Bruins choke in Game 7: Greatest regular-season team in history plays with fear throughout Round 1

BOSTON — A bowl of orange slices was left at Jakub Louko’s stall. An uneaten chocolate coconut almond bar lay in Pavel Chacha’s locker. The trash can next to Hampus Lindholm’s place was overflowing with water bottles and tape.

Head equipment manager Keith Robinson neatly stacks rolls of white and black tape in the corner of the dressing room. Assistant equipment manager Keith Babineau wipes the blades off Dimitri Orlov’s skates and hangs them above his locker.

Golding coach Bob Essenza left the trainer’s office with a backpack slung over his right shoulder. Assistant coach Jon Gruden soon followed, his shirt collar undone and his tie nowhere to be seen.

Everything in the room seemed to do as it usually does after a game.

But no more games. The Bruins’ historic season is over after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Panthers. Every regular-season record means nothing.

“Right now, it’s hard to process anything,” said Patrice Bergeron, her eyes still wet with tears. “We are shocked and disappointed.”

Such results are nothing new for Bergeron. Sunday was the 12th time the 37-year-old has lost his final game in the playoffs.

However, Bergeron’s pain may have felt particularly curious for two reasons. First, his 170th postseason game could have been his last. Bergeron suffered a herniated disc in his back in Game 82. Whether he wants to put his body through more NHL hardship remains to be seen. Bergeron will take time to discuss his future with his family.

“Obviously, it’s very emotional,” David Pastrnak said of the possibility of saying goodbye to Bergeron and David Krejci. “You never know. You can’t stop time. You’re thinking about yourself. Business moves fast. It’s definitely going to hurt. As the next couple of weeks, months go by, it’s going to hurt a lot.

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Second, of all years, Bergeron never expected it to end so quickly.

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The Bruins had the best regular season team in NHL history. Bergeron (Selke Trophy), Linus Ullmark (Vezina Trophy) and coach Jim Montgomery (Jack Adams Award) could take home hardware in June for excellence at their respective positions. The Bruins were stacked everywhere. General manager Don Sweeney emptied his wallet for trade deadline help.

All of this was in the Bruins’ favor in Round 1.

They took a 3-1 series lead against a Florida team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs until Game 81. In Game 7, the Bruins hit Sergei Bobrovsky with three consecutive home runs to take a 3-2 lead. .

Shock always comes to a premature end. This is especially true with the 2022-23 Bruins.

Shortness of breath hurts.

“It’s tough,” said Brad Marchant, the captain-in-waiting pending Bergeron’s decision. “We’re all hoping to make a good, long run here together. It’s tough for everybody.”

The Bruins didn’t expect this to happen. They were fully healthy for games 6 and 7 following Krejci’s return. They were at home. Montgomery had the luxury of making healthy scratches Sunday in Nick Foligno and Connor Clifton, key players during the regular season.

But for several stretches of Game 7, an unfamiliar problem erupted, just as it had throughout Round 1: fear.

The Bruins panicked. It’s too scary to make plays. Too quick to defer to a teammate. Meanwhile, the Panthers played with swagger and desperation and fearlessness throughout the series — elements that often elude the Bruins.

“I thought we were seeing punt bucks,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t play our normal puck possession game when we had it. I thought we protected and checked hard. But we tested more because of our puck game.

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The Panthers turned their aggression into overtime winners. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett won their battles down the Bruin goal line. By the time Bennett got the puck to Carter Verhey, Tkachuk did his job by setting a screen on Jeremy Swayman. The No. 2 wicketkeeper could not get a single bell out of Verhehe’s release.

Meanwhile, Swayman was put in a terrible spot: sitting six straight and needing to win Game 7. The Bruins didn’t do themselves any favors by grinding both Swayman and Ullmark into dust. The Bruins had no choice but to ask Swayman to save him.

He almost did it in overtime. Swayman defeated Tkachuk in a breakaway. Swayman had to return a two-on-one from Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair after a Charlie McAvoy giveaway.

Goaltending mismanagement is one of the reasons the Bruins are such a punchline right now. They mismanaged the puck through Round 1. Montgomery was thrown into unfamiliar territory. Pastrnak didn’t pick up his performance until Games 6 and 7. Lindholm struggled throughout the series.

The Panthers deserved to win. The Bruins, in retrospect, were paper Tigers. They could not face the gravity of the situation.

And so they are left to cry and hug and wonder what went wrong and what will happen next. They have no answer.

“It’s a tough one,” Marchant said. “We were expecting very different results this year and this series. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. It hurts for a long time.”

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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