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Bob Ryan

Performance lived up to the stakes at hand

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 28, 2011

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Sixty minutes.

One goal.

That’s all Tim Thomas needed.

It was 60 minutes of clean, breathtaking, exquisite hockey in the most important game of the year. It was a Game 7 for the ages, and with their 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins have advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990.

The Lightning made the Bruins work for this win until the final seconds. How closely matched were these teams, who each had finished with 103 points during the regular season? Well, they each scored 21 goals in this series. Does that tell you anything?

“We had nothing left,’’ said Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher. “Nothing left in the tank.’’

There was a certain irony in this outcome, since this was the second 1-0 Game 7 in which the Lightning were involved this year. That’s the score by which they completed a comeback from a 3-1 first-round series deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This one turned Boston’s way when Nathan Horton took a left-to-right feed from David Krejci and slipped it into the net at 12:27 of the third period, thus setting off an agonizing finish during which the delirious sellout crowd of 17,565 made more and more noise until the final horn. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this second version of the Boston Garden rock to this extent. Some in attendance have been waiting a very long time for something this good to happen involving their beloved Boston Bruins. Few have been treated to a better game of hockey.

There’s nothing in sport quite like Stanley Cup hockey, especially Stanley Cup overtime, when one teeny-weeny mistake can lead to disaster and the end of a season. Wait, this wasn’t overtime? Tell it to the principals.

“It felt like overtime the whole game,’’ Boucher confessed.

This was not just a game of clean, breathtaking, exquisite hockey. It was a game of clean, breathtaking, exquisite, and penalty-free hockey.

That’s correct. Neither referee Dan O’Halloran nor referee Stephen Walkom saw the need to raise his right hand to signify an infraction. That’s because no player wished to be the guy whose borderline tripping, slashing, boarding, interference, holding the stick, or any other kind of penalty would lead to a damaging power play. If this meant there was less hitting than one might expect, so be it.

Roughing? Are you mad? Not in this game.

“It was a credit to both teams’ discipline and attention to detail,’’ Boucher said.

“I think the referees tonight let the two teams decide the outcome,’’ declared Bruins mentor Claude Julien. “I thought the referees handled themselves extremely well.’’

Now about that Thomas fellow. He was good to very good on a night when he was not called upon to be great. If any goaltender deserved a first star, it would have been Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson, who faced many more quality shots than Thomas. The Bruins took the play to the visitors pretty much from the outset, outshooting Tampa Bay by a 2-1 margin through the first 24 minutes (18-9) and finishing with a 38-24 advantage.

But a combination of Roloson’s excellence and the Bruins’ inability to finish kept the game scoreless more than 12 minutes into the third period, until Andrew Ference sprung Krejci along the left boards. Krejci deftly slid the puck to Horton, a professional goal scorer who had stationed himself where a goal scorer ought to be. The pass was perfect and the finish was perfunctory. Horton gets the goal and more of the glory, but this play was approximately 80 percent pass and 20 percent finish.

What’s significant in all this is that it was the first line that got the job done. There have been times in these playoffs when Milan Lucic, Krejci, and Horton have been criticized for pulling a long-term disappearing act. So give Messrs. Horton and Krejci the requisite props for producing the biggest goal of the year.

Who would have envisioned a trip to the Stanley Cup finals when the Bruins dropped the first two games of the first-round series with Montreal? But they have talked themselves up as a “resilient’’ team, and now they have walked the walk, winning four of the last five from the Canadiens, sweeping Philadelphia, and then winning the two games they needed in this series after suffering an embarrassing loss in Game 4, when they were unable to hold a 3-0 lead.

They proved to their fans that they are a far different and better team than the one that lost the final four games of last year’s Philadelphia series, led by a 37-year-old goaltender who had lost his job to Tuukka Rask at this time last year. Remember the moaning about Tim Thomas being an overpaid backup? I’m sure he does.

The Bruins knew Thomas would come up as big as he needed to last night, but they also knew it would be a lot easier on him if they avoided silly turnovers. If Tampa Bay had an odd-man rush, I can’t recall it.

And they were never better than in the final seven minutes. “They played great,’’ said Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier. “Once they went up, 1-0, they really came back with those five guys, and it was tough to get anything. We got a few shots, but it was tough to get those rebounds. They really came back, tight, and as a team.’’

The Bruins were so persistent, the Lightning could barely get Roloson off the ice to get the sixth attacker involved. His first move to the bench with 45 seconds left lasted a second, due to a faceoff. When he was finally able to leave for good, there were only 30.2 seconds left, and it was too late to make a difference.

Sixty minutes. One goal. Now that’s a proper Game 7.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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