Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (30) reacts as Carolina Hurricanes centre Rod Brind\'Amour (17) celebrates a goal by teammate Dennis Seidenberg in the first period. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Charles Krupa)
BOSTON - Scott Walker delivered the final knockout punch to the Boston Bruins.
His overtime goal sent the Carolina Hurricanes into the Eastern Conference finals and eliminated the top-seeded team in the process. Four days after decking Aaron Ward with his right fist, Walker flipped his first NHL playoff goal over Tim Thomas 18:46 into overtime to give the Hurricanes a 3-2 win in Game 7 Thursday night and foil the Bruins hopes to recover from a 3-1 series deficit.
"I just went to the net and whacked one in," Walker said after his 25th career NHL playoff game. "Didn't take much skill."
The Hurricanes will open the East finals on Monday at Pittsburgh against the Penguins.
Thomas stopped Ray Whitney's shot with his upper body, and the puck dropped in front of him. With Bruins defenceman Dennis Wideman beside him, Walker shot just as the Bruins netminder reached out with his stick to swat it away
The red light went on and Thomas sped from the net toward his bench while the Hurricanes celebrated.
"I saw the guy coming down the lane, laying up for the shot," said Thomas, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. "I saw the shot. I made the save and left the rebound up in the air."
Carolina, which beat New Jersey in the first round, will now take on the fourth-seeded Penguins, who beat the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of that series on Wednesday.
"Just because we won these series doesn't mean we are going to change our approach against Pittsburgh," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "If we try to trade goals with them, it will be a short series."
Boston was trying to accomplish what no other Bruins club has done - win a series it trailed 3-1. They won 4-0 in Game 5 which was marred by Walker's late-game punch. Then they won 4-2 in Carolina on Tuesday night, giving them a chance to advance in front of their home fans.
Instead, they are 0-21 in those series, with only two going seven games. The other came last year in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens.
Walker's goal "sucks the life out of you," said Milan Lucic, who tied the game 2-2 at 6:19 of the third period. "We worked hard to get back in the series and don't get rewarded."
The Bruins were upset that the NHL rescinded an automatic suspension for Walker, who was fined US$2,500. Ward and Carolina's Matt Cullen faced each other during a stoppage in play and Walker skated over and knocked Ward to the ice.
"We knew it would be a tough night for Scotty coming back to this building," Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. "He's such a valuable player to this hockey team, and it's nice to see he was rewarded."
The Bruins didn't find the loss tougher to take because Walker netted the winner.
"It doesn't matter who scored," forward Shawn Thornton said. "The season's over."
Byron Bitz gave Boston a 1-0 lead at 7:42 of the first period, and Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour tied it six minutes later. Sergei Samsonov put the Hurricanes ahead 2-1 at 7:45 of the second period.
Carolina finished the regular season on a roll and captured the No. 6 seed in the East. The Hurricanes upset New Jersey in the first round by winning the last two games, including scoring the tying and winning goals in the final 80 seconds of Game 7.
"I think it will be a little bit harder to fly under the radar now," Maurice said.
Ward, the MVP of the 2006 playoffs when the Hurricanes hoisted the Stanley Cup, has won all six of his playoff series - the last four going seven games.
With the top-seeded Bruins eliminated, the three highest seeded teams in the East and two of the top three in the West are out of the playoffs. Only Detroit, seeded second in the West, moved on with a 4-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night. The Red Wings will play Chicago for a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
"We had higher expectations than this," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We dug ourselves a hole. Had we played better in the beginning of the series (the Bruins) might have had different results."
Bitz, a rookie forward, gave Boston the first lead with his first playoff goal. Michael Ryder's shot from the left point hit the back wall and rebounded to the right of Ward. Bitz swooped in and scored into the empty side of the net to Ward's left.
Brind'Amour tied it exactly two minutes after a penalty to Boston's P.J. Axelsson, who was about to leave the box when the goal was scored. Dennis Seidenberg took a shot from 45 feet directly in front of Thomas, and Brind'Amour deflected it in.
Samsonov, who spent nearly his first eight full seasons with Boston, scored from Thomas' right by redirecting a pass across the slot from Joni Pitkanen.
Lucic tied it when he skated behind the defence and into an open spot at the edge of the crease. Phil Kessel had the puck behind the net, skated out and passed to Lucic, who lifted it over the goalie.
Notes: Carolina D Anton Babchuk was a healthy scratch after playing the first six games of the series. ... Bitz's first NHL game was against Carolina on Jan. 10. He had an assist. ... Boston's Stephane Yelle played in his 12th Game 7, most among active players. Patrick Roy and Scott Stevens hold the NHL record with 13.