PITTSBURGH — Prior to Game 1, Claude Julien had only one decision to make. The Bruins coach had to choose whether to keep Matt Bartkowski, the Pittsburgh homeboy, in the lineup, or replace the rookie with Andrew Ference.
Ference, who hadn’t played since Game 5 against Toronto because of an injured left foot, was in the lineup. Bartkowski, steady through Ference’s absence, was out.
“He’s an experienced defenseman,” Julien said. “He’s been through the battles. I thought the way he practiced this week, he could certainly be a guy that could step in, and he did just that.”
In hindsight, Julien made the right call. On the winning goal in the Bruins’ 3-0 Game 1 victory, Ference was at the center of the action.
“He made the goal happen,” said Nathan Horton.
The Penguins were roaring at the start of the game. They backed off the Bruins with their offensive-zone pace. The Bruins had to turn back an early power play when David Krejci was sent off for tripping.
All that momentum halted when Ference triggered the game-winning sequence. Ference carried the puck through the neutral zone. The Penguins did nothing to halt Ference’s speed. Once Ference crossed over the offensive blue line, the defenseman wheeled the puck to Horton.
Ference never stopped skating.
He drove to the net. The Penguins had to go with him. Defenseman Paul Martin backed off to mark Ference. With Martin sagging back, space opened up for the Bruins’ creative forwards to go to work.
“He gave it to me, drove the net, and their guys back off,” Horton said. “I think two guys came to me and Dave was wide open. I just tried to get it to him.”
Horton fed Krejci on the left side. Martin hit the deck to block Krejci’s shot. Martin got a piece of it, but the puck kept going. Tomas Vokoun squeezed his pads, but not hard enough. Krejci’s shot slipped by Vokoun at 8:23 to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
Bartkowski had done everything his bosses asked of him. But Ference has playoff experience and the savvy to play solid defense against powerful attacks. Julien needed the steady Ference to play alongside Johnny Boychuk on the second pairing. For most of Game 1, Julien rolled out Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, his ace shutdown tandem, against Pittsburgh’s No. 2 line of Jarome Iginla, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal. The Bruins had to have Ference’s presence to play against Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, and Pascal Dupuis.
“It was a pretty last-minute decision,” Ference said. “We weren’t trying to pull any fast ones. I think Coach just wanted a good, honest take on what he saw in practices. He made the call when he had all the right information.”
Krejci’s first goal was all the Bruins needed. For that, they had Tuukka Rask and his posts to thank.
Rask stopped all 29 shots he saw en route to his first career playoff shutout. Rask was spectacular early when the Penguins pushed the hardest. Pittsburgh ripped off 12 shots in the first period. In the final seconds, Malkin tapped a close-range backhander that slid just wide right of the cage.
“We got caught into a run-and-gun game,” said Julien. “I think we all know we’re not a team that does well in those run-and-gun games.”
In the second period, both Kunitz and Malkin struck iron. Amid the firestorm, Rask remained icy as he foiled the Penguins repeatedly.
“He was outstanding,” Seidenberg said. “He scrambled hard for the rebounds when they got to them. He just kept us out in front the whole game. It’s nice to have him in the back.”
The Bruins, scrambly in the defensive zone to start, settled by the third period. The Penguins should have sent their most desperate wave in the final 20 minutes. Instead, the Bruins limited Pittsburgh to seven shots. Chara (26:32 of ice time) and Seidenberg (24:38) led the defensive charge.
The same could not be said of the Penguins. The Pittsburgh defense sprang leaks in the third to allow the game to get out of reach.
Mark Eaton controlled the puck in the defensive zone on the left-side boards. But Eaton was overwhelmed by Horton’s hunger for the puck. After Horton won the battle, he fed Krejci for a shot. Krejci’s initial attempt struck Vokoun’s shoulder and popped into the air. Krejci barreled over defenseman Kris Letang and bumped in the rebound at 4:04 to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead.
The Bruins completed their attack at 7:51 of the third. Vokoun turned back the Bruins’ initial wave. But Gregory Campbell scooped up the puck along the wall. With Letang and Matt Niskanen chasing the puck, Milan Lucic was left alone in front of the net. Lucic couldn’t handle Campbell’s pass, but Horton was in position to blast the puck home.
The Pittsburgh offense, on fire at the start, faded at the finish.
“The latter 35 minutes of the game, we got away a little bit from our execution,” said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “We brought pucks back and tried to make plays through the neutral zone. They had all five guys back. We weren’t able to get through that.”