Bruins' collapse cuts to heart

BOSTON -- Triumph!

That was the word displayed on a flat-screen television in the Boston Bruins' locker room just below a picture of Bobby Orr, sipping from the Stanley Cup. It was an image from 40 years ago that the current Bruins team was supposed to use for motivation to create its own legacy.

The 2009-10 Bruins definitely created their own legacy.

And it didn't have anything to do with being triumphant.

Boston completely, utterly and disgustingly imploded in a collapse of monumental proportions. In the end, the Bruins found themselves on the losing end of one of the biggest comebacks in NHL history.

Boston had a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Philadelphia surged back and knotted the series at 3-3. Still, the Bruins felt confident with Game 7 on their home ice, in front of their fans. Boston gained a 3-0 first-period lead, but -- mirroring the series -- the Bruins fell apart as the Flyers mounted a comeback and won 4-3.

The loss left the Bruins one of three teams in NHL history to blow a best-of-seven series after holding a 3-0 lead.

"The bottom line is we had a 3-0 lead in the series, we had a 3-0 lead tonight, and we blew them both," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We have to take the responsibility that goes with it. Everyone."

There's no word. No phrase. No historical statistic. No excuse that can be made to describe the second coming of the Boston Massacre.

Visions of Ruth, Dent, Buckner, Boone and Manning quickly entered one's mind at the sight of Bruins players sitting at their locker room stalls, wary and trying to comprehend how something like this could happen.

"This sucks," said forward Shawn Thornton.

Awful. Shocked. Disappointed. Those were some of the words Bruins players were using to describe what had happened. There were plenty of expletives, too. Hearts and minds were broken and shattered.

"It's really hard to find words for it," said captain Zdeno Chara. "We obviously got the lead and we extended the lead and then I don't know what happened in the second. We just stopped playing aggressive. Somehow the momentum shifted."

This was similar to a season ago when the Bruins played the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the conference semifinals at the Garden and were expected to advance. Instead, Boston lost in overtime. Now it's two years in a row that the Bruins have failed. They have failed themselves, the organization and the fans.

After all the adversity they faced this season, through the injuries, losing streaks and goaltending decisions, they were reborn in the last month of the regular season and fought their way into the Stanley Cup playoffs. They beat the Sabres and top-flight goaltender Ryan Miller.

And after having a 3-0 lead on the Flyers, it was Boston's chance to rekindle one of the best rivalries in sports by facing the Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals.

It will not happen.

This loss will rank as one of the worst in the history of professional sports in Boston. It's certainly one of the worst for Bruins veteran Mark Recchi.

"It's up there," he said. "I've had a couple of Game 7s, losing in the semifinals, but this one hurts a lot. You don't get too many chances to get to the third round and have an opportunity to go to the Stanley Cup, and to be able to take that step would have been huge. It's what we play for."

In an eerie turn of events, the Flyers' winning goal came on the power play at 12:52 of the third period after the Bruins were called for a too-many-men penalty.

It seemed like 1979 all over again. Thirty-one years ago, when the Bruins were playing the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup semifinals, Boston had a 4-3 lead late in the third period when they were called for a too-many-men penalty. The Canadiens tied the game on the power play, forcing overtime, before eventually winning it.

Fast-forward to 2010.

The game was knotted at 3-3 when Bruins centermen Mark Savard and Vladimir Sobotka got caught in a bad line change and were called for too many men. The Flyers capitalized on their opportunity when Simon Gagne scored what proved to be the winning goal.

"That's a terrible call," Recchi said. "In a 3-3 series in a Game 7, you don't make that call. It was a terrible call. Terrible judgment [on the linesman's] part."

Meanwhile, down the hall from the Bruins locker room, the Flyers were shocked too, trying to figure out how they pulled it off.

"It was great," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. "I love coaching. It was great for me to be behind the bench, but this is all about the players. The players won a hockey game today. That's the biggest news you can write about. They worked for it, they fought for it and they earned it."

Adding to the poignancy of the Bruins' collapse is the fact that Laviolette is a Franklin, Mass., native and a former assistant coach for the Bruins (2000-01) who felt he was passed over for the head-coaching job after Pat Burns was fired. Laviolette left the organization after that season and eventually won the Stanley Cup as head coach with the Hurricanes in 2006.

Then he returned and led the Flyers past the Bruins on Friday night.

One night earlier at the Garden, the Boston Celtics completed their improbable Eastern Conference semifinal series victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some of the Celtics players and their coach, Doc Rivers, commented that they set the stage for the Bruins to close the curtain on the Flyers and extend an already special spring in Boston.

But the Bruins went kaput.

For the city and the fan base, this one will hurt for a long time. People will point fingers at ownership, management, coaching staff and players. The fans will want answers.

"Our killer instinct was missing," Recchi said. "What are you going to do? It's over now, and we'll have a long summer to think about it. It's disappointing.

"You just don't want this to happen again if you're a player," Recchi added. "It's not a very enjoyable feeling."

Julien was clearly shaken by the turn of events. When asked what he would say to his players after this, the coach could only praise his team for its season.

"Can't say much. Nobody feels like listening to a rah-rah speech," he said. "It takes time for things to kind of calm down a little bit. We'll regroup at some point. I know this team, and two months ago not too many people believed in it. We turned a corner, and unfortunately we weren't able to finish what we started.

"We've come a long way from two months ago and we had the opportunity to move further probably than anybody expected and we weren't able to finish that. That's probably the most disappointing thing right now for our hockey club."

Back in the locker room, the flat-screen television with the photo of Orr and the Stanley Cup suddenly went blank. A few seconds later a message appeared in black and gold lettering that read: "No signal."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.