TORONTO — The Maple Leafs had life. Jake Gardiner had scored a power-play goal at 13:45 of the second period. The Bruins were clutching to a 2-1 lead.
Fifty seconds later, before the Toronto fans had stopped cheering the Gardiner goal, Nathan Horton hushed the Air Canada Centre crowd. After taking a cross-ice feed from Milan Lucic, Horton went upstairs on James Reimer to score the game-changing strike — and one that swung the series toward the Bruins — in Monday night’s 5-2 win. The Bruins are now up, 2-games-to-1, heading into Wednesday night’s Game 4.
“So far for us, it’s been the biggest goal of this series,” said Lucic.
The goal came courtesy of the team’s hottest offensive player. Horton has a goal in each of the three games.
There was no guarantee Horton even would be ready to start the series. He missed the last five regular-season games because of an upper-body injury.
Horton’s had plenty of help from linemates Lucic (three assists Monday night) and David Krejci (goal, two assists). The threesome is in its groove, doing the things that make it wicked for an opponent to handle.
They are playing stout defensively. They’re revving their wheels Road Runner-style in the neutral zone. They’re going directly to the net. And they’re scoring timely goals, like the Horton tally that gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead.
“They had just scored a big goal,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien of the Leafs, whose fans were watching playoff hockey in Toronto for the first time since 2004. “The fans got into it. You could feel the electricity in the air. To me, that was a big turning point right there to come back the next shift, score that goal, and take the energy right out of the building. From then on in, we had better control for the rest of that period.”
The Bruins scored the goal in their signature manner: turning defense into offense.
In the defensive zone, above all else, the Bruins emphasize protecting the house. The area in front of the net is considered do-not-enter territory. Defensemen guard that real estate at all costs. Forwards collapse into that patch of ice.
Adam McQuaid and Krejci performed those tasks perfectly. Mikhail Grabovski had backhanded a pass into the danger zone. Before Nikolai Kulemin could corral it, McQuaid chipped it away from the winger’s stick. From there, Krejci banked the puck off the right-side wall for Horton.
“The puck was loose in the slot,” Krejci said. “In those situations, you’ve got to make the strong and smart plays. I think we did that.”
Because the defense-to-offense transition took place deep in the Boston zone, the big boys had nearly the entire length of the rink to wheel up to speed.
Horton spotted Lucic steaming up the left side. Horton’s pass banked off the left-side boards. Lucic beat Mark Fraser to the puck, saw Horton joining the rush, and slipped the puck to his linemate. Horton snapped the shot over Reimer (33 saves) to reclaim the two-goal lead the Bruins had just given away.
The Bruins are getting the best production from a line that had been their most hair-pulling unit for stretches of the season. Lucic’s timing and confidence were so low that he was a healthy scratch April 20 vs. Pittsburgh. Horton closed his regular season with a 0-0—0 performance in five straight games.
But in every playoff game, Lucic, Krejci, and Horton have flexed their muscles, flaunted their skill, and buried their chances. Krejci, as usual, has been the catalyst.
“He’s very creative and he doesn’t get intimidated by physicality,” Julien said. “He’ll make plays. He’ll go into those dirty areas. A real good playmaker. He’ll go about his job quietly. Not a guy that speaks much, but he lets his actions speak for themselves.”
Horton’s goal was one of three the Bruins poured past Reimer in the game-swinging second period.
Early in the second, Rich Peverley gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead. As Gardiner went to retrieve a puck deep in the corner, Peverley barreled in on the forecheck. Because of Peverley’s rapid closing, Gardiner hurried a bank pass to Ryan O’Byrne. In turn, Jaromir Jagr picked O’Byrne’s pocket. Once Jagr gained control, he spotted Peverley in front for an easy goal at 5:57 of the second.
Daniel Paille closed out the second-period barrage with a shorthanded goal at 16:37 to give the Bruins a 4-1 lead.
The Bruins would need that insurance goal.
Just 47 seconds into the third, Phil Kessel snapped a power-play shot past Tuukka Rask. It was one of 18 pucks the Leafs fired on goal in the period. But Rask (45 saves) stood tall amid the onslaught.
“They came out in the third a desperate team, down 4-1,” Julien said.
“You knew they were going to throw everything at us. We needed good goaltending. We tried to minimize the scoring chances and be patient. That early goal, that power-play goal early in the third, certainly gave them some life. No doubt they picked up their game from that point.”
With Rask leading the way, the Bruins finished out the Leafs with an empty-net goal at 18:43 of the third. The goal was Krejci from Horton and Lucic. It was a fitting reward given the game they played.