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On July 27, Anders Per-Johan Axelsson, the left wing better known as P.J. Axelsson, signed a four-year contract with the Frolunda HC Indians of Sweden’s Elitserien, ending his tenure with the Boston Bruins and, most likely, his career in the NHL. The signing, which will return the Swedish native to the team with which he won a national championship during the NHL lockout in the 2004-2005 season, came after the Bruins failed to offer Axelsson a contract extension.
Drafted by the Bruins in the seventh round of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft (176 picks behind Joe Thornton and 169 picks behind Sergei Samsonov), the shutdown forward will leave the Hub as the longest-tenured Bruin, having sported the spoked-B in 797 games. While not renowned for his offensive ability, “Pebben” (as the Swedes call him) was a fan and locker room favorite, often praised for his intelligent play, his tenacious penalty-killing ability, and leadership skills.
In light of P.J.’s signing with Frolunda HC, which will indubitably sadden No. 11 lovers, let’s journey back into history as we’ve done before, not to relive his career, but to simply ponder what could have been for both Axelsson and the Boston Bruins.
During the 1997-1998 regular season, rookies Axelsson, Samsonov, and Thornton, aided by the veteran leadership of Ray Bourque and Ted Donato, led the Bruins to a 39-30-13 record, good enough for second place in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. In the first-round of the playoffs, the B’s were pitted against the Washington Capitals, whose line-up featured former Bruins Joe Juneau and Adam Oates, the latter of whom had been acquired at the season’s trade deadline. The third game of the series between the two Eastern-seaboard teams was to feature one of the most controversial overtime calls in Bruins and NHL history. It has also become one of the most recalled moments of Axelsson’s 11-year career in black and gold.
After splitting the first two games of the series with Washington in the nation’s capital, the second of which was a double-overtime affair, the teams returned to Boston for the third game of the series. In the building formerly known as the Fleet Center, the Bruins peppered Caps goaltender Olaf Kölzig with 35 shots in three periods, nearly double the amount Byron Dafoe faced. However, Kölzig’s mastery of the net kept the score knotted at two goals apiece after regulation and forced overtime.
In the first extra session, the Bruins had many opportunities to score, including three power plays, and score they did. Midway through the period, Axelsson slipped one of the fourteen shots taken by the Bruins in the first overtime past Kölzig for what he thought was his second career playoff goal, what the Bruins thought was the game-winner, and what 15,520 fans thought was the series lead.
However, after protests from the Capitals bench, the referees used instant reply to review the goal and saw that, according to the NHL rulebook, it was not a goal. The reason: Tim Taylor, the center who anchored the Bruins checking line alongside Axelsson and Rob DiMaio, had entered Kölzig’s crease before Axelsson shot the puck. Despite the fact that Taylor’s single skate in the crease did not interfere with Kölzig, the rulebook at the time stated that any goal scored while another offensive player had a presence in the crease would not stand. (The rule differed if the shooter was the infringing party.) As a result, the score remained tied at two and play continued.
Both teams failed to score in the remainder of the first overtime and were forced to play a second overtime for the second game in a row. At the 6:31 mark, after 86 minutes and 31 seconds of play, Oates slid the puck to Juneau, who punched the puck past Dafoe and gave the Capitals victory. For the Bruins, the loss – after the disallowed goal – was painful enough, but having the game-winning goal scored by a former Bruin on an assist from a former Bruin destroyed their spirits.
The Capitals would win the next game in Boston 3-0 and return back to Washington, D.C. with a 3-1 series lead. While the Bruins would win Game 5, they failed to complete the comeback and lost the deciding game of the series 3-2 in Boston. The Capitals would continue in the playoffs and make an improbable Cinderella-like run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would be swept by the Detroit Red Wings, the defending Cup holders.
Would things have been different if Taylor hadn’t entered the crease and Axelsson’s goal was allowed to stand? It doesn’t require much imagination to wonder. In fact, at the start of the 1999-2000 season, the skate-in-crease rule was changed to allow any player to be in the crease as long as they did not interfere with the goaltender. The dissatisfaction with the original rule – the one that governed the 1997-1998 playoffs – was exacerbated after the infamous “No Goal” goal in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals between the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars, who would end up winning the series.
So, if the series between Boston and Washington had taken place just two years later, the Bruins would have won the third game on Axelsson’s goal and held a 2-1 series before the second game in Boston. It’s highly plausible that the Bruins would not have lost Game 4, especially since the momentum would have remained on their side. Assuming they pulled out a win, they would return to D.C. one win away from the conference semifinals. If one keeps history the same for just this part, the Bruins win the series 4-1 after shutting out the Capitals 4-0. Even if Washington takes the game – giving them the benefit of the doubt, since they are playing on home ice, after all – the B’s would still have a 3-2 series lead returning to the Fleet Center.
While one cannot assume that the Bruins would have advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals like the Capitals did – especially when one considers that Thornton played for Boston – it is possible that they might have done just that. The Capitals easily handled the Ottawa Senators 4-1 and slid past the Sabres 4-2, two teams who finished below Boston in the regular season standings. (If Boston had beaten Washington, the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs would have been an entire upset, with the 5-8 seeds advancing.) Unfortunately, a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals doesn’t guarantee winning the Cup, as the Capitals discovered.
The world will never know if the Boston Bruins could have raised the Stanley Cup above their heads at the end of the 1997-1998 or even if they would have advanced past the conference semifinals. However, P.J. Axelsson’s disallowed goal certainly leaves us, the Boston Bruins faithful, to wonder…what could have been.
Author’s postscript: Even if Axelsson’s goal had been allowed, it is unlikely that the bad blood that flowed between the Bruins and Capitals as a result of the heated series would have ebbed. In their next regular season meeting, November 21, 1998 in Boston, the two teams combined for more than 200 PIM, a fair share the result of a near-comical fight between Dafoe and Kölzig, who served as the best man at each other’s respective weddings just a few years prior. They insist they remain friends to this day.