NEW YORK — The puck that would become the game-winner was spinning in the crease. Henrik Lundqvist was sliding back into his net. Shawn Thornton thought the puck already had gone in.
“I couldn’t see behind him, obviously, so I thought it went in,” Thornton said with a smile. “Hence the reason I put my hands up.”
A second later, Daniel Paille made sure that Thornton’s premature celebration was only temporary. Paille wheeled around the net, corralled the loose puck, and whipped it over Lundqvist’s left pad and glove at 16:29 of the third Tuesday night.
It was the deciding goal in the Bruins’ 2-1 come-from-behind win in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden. The Bruins, now up 3-0 in the series, can sweep the Rangers out of the playoffs Thursday night in Game 4.
“Piesey had eyes on it the whole time,” Thornton said. “Great job by him sticking with it and getting that goal.”
It was the second third-period goal the fourth line helped to create. At 3:10 of the third, following some furious forechecking, race-winning, and puck management by Paille, Thornton, and Gregory Campbell, Johnny Boychuk rifled a point shot past Lundqvist to tie the game, 1-1.
Thornton and Campbell went to the grimy, dangerous, net-front real estate to screen Lundqvist on the goal. The puck might have even skimmed off Thornton, although Boychuk was credited with the goal.
“If you want to give it to me, I’ll take it,” Thornton cracked. “I was there. I don’t know if it touched me or not. It went in. It doesn’t matter.”
The fourth line thrashed the Rangers for six shots. In comparison, New York’s fourth line of Chris Kreider, Brad Richards, and Arron Asham put only one collective puck on Tuukka Rask. The Rangers do not have the depth to keep up with the Bruins.
The goals were business as usual for the fourth line. They have played together for most of the last three seasons. There are no mysteries between the three.
They may not have the hands or vision of their top-tier counterparts, but the fourth-liners are ruthless, relentless, and intelligent.
For example, when Paille was first on the puck in the corner prior to the winner, Campbell knew he had to jam up against the left-side wall to support his wingman. Or when Paille wheeled the puck behind the net to look for Boychuk, Thornton and Campbell accelerated to the front of the net instead of waiting to see what their left wing would do.
Other linemates might have a split second of hesitation. Not the Bruins’ hard hats.
“We definitely can read off each other,” Thornton said. “I don’t think too much out there because of just seeing what they do for the last 2½, three years. I think it definitely helps, not having to think. We just feed off each other.”
The Bruins needed every drop of that chemistry to squeeze out a one-goal win. Lundqvist was leaky in Games 1 and 2.
But he was no such thing in Game 3. Lundqvist was back to his difference-making best through two shutout periods. He foiled first-period breakaways by Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin. In the second, Lundqvist snatched back a Campbell goal by gloving the center’s shot.
The Bruins would have had better luck busting through bumper-to-bumper crosstown traffic than pushing a puck through the New York netminder. At the same time, the Rangers erected their usual shot-blocking barricade in front of Lundqvist.
“He’s such a good goalie,” Boychuk said. “There’s a reason why he’s one of the best goalies every year. He did a good job tonight. He robbed us a couple times.”
At the other end, the Rangers solved Rask at 3:53 of the second. It took two rare Patrice Bergeron misplays for New York to grab a 1-0 lead.
Bergeron lost a defensive-zone draw to Derek Stepan, who pulled the puck back to Ryan McDonagh. Rask turned back McDonagh’s point shot. Bergeron was first to the rebound, but he didn’t put enough muscle behind his backhand clearing attempt. McDonagh picked off Bergeron’s backhander and looked for another shot on goal.
At the same time, Taylor Pyatt bullied his way to the front of the net. The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound Pyatt gained position on Dougie Hamilton. When McDonagh let a wrister fly, Pyatt was positioned perfectly to tip the defenseman’s shot past Rask (23 saves), giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
The Bruins, however, were the ones to gain life after Pyatt’s goal. They didn’t have the center-ice speed they had in Games 1 and 2, but the Bruins shoved the Rangers around deep in the offensive zone and along the walls.
They were down by a goal on the scoreboard after two periods. But in their minds, they were pushing hard.
“We played within the system and had very few breakdowns,” Campbell said. “We didn’t want to be discouraged after two periods. Lundqvist was on his game tonight. He was playing extremely well. It was going to be not a pretty goal through traffic or a rebound. Something of the like. It came down to being a 60-minute game.”
Because of that, the brittle Rangers are down to their final 60 minutes of 2013. The Bruins have no intentions of giving them a second more.