TAMPA -- The obvious thing the Bruins took away from Thursday night's game was the win. But no less important is the knowledge that victory could be achieved in the system they've laid out for themselves all season. It was the kind of game that the Bruins have learned to live by this season, a hard-fought victory on the road marked by a strong forecheck and responsibility in the neutral zone.
"We go into the series and there's so much talk about [Tampa Bay's] 1-3-1 system, and not much talk about their ability to counter from the 1-3-1. It's a springboard, especially with the players they have," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Friday. "So I really liked our neutral zone play [Thursday], and that's tough because that's about thinking. No one has the puck. You're not chasing a guy. It's anticipating, being in the right position."
It's the kind of detail that isn't obvious to the casual viewer but makes all the difference when teams meet this late in the year. It's like the play of Bruins forward Chris Kelly, acquired in February from Ottawa. Playing 13:33 in Game 3, Kelly stood tall in the neutral zone against the attack, blocked shots, robbed passing lanes and helped silence the Tampa Bay power play, which had scored in each of the first two games.
And it's the play of Milan Lucic, who is playing through what coach Claude Julien describes as a minor injury. Stronger on the forecheck and doing much better protecting the puck, Lucic gave an impressive effort that showcased his worth to the big, bad Bruins.
"His forecheck was good, and he went after the puck aggressively," Julien said. "He created a lot of turnovers last night. ... When he got the puck, it was important for him to be strong on it and not lose it, which I thought he did in Game 2 a lot. ... I reminded him that the biggest asset of his game is about winning battles."
And in Game 3, Lucic and the Bruins were more often on the victorious side of those battles, outmuscling the Lightning along the boards and protecting the area in front of goalie Tim Thomas. It's a place where Tampa Bay will look to penetrate more going forward.
"I saw him on TV, and he said he felt comfortable in his net," Lightning winger Simon Gagne said. "That's not something you like to hear. That means we didn't do a good job in front of him, so we will definitely need to put more traffic in front of him."
It's difficult given the stout Boston defense, led by Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, who each played nearly half of Game 3.
"For the amount of minutes they've played, there's no complaints from our end of it," Julien said. "When you play 30 minutes a game, you're going to make mistakes at times. ... but we'd rather play [them] closer to 30 and live with the few mistakes [than play him 20 flawless minutes]."
More aware and better around Thomas, the Bruins defense did not show the split-second lapses that had been there in the first two games. And they shut down the potent Tampa Bay attack, keeping up with the Lightning's speedy forwards by doing a better job anticipating the play. Late in the first period, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis broke out on a 2-on-1 rush, but before the play could really threaten Thomas, Chara's XXL stick was already on the ice intercepting the pass.
The Bruins played better in front of Thomas in Game 3, and now it is the Lightning who are looking to do the exact same thing in Game 4.