Hadfield: Bruins comeback the second best in Boston sports history

Tom Brady and the Patriots changed the mindset regarding Boston sports with their comeback in the 2001 NFL postseason.
Tom Brady and the Patriots changed the mindset regarding Boston sports with their comeback in the 2001 NFL postseason.

Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 4. “Meltdown” doesn’t even begin to describe what happened in Game 7 Monday night. Three goals from Boston in the final 10 minutes to tie the game? Two with the goalie pulled? Was this a Disney movie? Is Claude Julien the real life Gordon Bombay? Why am I only writing in questions?

This wasn’t just playoff hockey, this was Shakespearean tragedy for Toronto fans, and euphoria for Boston, like sitting on a heater, nailing eight black jacks in a row in Vegas. It’s what makes sports so great, the best reality television there is. But where does Monday night rank among the greatest single-game postseason comebacks in Boston sports history? Glad you asked!

Because the Internet loves lists, because you survived Monday (and so did the Bruins), and because any time you have a chance to take an adventure down Memory Blvd. and overdose on nostalgia, here is one man’s list of the top-four postseason comebacks in Boston sports history.
A few notes before we dive into this list:

• Look, I have no doubt there is an obscure Celtics game from the ‘60s that I’d likely gloss over, just as I have no doubt I’d get a spiteful email about the omission. For everyone’s sake, let’s put the “modern” disclaimer into effect, meaning since the turn of the century.

• On the criteria I’m using two factors – degree of difficulty and historical context – to determine the rankings. These two characteristics are interconnected; obviously the greater the difficulty, the higher the rating, but in the end, the game had to have significant relevance long term.

• Why four? I wanted to involve each of the Big Four Franchises.

• Lastly, this, of course, is incredibly subjective.

Good? Good.

4. 2008 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox 8, Rays 7
Refresher: The defending champion Red Sox were trailing the upstart Rays 3-1 in their best of seven series. Boston seemed ready to fold up shop, in Fenway Park, after falling behind by seven runs with just seven outs left in their season. But home runs from Big Papi and J.D. Drew (I know, right?) pulled the Sox within striking distance. Then Coco crisp added a two-out RBI single to tie the game up in the eighth inning. Drew played hero one last time, singling home Kevin Youkilis in the ninth to complete the comeback.

Degree of Difficulty: Being at home helps, but seven runs all in two innings? Then finishing the comeback before the game even got to extra innings? Pretty impressive stuff. Not to mention, that Rays team was better than people remember. This was likely the season that made Carl Crawford a household name, eventually landing him his monster contract (of which he now earns over $20 million a year from); Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria provided power from the corners; B.J. Upton was hitting the cover off the ball; and by Game 5 the Rays had already set an ALCS record with 13 bombs in the series.

But none of that mattered: Once Rays starter Scott Kazmir exited the game, the Sox caught fire, exposing the Tampa Bay bullpen.

Historical Context: This is where this comeback, as great as it was, gets murky and points redacted. This was around the time when the Red Sox falling behind in a series meant nothing. Just ask the ’04 Yankees (who blew a 3-0 series lead to Boston) and the ’07 Indians (not much better, blowing a 3-1 series advantage). This Boston squad had built up tremendous equity and faith, having won two of the previous four World Series, but after stealing Game 5 and winning Game 6 in Tampa, the Sox lost Game 7, failing to complete the series comeback this time around.

And yikes, you know what happens next: The organization, by and large, fell apart. They signed John Lackey the following season and lost in the ALDS to Anaheim; then, later, brought in Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Short after, the train falls off the tracks, as Chicken, Beer, and Video Games becomes the prevalent conversation around Yawkey Way.

3. 2007-08 NBA Finals, Game 4: Celtics 97, Lakers 91
Refresher: After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Celtics dropped Game 3 in Los Angeles to the Lakers, who were picked to win the series by many pundits going into the NBA Finals. The series looked like it was going the distance when the Celtics fell behind by 15 in the first 12 minutes of Game 4. Boston trailed by as many as 24 points, and was down 20 midway through the third quarter, but went on a 21-3 run, including a 10-1 to close the pull within two points, trailing 73-71, going into the fourth quarter. Boston owned the fourth, capped off by Ray Allen undressing Sasha Vujacic on a nifty crossover to help Boston pull away and take a commanding 3-1 series lead (Note: No team in Finals history has ever came back from a 3-1 deficit).

Degree of Difficulty: According to Elias Sports Bureau, no team had ever come back from a 15-point deficit in the first quarter of a NBA Finals game. Additionally, the 24-point turnaround was the largest comeback since 1971. And, as great as that Celtics team was, you have to remember that they were woeful on the road during that postseason, losing their first six games away from the Garden. On top of that, Rajon Rondo had a tender ankle, limiting him to just 17 minutes of action.

The Celtics had every reason to pack it in, but, even as the rest of the world counted them out, Boston refused to quit – something that has become a hallmark of the KG-era Celtics.

Historical Context: This comeback probably gets the snub here. Given the stage (the NBA Finals), you could easily argue a higher ranking, and I’d have a hard time disagreeing with you. Still, this was a team that won 66 games during the regular season. They were great defensively; had all the right parts (including an drastically underrated bench consisting of James Posey, P.J. Brown, Leon Powe, and Eddie House); and were built to immediately win when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were brought in the previous summer.

And don’t forget, this wasn’t an elimination game. Despite dropping Game 5 in LA, Boston eviscerated the Lakers in Game 6, 131-92, to capture its 17th NBA Championship. Plus, on a nightly basis it seems every team in the NBA makes crazy runs to close large deficits. Boston made a 20-0 run, almost completing an epic comeback against the Knicks just a week or so ago; in this case, the Celtics just happened to make a rather large run, on the biggest stage. Still, I admit, I’m torn.

2. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 4
Refresher: This literally just happened, but fine – with just under 10 minutes left and the Bruins trailing 4-1 in their Game 7 matchup with the Maple Leafs, Nathan Horton scores to give Boston a glimmer of hope. Then, with less than 90 seconds remaining in their season, Claude Julien pulls Tuukka Rask to give the Bruins a one-man advantage, and the B’s score twice in the span of 31 seconds to send the Garden into a frenzy and the game into overtime. Six minutes into sudden death, Patrice Bergeron slaps home a loose puck, leaving the Maple Leafs, and their fans, dejected … While the moniker Boston Strong(er?) remains intact.

Degree of Difficulty: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bruins are the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period. It’s more than that though. James Reimer stymied the Boston attack all series long, before completely melting down in the final stages. This wasn’t all on Reimer – his defense seemed reactive, rather than aggressive. The Bruins were hitting harder and skating faster, while the Maple Leafs were clock watching. From Toronto’s perspective, this is the Helmet Catch. This is Grady Little leaving Pedro on the mound in Game 7. This, as I wrote at the top of this missive, is sports in its Shakespearean form.

For Boston, this is the exact opposite. It’s getting out of the speeding ticket; earning a higher government refund check than initially anticipated; your girlfriend surprising you with homemade lasagna, then steak, then lobster … all in the same week. As they say in popular song, “Thrift Shop,” this is [expletive] awesome.

Historical Context: You could make the argument for allowing hyperbole to seep in and cloud my judgment here; especially since we don’t know what will unfold the rest of these playoffs. But the fact is this: When the B’s looked defeated; I started a “Why Claude Julien Shouldn’t Be Fired” column last night. The B’s, as we know them, could have been dismantled this summer. It’s crazy to think about since they are one year removed from a Stanley Cup, but it’s true. If they bowed out in the first round, we would’ve been subjected to plenty of trade talk this summer and larger “organizational changes.” None of this would make any sense (tough to kill a team for underperforming in a lockout season). But with contemporary media and fanhood, conjecture rules the day, not logic.

1. 2001-02 AFC Divisional Round: Patriots 16, Raiders 13
Refresher: Fourth quarter, down 10, at home, to a talented Raiders team, the Patriots storm down the field (mind you, in the midst of an actual storm), and Tom Brady dives into the end zone, emphatically spiking the ball, to cut the lead to three. After getting the ball back, Brady fumbles after being hit on a blind-side corner blitz from Charles Woodson. Raiders ball.
Well, not really.

Officials review the call, and the infamous “Tuck Rule” (which I still don’t understand … whatever) is cited as New England retains possession. A few plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicks the greatest field goal (I’m not debating this) in NFL history, a low 45-yard boot that just clears the upright (only you couldn’t tell on television because a gnarly snow storm was taking place). Game tied. The Patriots get the ball in overtime and win the game on another field goal.

The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship game; meanwhile, Lonie Paxton is doing snow angels, while we all Google the Tuck Rule.

Degree of Difficulty: It’s shoddy, I know. These days a 10 point deficit is cake, but this was over a decade ago, before the rule changes neutered defensive backs’ ability to compete. Moreover, we’re not talking about the Tom Brady of today. That Patriots team was built on its defense, a strong running attack, and ball control offense. Brady was even given the dreaded “Game Manager” tag.

Historical Context: Ask any casual sports fan what the “Tuck Rule” game is, and they’ll know. That should tell you everything you need to know about its historical context. But this goes deeper. You know it. I know it. But let’s review, anyway.

This last decade of Boston sports has been profoundly successful, but this was before Kevin Garnett yelled “Anythingggggg is posssibulllll;” before Tim Thomas; and before “Cowboy Up.” This was 2001, and the tide inevitably always felt against us. Our teams always lost this type a game, never pulled it out in dramatic fashion. We were resigned to the cold truth: We were the lovable losers, except we weren’t even really that lovable. Boston sports teams had not won a title since 1986 for crying out loud! And the Patriots were the poster child of this conundrum.

The Tuck Rule game, for my money, changed all that. It reversed the fortunes of the city; made us want to believe; and less than a month later we listened to Robert Kraft proclaim, “Today we are all Patriots,” while hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Serenity, peacefulness and a feeling that we were swimming with the current finally resonated.

Following the B’s Game 7 win Monday night, and over a decade and seven championships later, it still feels that way. Thank God.

Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__


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