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Bob Ryan

Opening act was a dandy

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 13, 2012
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You shouldn’t need any additional evidence. One game in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs has already demonstrated that the road to a repeat title is going to be long, twisty and replete with pot holes.

And I say this after a win.

Ah, but what a win. For the first time in 17 years the Bruins entered a postseason overtime locked in scoreless embrace with a dogged foe. When last it happened, they lost to the New Jersey Devils, and they lost the series, as well. Thursday night was a pleasingly different story.

The Bruins delighted the sellout TD Garden gathering with a 1-0 win over the Washington Capitals, thanks to a Chris Kelly goal at 1:18 of the OT.

The winner came at the culmination of a bang-bang scenario that began with a Tim Thomas stonewall of a shot off the stick of Marcus Johannson. Kelly capped the ensuing transition with a blast coming from the right of Washington goalkeeper Braden Holtby, the puck entering the net over the goalie’s left shoulder.

How many times is the winning OT goal scored in just this fashion, with the team failing to convert on a very good scoring opportunity surrendering a goal at the other end seconds later? Probably only two million or so times. You can look it up.

It sure didn’t surprise Thomas.

“It flashed through my mind that last year when I’d make a big save in a situation like that we would come down and score,’’ Thomas said. “I had a good feeling.’’

He had an even better feeling when he saw it was Kelly racing down the left wing with the puck.

“He’s been winging a few past me in practice the last couple of days,’’ Thomas said. “He doesn’t think so. He’s humble. But I’ve seen it.’’

Kelly was characteristically modest when asked to recount what has to be the biggest goal of his career. “I was probably the most surprised person in the building,’’ he said. “I think it might have gone off the defenseman’s stick.’’

Maybe so, but that’s quite kosher in this sport.

Now let’s return to the issue, which is that there may be no more unpredictable, unanalyzeable, fasten-your-seat-beltable, head-scratchable postseason exercise than the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Never forget that last year while the Bruins most certainly won Lord Stanley’s Cup, fair and square, that didn’t mean they were much more than just an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeney better than the Canucks, not to mention another six, eight, or 10 teams in the league. The ultimate difference was the transcendent play of Thomas, plus a favorable rating from the Puck God, who smiled on them for reasons best known to Himself. A few different bounces here and there and we’d be discussing a team entering Year 30 of a championship drought, as opposed to evaluating this team’s chances of repeating.

The Bruins are the second seed in the East. They accumulated 102 points in the regular season. The Capitals are the seventh seed. They had 92 points.

Big deal.

It doesn’t matter, and something else that apparently doesn’t matter is that the Caps are down to their third string goaltender, a 22-year-old lad named Braden Holtby. Any position-by-position matchup of the teams would have given the goalie edge to the Bruins by a ridiculously big margin, but had you dropped in from Venus or Jupiter or Ulan Bator to see your first hockey game, you would not have been able to tell which goalie was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and an all-time playoff hero a year ago, and which one was involved in his first Stanley Cup game, and was doing so after making just 21 career starts, period.

The Bruins made the young man earn his pay, racking up a 26-7 shots-on-goal advantage in the first two periods while being unable to score on both a four-minute double-minor in the first period and a 4-on-3 power play in the second.

“He worked hard,’’ saluted Thomas. “I hope he expended a lot of energy and wore himself out a little bit. I hope he doesn’t play that well again.’’

The Kid had no excuses on the winning goal. “Yeah, I don’t really know what happened on it,’’ he said. “I kind of lost it a little bit. I really don’t know.’’

His coach was very supportive, as could be expected. “He’ll be fine,’’ said Dale Hunter. “He has a lot of confidence. It was just one of those shots right under the post. Not many goalies would have had it.’’

If Holtby is smart, he will come away from this series having learned something just by watching and listening to the man at the opposite end of the ice. For Thomas was as good as he had to be, and in a 0-0 game that’s saying a lot. He saved his best work for the third period, which was understandable since he had so little work for long stretches of this game, his biggest enemy was boredom.

But Thomas has been around long enough to know something about the ebb and flow of a Stanley Cup game. He knew that the ridiculous 26-7 shots-on-goal discrepancy meant just one thing as he entered period 3.

“You knew the tables were going to turn and they would get their burst, sooner or later,’’ he pointed out. “I was mentally prepared going into the third period.’’

Tim Thomas is always prepared, physically and mentally. You think he doesn’t realize how small his team’s working margin was last year, and how it has shrunk even further this year? He knows, all right.

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