You see it every night when you're watching Sportscenter. A baseball team is down a run or two, and they load the bases with two outs in the ninth. The entire crowd stands up and starts clapping and cheering, trying to will the hitter to get the game-winning hit.
Everyone is just waiting to explode, to start jumping up and down and hug the person next to them, emulating the upcoming pig-pile at home plate Then, whoever is on the mound throws a ball two-inches off the plate, the umpire rings up the hitter looking and you hear the announcer say something like "Strike three! He got him looking! And the Angels hang on!"
There's a collective groan throughout the stadium, and in mere seconds it looks like there was never anybody at the game at all. All the seats are empty. The exits get jammed up with people trying to leave and forget about how emotionally ready they were for a dramatic win, only to be handed a loss that hurts even more because they were so close.
On Wednesday night, that's what happened to the Boston Bruins and their fans. It's an imperfect analogy, because hockey isn't anything like baseball, but the feeling is the same. If the Bruins made just one play - just one - the game would have ended differently and the fans, who were standing and chanting during the overtime period, trying to will the Bruins to a goal, would have erupted while the players mobbed each other on the ice.
It was that same "strike three in the ninth" feeling. And, just like the sinking sensation you get when the ump rings up the hitter, Bruins fans felt that way when the team failed to score on an aggressive attack early in overtime, turned the puck over and watched Washington's Joel Ward push in a rebound past Tim Thomas for the game and series winner.
In the blink of an eye, all the positives vibes that were built up in the dramatic Game 6 win were gone. All the optimism, the belief that the Bruins had another Cup run in them and the notion that they were untouchable in Game 7's - all gone.
It's a lesson in just how narrow the margin of error is for teams that aren't separated by very much on the ice. Last year, the Bruins won three Game 7's, the first of which (against Montreal) they deserved to lose every bit as much as they deserved to win. On that day, the Canadiens and their fans were probably thinking the same thing.
One play. One goal. Just one more save, and we would have won.
In this Bruins-Caps series, the margin of error was even smaller than the Canadiens series last year. The Bruins and Capitals played seven one-goal games. They had nearly identical shot on goal totals. They both dominated on the other team's ice, as the Bruins won in Washington twice and the Capitals won in Boston three times. They played four overtimes.
If I could have found odds that Game 7 was going to end up in overtime, I would have wagered the deed to my car and next month's rent without even so much as a thought. It had to go to overtime - that was the only way to decide a series that had been this close. And, in a series that was played so close to vest by both teams, it was just as fitting that a Bruins mistake led to the final goal.
It seemed like mistakes were the only reason anybody scored at all in this series. It was the only way either team could budge.
Benoit Pouliot tried to smash the puck into the offensive zone, and it deflected off a Capitals player. The Caps raced up the ice the other way, suddenly in the midst of an odd-man rush with Mike Knuble and Ward. Knuble's first attempt on Tim Thomas was turned away, but Ward swept in the rebound for the silence-inducing goal.
The Caps started to celebrate, piling on each other against the boards to the right of Thomas. Behind them, fans ran for the doors like the building was on fire, except for the few that stuck around to flip the bird at Washington's players.
The mood in my living room was the same. It was so loud for most of the game that it was a battle to see who could talk the loudest. The volume just kept rising as the game stayed tied, and the tension grew with everyone Capitals opportunity. Every time the Bruins threatened, people stood, put their hands over the mouths, then angrily yelled when the puck was cleared.
Yet, sound was swept completely out of the room when the Capitals scored in overtime. My friend to my left let out a very tempered "Fuck" and the rest of us sat in silence. It was like someone had frozen time. We watched the Caps celebrate, and the Bruins look at the ice in disbelief, like they were waiting for the ref to skate over to the bench and tell them that the goal had been disallowed or something. A few minutes later, the silence changed only because we flipped over to the Red Sox game and because people started making noises as they cleared out. Just like at the actual game, or in any of those baseball moments, nobody wanted to stick around in the place where they had just witnessed a grueling loss. A group of 11 was whittled down to four before five minutes went by after the final goal.
If the Bruins had won - and they almost did - we would have talked about it for the next hour.
The contrast, and the suddenness with which it happens is amazing. It's either pure adulation, almost ecstasy. Or, it's an almost nervous, empty feeling coupled with disappointment. There's no in-between in these situations.
I don't think the Bruins played badly, and I don't think the Capitals played tremendously. I just think that the two teams were even. The Capitals knew a way to frustrate Boston's goal-scorers with their trap scheme, but by the same token, the Bruins still had games where they out-shot the Caps 2-to-1 and lost. The puck just doesn't always go in.
Had the Bruins scored in overtime, we'd be talking about what a gritty bunch of guys they were to pull the game out and advance past an opponent that had come in and played above and beyond its actual skill level. Because the Bruins lost, we call it a choke. A No. 2 seed losing to a No. 7? Please. That's a Jean van de Velde choke.
But it's not. It's really not. The Bruins played well enough to win, and so did the Capitals. On one play, one mistake, Washington won Game 7. If that's the difference between a tough, grind-it-out team and a bunch of choke artists, then I'm sorry, but the system is flawed. That's not how we should define this series, and it's not how we should define 2012 Bruins.
They aren't choke artists, and they weren't even all that different from last year. Well, except for one play. In 2011, the Bruins won Game 7 against the Canadiens in a game they could have very easily lost. In 2012, the Bruins lost Game 7 against the Capitals in a game they could have very easily won.
Last year, they hit a double into the gap and cleared the bases with two outs in the ninth. This year, they took the pitch and got punched out. That's the difference between a potential Stanley Cup run and a first-round exit.
It's no fun, but it's just the way it works. But if they hit that bases-clearing double every time, it wouldn't be as much fun, right? We need the strikeouts to make the moments when they do come through that much more dramatic.
At least that's what I keep telling myself. One play. Damn.
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