- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins opened the 2011-2012 season with a Hollywood-style gala to cap a summer-long party, as the organization celebrated its first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years with a banner-raising ceremony on Oct. 6 at TD Garden.
All the pomp and circumstance was well-deserved after the gritty and determined Bruins delivered their fans to the promised land. The local boys turned this city into hockey town once again when they hoisted the Cup on June 15 in Vancouver.
When September arrived and the players returned to the ice, the Bruins' goal was to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998) to defend its Cup title.
That dream ended in misery Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals defeated the Bruins with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Garden ice.
"It's obviously a very difficult thing," Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas said of repeating as Cup champions. "That's why nobody's done it in a long time. Having said that, I thought we had a better chance than most. I thought if we could get past this first-round hurdle, we would pick up some energy and momentum. I had a picture in my head of holding my Cup again this year. I believed this team still had what it took to get it done, even with that short summer and everything else."
While this Bruins team did accomplish a lot this season, after Wednesday's sudden loss, no one was making any excuses. Coach Claude Julien was not going to nitpick or point fingers.
Instead, the coach had nothing but praise for his players.
"When I look at this hockey club and what it went through last year, and you look at teams that have been through that situation and how they struggled throughout the year, we still finished at the top of our division and we still finished second in the conference and we really had to grind it out. It was a challenging year for our guys and it was a challenging series as well."
All seven games of this series were decided by one goal. In fact, it was the first time in NHL history that every game of a six- or seven-game series was decided by that margin.
"Let's not forget to give them credit for how they handled us," Julien said of the Capitals. "At the end of the day when you look at your team, your team wasn't playing its best hockey in this series. Before this day started you just hope you can get through this Game 7 and hope to pick some momentum up as you move forward. But we had to get through this game and we weren't able to."
With the game knotted at 1-1 in overtime, it didn't take Washington long to end the Bruins' title defense and season as Joel Ward scored at 2:57 of the extra frame.
Former Bruin and current Capitals forward Mike Knuble gained control of the puck in transition and broke in on Thomas, who stopped Knuble's shot. But the rebound trickled to the right of Thomas, exactly where Ward was crashing the net.
"I wasn't just trying to play [Knuble] honest and wait for him to take the shot," Thomas explained. "I didn't want to go down until after he released the puck because I didn't want him to go up and over my pad. Then he put it at the net backhand and his momentum continued into me. I'm not calling sour grapes, but it's reality and it pushed me out of the way just enough to open up the net for Ward to put it in. I didn't even see Ward put it in. I knew the rebound was going that way, but I had my head in a guy's stomach."
While the feeling in the Bruins' locker room was complete devastation, the Capitals celebrated down the hall.
"That's a tough team over there," Capitals forward and Chelmsford, Mass., native Keith Aucoin said. "They're the Stanley Cup champions and that's the hardest team to knock out. We've got a lot of respect for that team over there. Both teams battled and battled both ways. It could have gone either way."
In this series, the Capitals played extremely well. Rookie goaltender Braden Holtby was solid. The Bruins struggled on the power play (2-for-23) and that was evident in the final minutes of regulation in Game 7 when they were given a man-advantage at 17:34 of the third and couldn't capitalize.
"I'm in shock," Thomas said. "I really believed we were going to win tonight. I really had a deep feeling that this wasn't the end of the road for us tonight, that this wasn't going to be the last game of the season."
After the loss, captain Zdeno Chara, sporting a busted-up nose and a pair of black eyes, said his teammates had nothing to be ashamed about.
"It's always disappointing, but I think this team overcame a lot of different obstacles this season and we should keep our heads high," Chara said. "We also can be proud of a lot of things we did."
The Bruins were without one of their top forwards since January. Nathan Horton missed the past three months due to a concussion, and his absence was greatly felt in the postseason. Patrice Bergeron suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury in Game 5 and was obviously not 100 percent in the final two games. The Bruins were also without defenseman Adam McQuaid for the entire series, too.
"It's obviously hard to swallow and tough to understand right now," Bergeron said. "It's obviously going to take us a couple days to sink that one in. We weren't ready to be done right now."
The No. 2 seed Bruins simply were not at their best against 7-seed Washington.
"I don't think our team was in tune as well as it was at this time last year," Julien said.
After the 10 minutes required as a cool-down period following each game, the massive double black doors to the Bruins' locker room opened. Most of the players were still sitting at their stalls with all their equipment still on.
"It's definitely disappointing," Bruins' Milan Lucic said. "It's not a great feeling. We worked so hard all season long and battled through a lot to finish where we did in the division. We even battled in this series to give ourselves a chance and going into Game 7. It's definitely disappointing. We just couldn't get that one bounce to give us that win."
There will be no Hollywood ending in 2012. There will be no red carpet, banner-raising ceremonies come October. The Bruins will be like the rest of the 29 other teams, looking to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"Our guys are battlers and still champions," Thomas said. "They gave everything they had to the bitter end. Unfortunately, this is sports and they fell short this time.
"I'm very proud. It was a tough season and there were difficult periods at times. I looked around the locker room at many different points during the season and saw some very tired guys. That's no excuses. That's reality. We still found a way to finish second in the conference, get ourselves home ice for the playoffs and give ourselves at least an opportunity in a Game 7 in overtime to take it to that next step."
Strangely enough, the Bruins lost this season's opener 2-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers. Boston's season ended on Wednesday with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals.
The core of this team will remain intact for the future. Think of it this way: Before the 2011 Cup title, the Bruins last won in 1970 and then in 1972. So, there's always next year.
Despite the first-round exit, the Bruins can be proud of their accomplishments this season, but that notion was hard to fathom only moments after the 2011-2012 season ended.
"We accomplished a lot this year, but not our ultimate goal," Lucic said.