BOSTON – Crumpled in the blue paint of the crease, head down for a few moments, season dramatically over, James Reimer could hardly stomach what had just occurred. In a matter of stunning minutes, he and the Leafs went from sure victory to disastrous defeat, Patrice Bergeron burying the dagger deep in overtime of game 7.
"There's no way to describe it I don't think," said Reimer, visibly shattered from all that had just transpired. "It's just an empty feeling. It's over and there's nothing you can do about it."
The series of events were almost too unbelievable to comprehend, a disintegration that slowly manifest before the hammer dropped thunderously in the final two minutes of regulation and again for good in overtime.
"It's extremely, extremely tough to put into words," a dejected Dion Phaneuf said. "We had a team down and out and we just let them take over the game and climb out of a hole that they never should've came back from.
"It's just extremely disappointing any time a year comes to an end and this one it's probably the toughest loss I've ever had in pro hockey."
On the verge of embarrassing the Bruins on home ice, the Leafs led comfortably by a 4-1 margin with fewer than 11 minutes to go, Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri dealing early in the third frame to seemingly hammer the game out of reach.
A snipe from Nathan Horton appeared a mild drop in the bucket, cutting the Toronto lead to two, but it proved just the beginning of an incredible unraveling. Drifting back into a dangerous prevent-like defence with an all but certain lead, the Leafs would manage just one shot after Horton's goal, constantly in retreat amid an unlikely Bruins comeback.
"Going into the third we wanted to keep our foot on the gas and not sit back," Cody Franson explained, his two-goal outing just a footnote after the collapse. "We knew going into the third that when we try and sit back and hold leads we give up way too much. We wanted to do the opposite of that and the first 10 minutes we did. We kept the pressure on them, we got a few goals and things looked good for a minute there."
Despite their increasing futility amid the Boston pushback, the TD Garden crowd suddenly alive with fervor, the Leafs still remained in control of their fate, up a pair when Tuukka Rask vacated his net with two minutes and four seconds left in regulation.
It took 42 seconds before the puck was in the back of the net, Milan Lucic pouncing on a rebound to cut a increasingly nervous Toronto lead to one.
"You try to keep your composure as best you can and try and stop the bleeding," Franson said.
Ultimately, they could not.
Providing a mountain of a screen at six feet and nine inches, Zdeno Chara stood atop the crease in the waning final minute of the third frame, a wall in front of Reimer and consequently all the cover Bergeron would need to slip a point shot through, the score knotted improbably at four.
Overtime loomed, the catastrophe of what had just transpired difficult to shake.
"We were trying to be as positive as possible," Kadri recalled of the strategy session after regulation. "Obviously it was a bit of a heartbreaker how they came back and scored three goals."
It took six minutes and five seconds in the extra frame before Bergeron delivered the final knockout punch, an emotionally stunned group still trying to piece together the damage in the moments after.
"One minute you think you're going to win the game, you're up 4-1 and then 20 minutes it's all over," Jake Gardiner chimed softly.
"I don't know what happened to us," added Kessel. "4-1, you can't lose that game."
An unlikely candidate to even make the postseason when the year began, the Leafs ultimately took a very real step in the right direction with their pesky performance against the Bruins, victories in games 5 and 6 thrusting their favoured opponent onto the ropes. Their speed, belief and enthusiasm, not to mention the bushels of postseason experience was of definite consequence. But in the stinging aftermath of an epic undoing optimism for some was just too difficult to grasp.
"How can you look at the positives after a game like that," a stung Kessel pondered.
Navigating through his haunting thoughts, Reimer finally summed up the heartbreak he was feeling, the emptiness he felt when Bergeron ended the Maple Leafs season.
"When you go through the season and a goal goes in or somebody scores in overtime, shootout, whatever deciding goal it is, it sucks but you'll get 'em next time," he said.
"A case like tonight there is no next time, it's just next year."