the other side of the ice, you saw the aftermath of the greatest collapse in Game 7 history. You saw Reimer sprawled there, face down in his crease as the Bruins swarmed off the bench in celebration. You saw the demon-slaying Kessel, who scored his fourth goal of the series early in the third, but swung back to the point instead of closing on Seguin down low on the winner. You saw Franson, who scored twice to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead, but lost sight of Bergeron just as he found that loose puck.
You see them all, and yet you couldn't begin to imagine what was going through their minds.