Bruins stop Lightning to earn first Cup appearance since ’90
Last night in the home dressing room at TD Garden, the beverage of choice was Coors Light. The Bruins, wearing Eastern Conference champions T-shirts, fished the frosty cans from tubs filled with ice water and hoisted them to celebrate their 1-0 Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Their immediate reward was cold, fresh suds. Their larger bounty — the Prince of Wales trophy went untouched at center ice — was entry to the Stanley Cup finals and a date Wednesday for Game 1 against the Canucks at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.
Last night, to earn the right for their first visit to the finals since 1990, the Bruins had to execute the perfect play.
Both teams were at their best. The Bruins hammered the Tampa net with 38 shots. Dwayne Roloson, so shaky in his previous starts (he was pulled in two of them), was in lockdown mode.
Tampa played its counterstrike game, but the Bruins filled lanes, blocked shots, backchecked, and chipped pucks out to keep the most dangerous of chances away from Tim Thomas. For most of 60 minutes, it was classic hockey for puckheads who swear on their battle-worn Hespelers that you don’t need loads of goals to play a beautiful game.
“We played our best game of the playoffs today,’’ said Mark Recchi.
To win, the Bruins had to attack the 1-3-1 defensive formation, the heart of the Lightning’s system. Their first forechecker steers the puck carrier into the teeth of the men stacked three aside in the neutral zone. The remaining defenseman sags back, almost near the crease, to act as a free safety to track down rims and dumps.
The 1-3-1 helped carry the Lightning to the brink of Cup qualification. Last night, it failed at the wrong time.
The play started with Andrew Ference holding the puck in the defensive zone. Johnny Boychuk, Ference’s partner, was to his right. As they started the breakout, both Ference and Boychuk realized they were in a spot they had seen many times earlier in the round.
“Johnny and I might have been in that situation 50 times this series, literally bringing it up the exact same, carbon-copy way,’’ Ference said. “Probably 90 percent of the time, I’ve dragged people over, passed it to Johnny, he’s dumped it in. But even in Game 1, we talked about the possibility of that play — specifically that play — being open. All the guys couldn’t believe it, because we drew it up exactly how it worked back in Game 1. Finally by Game 7, we had the perfect opportunity and the timing for it to work.’’
If the 1-3-1 held true, Simon Gagne, the first forechecker, would have forced Ference to go D-to-D to Boychuk. Once Boychuk got the puck on the right side, the three men in the neutral zone would have shifted to the left and prevented the defenseman from carrying the puck through center ice. As the 1-3-1 closed in on Boychuk, he would have rimmed the puck into the zone. Eric Brewer, the deep man back, would have retrieved the rim and started Tampa’s rush the other way.
Instead, Gagne gave Ference room to advance. Ference slowly walked the puck up the ice, which gave the Boston forwards — David Krejci, Nathan Horton, and Milan Lucic — time to curl back, rev up their wheels, and generate speed through the neutral zone.
Ference, surprised at how much room Gagne was giving him and the speed his teammates were picking up, didn’t go D-to-D to Boychuk for the expected rim.
“We did the safe play 95 percent of the time,’’ Ference said. “I would bring it up, give it over to Johnny, Johnny most of the time dumped it in. Our dump-ins were working. We had a good forecheck. They’re a team that really thrives on mistakes. If you make passes that someone tips in the middle, they’re coming back at us. But we drew it up so that if we did it enough times, they’re expecting that pass to Johnny on the wide side. They’re expecting a dump-in. Eventually they are going to cheat. They’re going to sag back. If we have that great timing like Krech did, it’s going to work.’’
Ference shot a quick look to Boychuk to throw off the Lightning. Then Ference looked to his left, saw a seam open up, and delivered a tape-to-tape pass to an in-stride Krejci. The Bruins had beaten the first leg of the 1-3-1.
Then, because of the momentum Krejci had when he got the puck, he blew past a flat-footed Teddy Purcell. The Bruins had cracked the heart of Tampa’s defensive code.
But to make the Lightning pay, two more things had to happen. Krejci had gained the blue line, but Steven Stamkos was steering the puck carrier to the left toward Brewer. Krejci needed help, and he had to create time for reinforcements to arrive.
So Krejci, the team’s most clever playmaker, pulled wide left to stretch out Tampa’s defensive box. Stamkos and Brewer had to go with Krejci. Then by pulling to the left, Krejci opened up a lane for Horton to fill. Horton took it.
The right wing put his head down. He blew past Stamkos. He barreled to the front of the net. On cue, Krejci’s tape-to-tape morsel arrived. All Horton had to do was put his stick down and tap the puck past Roloson. At 12:27 of the third, Horton did just that.
“I think that was a great play,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “We walked the puck in. David made a great play of hanging onto it and Horts went to the net. When you’ve a guy like David Krejci that has the puck, he normally finds those guys. He made a great pass to Horts. We drove the net, we did what we were supposed to do, we were patient with the puck.’’
The Lightning tried their best to rally. But the Bruins submitted the stuff from a coach’s dream. Horton retrieved the puck and chipped it out off the wall. Dennis Seidenberg blocked a Gagne shot. Patrice Bergeron won a center-ice faceoff against Vincent Lecavalier, and Seidenberg chipped the puck into the offensive zone. Stamkos had a last-minute rush, but Zdeno Chara stood up the center and floated a puck out to Chris Kelly.
The Lightning never got close.
“It keeps getting harder and harder to explain how good the feeling is,’’ said Horton. “We’re going to enjoy this.’’