By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It was all building to this.

Anyone who watched the series between Boston and Montreal knew that the only consistency the Bruins could find in their game was a stunning inability to play like the best team in the NHL. The Canadiens had a way of frustrating the Bruins and capitalizing on nearly every chance of their own, and the Habs now have a series victory over their bitter rivals as a result.

Game 7 began much like the majority of the other games in the series. The Bruins made an early mental mistake — this time, it was Matt Bartkowski floating away from the front of the net and opening up a clear passing lane for Danny Briere to hit Dale Weise — and Montreal immediately made the Bruins pay.

The Bruins were down 1-0 early, but still, there was reason to believe.

In recent years, the Bruins have become master showmen, engineering remarkable comebacks that would even impress Lazarus. It was just one year and one day prior to this Game 7 that the Bruins escaped from the jaws of death against Toronto, scoring three times in the final 11 minutes to force overtime, before Patrice Bergeron sent Boston into euphoria six minutes into the extra period.

In this series, the Bruins rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits in Game 1, which they eventually lost in double overtime, and they rallied from a 3-1 third-period deficit in Game 2 to win in regulation.

So for as dire as things seemed when the Bruins trailed 1-0, and for as much as that feeling only worsened when the Habs doubled their lead midway through the second period, there was still reason to believe.

When Jarome Iginla tipped a Torey Krug shot past Carey Price with 2:02 remaining in the second period, everyone in the building knew the comeback was on.

Everyone, that is, except for the men wearing white sweaters.

Perhaps their blown leads and overall soft play in the third period earlier in this series taught them a lesson, because in this Game 7, with everything on the line, the Canadiens played much better. They withstood an offensive onslaught from the Bruins, who sent 17 shots toward the net during the third period. Carey Price saved eight of them, forwards and D-men blocked five more, and clogged lanes led to four shots missing the net altogether. And when Johnny Boychuk made yet another mistake by taking down Michael Bournival in the neutral zone, the Habs made Boston pay once more. This time, it was a dagger.

It came in most painful fashion — a Danny Briere pass which hit Zdeno Chara’s skate and bounced past Tuukka Rask — but it counts as one on the scoreboard.

And just like that, everyone knew that the comeback was off.

A Presidents’ Trophy-winning season went up in flames, and the Bruins were left with nobody to blame but themselves.

“Yeah, you have to [believe you can come back], but I’ve said before that you can’t rely on comebacks to win games every time,” Patrice Bergeron, who was the best player on the ice in this game, said after the 3-1 loss. “That’s it. It’s an example right there that it’s not going to happen every time. You do believe, you do have the confidence that it might happen, but you can’t rely on it.”

The Bruins certainly looked like the Bruins over the final 40 minutes, but that lackadaisical start to the game proved too much to overcome on this night.

“It’s why we lost,” a visibly irate Milan Lucic said of his team getting outplayed and outworked in the opening period. “That’s why we lost. I can’t elaborate more on it. It’s why we lost.”

The referees were certainly no help to the Bruins, as the crew of Dan O’Rourke and Dave Jackson eschewed the tradition of refs keeping their whistles in their pockets during critical Game 7’s. Instead, O’Rouke and Jackson called 10 minor penalties on the night, awarding five power plays to Montreal and giving Boston just three. Many of the calls were weak or downright wrong, but the Bruins’ penalty killers put in a dogged effort to prevent the dangerous Canadiens power play from scoring a goal.

Yet it was on a very legitimate penalty call that the Habs’ power play finally broke through, and it was the nail in the coffin for a Bruins team that had realistic aspirations to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup next month.

“You win the Presidents’ Trophy and you do have some expectations of yourself and that’s how it’s been here for a while now,” Bergeron said. “Definitely far from being where we would have liked to go, and definitely not happy with the result. We definitely didn’t play our best, and it’s the team that plays the best at this time that goes forward, and it wasn’t us. We definitely could have been — should have been — a lot better.”

Bergeron is without a doubt correct. The Bruins should have been better. But they clearly weren’t. The Canadiens are moving on to the Eastern Conference finals because they refused to let the Bruins intimidate them, refused to stare in awe at the team that posted by far the best goal differential in the NHL all season and refused to worry about facing a team that just rolled the Red Wings in five games. The Bruins spent much of this series talking about their chances, their near-misses and all the posts they hit. The Canadiens spent much of their time actually scoring goals.

To be sure, the series had enough off-ice nonsense to fill an entire chapter book, from talk of “disrespect,” to a squirt of water kicking off an international incident, to biceps flexes, to mock biceps flexes, to coaches discussing “crap,” and so on. Ultimately though, what mattered most was what actually happened between the whistles, and that is where the Canadiens separated themselves from the Bruins.

And now the team that rightly believed it had a real chance to win a championship heads on an early summer vacation.

“Especially when you know that you have a team that was so good and consistent throughout the whole season, and you have a good enough team to win more than one series, it just is something that you’re going to be thinking about,” said dejected 37-year-old captain Zdeno Chara. “I’ll be thinking about it, for sure, quite a bit.”

Chara then sat at his corner locker as the media dispersed from around him. His skates still laced, his socks still taped, he stared off into the distance, no doubt seeing mistakes and missed opportunities flash across his mind, another season ending much too soon.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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