TAMPA, Fla. -- After Tuesday's pond hockey exhibition between the Bruins and Lightning -- a wild 6-5 affair that was as entertaining as it was uncharacteristic for both clubs -- it was just a matter of time before the children would be called in from the great outdoors and put back on the structured dimensions of the rink. As the Bruins skated off with a 2-0 win Thursday night, pulling ahead in the Eastern Conference final series 2-1, it was through adhering to adult hockey -- more responsible hockey.
"It just felt more normal," Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said of the struggle at the St. Pete Times Forum. "I think both teams got to [play] the type of game they wanted tonight."
For all but one play early in the game, Ference would be right, but a defensive breakdown by Tampa Bay was all that Boston would need. Unlike in Game 2, when the Lightning struck on their first shift, it was the Bruins who got on the board just a minute into the game. Thanks to a heads-up pass from Milan Lucic, who had drawn two defenders into the corner, David Krejci stood wide open in the slot with enough time and space to play pick-a-move with Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson. Krejci won it with a backhand-forehand-backhand move, roofing the puck as Roloson helplessly flailed in his crease, giving Boston the early 1-0 lead.
"Except for one big mistake to start the game -- if it weren't for that, I think it would have stayed 0-0 for quite a while," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "It cost us, and then we were chasing the rest of the game."
The score just 1:09 into the game would end up being all the Bruins would need, as goalie Tim Thomas made 31 saves to record his first shutout of this postseason. After giving up five goals in Game 2, including two third-period scores that seemed to breathe life into Tampa Bay's attack, the 37-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist gave his team the timely saves. And even if they weren't textbook -- and with Thomas they rarely are -- they were there when the Bruins needed them.
"He makes the big saves when he has to," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Our team played well in front of him, but when they had some great opportunities, he was also there to make the big saves."
Many of those saves came at the expense of Tampa Bay's top line of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Teddy Purcell, who combined for 13 of the Lightning's 31 shots, and at the expense of the Lightning's power play, which went 0-for-3 on the night. With the Lightning on the power play late in the third period, Thomas made a couple spectacular saves, including one right off the faceoff on St. Louis and another on Lecavalier, who looked to have a golden opportunity.
"[Thomas] played really well," Lecavalier said. "[But] I don't think we attacked him as much as we did in the first two games, but I've got to give him credit. They played a patient game, but we probably could've done more to take it to them."
But Tampa Bay found it difficult to get their transition game activated, as Boston stifled the attack by sticking with its game, displaying the kind of discipline that neither team really showed in Game 2. The Bruins were better in their own zone, better also in the offensive zone. They generated more chances, blocked more shots, were better at reading plays and dominated in the faceoff circles. At 8:12 in the third period, it was a strong cycle and good battles down low that paid off for the Bruins, when Michael Ryder fed Ference at the point. The defenseman one-timed the puck, which trickled through Roloson's legs and over the goal line, giving the Bruins the 2-0 lead and a little room to breathe.
Said Julien: "Tonight was one of those games where you want to spread the credit around."
Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron -- who returned after missing the last two games with a concussion -- is one place where plenty of credit is due. Cleared to play Thursday afternoon, the skilled center showed how valuable he is to the Bruins' success -- and not only in the faceoff circles, where he won 18 of his 28 draws.
"His line was definitely better," Julien said. "His linemates obviously felt comfortable because they've been with him all year, so there was some chemistry there, and that certainly helped us tonight. I liked the fact that we had our four lines that were pretty stable and pretty good for us and reliable."
That might've been a departure from the other night -- reliability was in short supply in Boston -- but with the series going forward, it should be the norm.
"Today was more of a playoff game between two teams who pride themselves on doing well defensively and playing tight," Boucher said. "That's why we're here ... [Going forward] I don't expect anything else... it's going to come down to those little details that will make the difference. That's the way it should be at this time of the year."
1. Tim Thomas: With the 31-save shutout, the goalie protected a one-goal game with timely saves. Though he deflected much of the credit to his teammates, there were huge saves both early and late that could have altered the course of the game. They were momentum-saving stops that the Bruins needed, and Thomas delivered.
2. Patrice Bergeron: In his first game back from a concussion, the center looked like he didn't miss a step. A force in the faceoff circle, winning 64 percent of his draws, Bergeron gave his teammates more time with the puck and helped generate more chances for his linemates who had struggled a little in his absence. Simply put, he makes those around him better. 3. Milan Lucic: While drawing attention away from the slot, he set up David Krejci with a great pass in front of the net, making it all but impossible for the center not to finish for the Bruins' first goal. Getting the early goal turned out to be imperative since both teams looked to tighten things up. And Lucic's physicality is always a factor.