In the new NHL, no lead is safe. Truth be told, even in the old NHL, the 1-0 lead the Bruins were nursing in the second period last night wouldn't have offered much comfort.
But what happened to the Bruins late in the second period, on home ice, in front of their few fans (13,014), was an embarrassment bordering on the absurd and surreal. Veteran winger Ray Whitney, frequently a free agent in his career but never showing up on the Boston shopping list, slammed home three goals in a span of only 1 minute 40 seconds, a natural hat trick that provided the springboard to a 5-2 thumping of the Bruins.
To add to the total eclipse of the sons of Dave Lewis, Whitney also assisted on Carolina's other two goals, giving the 34-year-old winger a career-high 5-point night and a five-star performance. He originally was credited with only one assist, but an official scoring change credited him with a helper on Rod Brind'Amour's empty-netter at 19:32.
"I guess the feeling is shellshocked, but it's also mad," said Boston goalie Tim Thomas, whose defense left him to be picked apart by the sharp-shooting Whitney (24 goals for the season). "If a guy tries to turn into a hero like that, let's at least try to put the body on him."
Whitney skated around as if he were sporting a red shirt, denoting that he was not eligible for contact. He scored his first at 15:36, and his second at 16:45, and in the old NHL, it was right about then that someone would have knocked him three rows back into the loge (plenty of seating there last night, by the way). Instead, the game rolled on, without the Boston bench waving a white flag or asking for a time out.
Only 31 seconds later, Whitney notched No. 3 for the 3-1 lead. Three goals in a mere 100 ticks of the clock. The Celtics think they have issues? It was well short of the league record -- three goals in 21 seconds set by Chicago's Bill Mosienko in 1952 -- but it comfortably beat the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise mark of Ron Francis, who scored his hat trick in a span of 8:05 in 1985.
"It happened really fast," said Lewis, his club's mini-winning streak snapped at two. "You hope composure kicks in. We had a misread, we lost a battle, we missed a coverage. All of a sudden, in a short span, a 1-0 lead is a 3-1 deficit. Things happen quick in this game, but you hope they don't happen that quick."
Before the period was out, Whitney helped on a Justin Williams strike with a fraction less than three seconds to go. The Garden crowd sent the spoked B's off to the locker room under a shower of boos, and the Bruins attempted to regroup, possibly after undergoing X-rays to find a trace of defense left in their bones.
Just prior to Whitney going on his one-man victory tour, Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts engaged Scott Walker in a throwdown in the Boston end of the ice. Walker got the best of him, rattling the big defenseman with punches to the noggin, a few coming with Alberts's sweater pulled over his head. With Alberts out of the blue-line mix, and the Boston defense scrambled like the three-egg special at
"I'm not saying we didn't try [to hit Whitney]," said Thomas. "I'm just mad one guy beat us, that one guy was able to win the game. Whether that's my fault, or everyone's fault . . . it's more of an anger situation."
Newcomer Brandon Bochenski, who scored the first-period goal that provided the 1-0 lead, also knocked home the other Boston goal, with 7:24 remaining in the third. He became the first Bruin to score in his first two games since Andrei "The Empty Tank" Kovalenko in October 2000.
But Bochenski's success was background material in a game that underscores the Hub of Hockey is in deep trouble with only two months left in the season. The predicament is not lost on the people in those Black and Gold sweaters.
"We have a lot of teams between us and that No. 8 [playoff] spot," noted Brad Stuart, whose ulcerated plus-minus rating fell to minus-23. "It's hard to leapfrog a lot of teams. We have to make our move now, or it's going to be over before we know it."