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Top-seeded Boston Bruins hoped for more than early exit from playoffs

BOSTON - The Boston Bruins had plenty of reasons to believe they could win their first Stanley Cup in 37 years.

They allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and scored the most in the Eastern Conference. They posted their most wins since that championship season with two of the best players at their positions, goalie Tim Thomas and towering defenceman Zdeno Chara.

They tossed aside the Montreal Canadiens in a first-round playoff sweep.

Boston was on a roll until the Carolina Hurricanes arrived into town. The Bruins split the first two games at home then lost the next two on the road. They rallied to force a seventh game where momentum and fans were on their side.

The final goal wasn't.

"It's just a sad way to end it," Chara said after Carolina eliminated the Bruins 3-2 on 14-year veteran Scott Walker's first career playoff goal at 18:46 of overtime Thursday night. "We had different goals and much higher goals and better expectations and it's just a tough one."

The top-seeded Bruins may have been hurt by the nine-day layoff between series.

"This time of year they don't want to practice, they want to play," coach Claude Julien said. "We might have lost a little bit of our focus and our edge."

The only game in which they dominated Carolina was a 4-0 victory in Game 5 when a loss would have meant elimination.

The Hurricanes were the faster team but were only seeded sixth, though they still have 10 players from their 2006 championship squad. And they passed a big test in a seven-game opening series against New Jersey when they scored twice in the last 80 seconds to come from behind in Game 7.

"They came up against us and did it again," Julien said, "dramatic win in overtime and you have to give them credit."

The series may have come down to Walker's swipe at the puck that just slipped by Thomas's left shoulder, but the Hurricanes had better opportunities in overtime.

The Bruins did have four power plays in regulation but failed to score.

"They had a game plan and they stuck to it," said Marc Savard, Boston's top regular-season scorer. "Unfortunately, at times, we swayed away from ours.

"We're paying for it now."

The Bruins have made great strides since consecutive fifth-place finishes in the Northeast Division under Mike Sullivan and Dave Lewis.

Julien took over before last season and led them to the final playoff spot in the East and a first-round series in which they pushed top-seeded Montreal to a seventh game. With almost all their key players returning, they zoomed all the way to top of the conference this season.

In one 46-game stretch - more than half the season - they were 37-6-3. They were just 6-9-4 in their next 19 games but followed that with an 8-2 season-ending surge.

The Bruins had three strong defensive pairings, led by Chara and Aaron Ward, four solid lines and the Vezina Trophy-candidate goalie with the league's best goals-against average.

"It was a good ride," Thomas said. "Seems so long ago, but it was only seven months ago or whatever that a lot of people were picking us barely to make the playoffs and some of us were thinking that we overachieved the year before by making the playoffs."

That didn't soften the hard landing.

"We were down 3-1 and we gave it all we had and when that last goal went in, it hurt. It hurt every guy," Savard said. "We're like brothers in here."

Now it's up to the front office to see if it can keep the family together.

Phil Kessel and David Krejci, the Bruins best young offensive players, will be restricted free agents. So will rookie Byron Bitz, who impressed Julien with his grinding style and got his first playoff goal to open the scoring Thursday night.

All could be productive Bruins for years to come, if the team can fit them under the salary cap.

Another rookie, Blake Wheeler, scored 21 goals but struggled in the playoffs and was scoreless in his eight games.

The stingy defence could be even better with the development of rookie Matt Hunwick, who played only the first game against the Canadiens before having his spleen removed.

"You want to build on the positives. You've got some young guys who keep getting better every year," Julien said. "We definitely took a step forward this year during the regular season and during the playoffs.

"But it makes you appreciate and respect the work that needs to be done to get to the Stanley Cup finals and this is what we need to learn, that it's going to take a lot more than what we've done this year to accomplish that."


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