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It’s slipping through their fingers

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 22, 2012
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The Bruins improved parts of their game Saturday, not by a lot, but enough that it could have led to better results. However, while their skating and scoring determination improved, their goaltending sagged, which isn’t to say that Tim Thomas is the reason they teeter now at the brink of playoff elimination. But the two-time Vezina Trophy winner did not give his team enough of a chance, enough of that Vezina/Conn Smythe stuff, to win Game 5 of the series.

“We may be in trouble,’’ acknowledged Bruins coach Claude Julien following the 4-3 loss to the Capitals at TD Garden, leaving Alex Ovechkin & Co. now 60 minutes away from dumping the defending Cup champs. “But we are not dead.’’

We’ll find that out today, in a Game 6 matinee at the Verizon Center in D.C. If the Bruins can rekindle the kind of temerity they showed last spring, when they won three Game 7s, they’ll have a chance to play a deciding game here Wednesday night. If not, the NHL again will not have a repeat Cup winner, leaving Detroit’s victories in 1997 and ’98 as the lingering standard.

To their credit, the Bruins pulled themselves from the crypt in the second period Saturday, recovering from a 2-0 deficit with quick strikes (28 seconds apart) by Dennis Seidenberg and Brad Marchand. In both instances, they moved the puck with authority and with flow, helping to open shooting lanes that they rarely saw in the first four games.

When Marchand knocked home the equalizer with 2:11 remaining in the second, the joint was jumping again, like it did last spring, when the Bruins made all wrongs right and eventually waltzed their way through town in a June 15 Cup parade.

But the underlying truth here is that the Bruins now have played five postseason games, and rarely have they led. In Games 1, 2, 4, and 5 they played 0:00 with the lead. By contrast, the Capitals have led in all games but No. 1, including 13:26 more Saturday. They don’t give out any awards for lead time of course (not even Dan Duquette would rest on that), but they also rarely give out Cups to teams that go game after game with little to boast about other than never trailing by too much or being able to keep it deadlocked.

The first of Thomas’s softies came 3:21 into the third when old pal Mike Knuble struck for the 3-2 lead. Thomas, typically methodical and meticulous in his shot control, allowed a creampuff rebound over to the left wing off a routine long shot by Joel Ward. Thomas made a desperate leap to his right, paddle down, but he was too late to cover the Knuble putaway.

“I wish I could have handled that rebound better,’’ said Thomas, who finished with 28 saves on 32 shots.

The Bruins were back again just over five minutes later when Johnny Boychuk ripped home a one-timer on a power play. But with 1:27 to go, and Benoit Pouliot in the box for slashing Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer zipped down the right side and snapped the winner past Thomas from the top of the circle.

No screen. No deflection. It was a clear, unfettered shot that we’ve seen Thomas put away for years with the ease and know-how that a New York City doorman pockets a sawbuck. He made all of those stops last year, and he made scores of others in the postseason that he had no right making. Why did the Bruins win the Cup in 2011? Reasons 1 through 10 were Tim Thomas.

But it was Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby who flashed that Thomas kind of mojo in Game 5, dropping to the splits and making a toe stop on Tyler Seguin with 4:15 gone in the third and the Capitals holding the 3-2 edge. Seguin gathered a pass, attempted to jam home a forehander, and over came Holtby with the 10-bell save. The Capitals’ lead stood. And Seguin was just another top Boston forward with a zero in the goal column (with Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron).

“That save was incredible,’’ said Boychuk. “I mean, that was crazy, just unbelievable.’’

Thomas didn’t need nearly that amount of magic to stop Brouwer’s attempt. The shot came in on the short side, aimed for the right post, and he needed only to get in front of it for a chest or arm deflection. But he 1) left the door open and 2) reacted too late, and with 87 seconds to play in regulation the Capitals piled onto Brouwer the Bruins killer.

“He fooled me and beat me clean,’’ said Thomas. “He’s coming down with a lot of speed, and he shot, and I read that it was going lower. By the time I even realized that the shot was going that high, I didn’t even have time to raise my hand.’’

Thomas Sunday will make his 31st consecutive start in the Boston net over the last two playoff seasons. He had only his B game going Saturday. If he’s back to his A game in Game 6, even that might not be enough, because Holtby has been at that level since Game 1. It will take the best of Thomas and the best of an improving Boston offense to force Game 7.

Dead? Not yet. But too much of the Bruins’ game this series has been dormant, tired, and tranquil, as if they are still shaking last June’s lethargy. Either they shake that now, or their attempt to craft a legacy will translate only to loss.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at GlobeKPD.

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