The Bruins’ second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in three seasons became a fait accompli at 12:13 a.m. Thursday, thanks to a Patrice Bergeron strike at 15:19 of double overtime that turned Pittsburgh’s best performance of the Eastern Conference finals into its worst nightmare.
Amid the elation on Causeway Street, where 17,565 crazies hooted, hollered, and shooed away the ghost of Petr Klima, the Penguins were left with the harsh, if not impossible, reality of a 3-0 series deficit. They have a chance to extend the series Friday night, but the best-of-seven set is essentially over, thanks to Bergeron’s closing goal and a stellar 53-save, 95:19 performance by Tuukka Rask.
“That was a hard-fought game,’’ said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “Hard fought all over the ice. We threw a lot at them . . . 50-plus shots . . . we just couldn’t get the second goal.’’
And what now?
“Do it again,’’ said a somber Bylsma. “We regroup and play just like that again.’’
Had they played like that from the start of the series, the Penguins might still have a chance to knock off their Black-and-Gold brethren. But it took them until Wednesday night, Game 3, to recover from two poorly played games in their own rink finally to look like worthy contenders.
The better effort aside, the Penguins now have scored but two goals in nearly 11 periods. The most powerful offensive machine through the first two rounds, averaging more than four goals a game, the Penguins have averaged a meager 0.67 goals in the conference finals.
Perhaps worse, the Penguins have yet to lead for a single second in the series. They’ve given up the first goal in each of the first three games, and Wednesday night, with Chris Kunitz’s goal at 8:51 of the second period, was the only time they’ve been able to erase Boston’s advantage. They have gone from bad to better, and Game 3 had them in a much better place, improved frame of mind. They battled for pucks. They received solid goaltending from Tomas Vokoun. But they still lost.
“A hard-fought game by both sides,’’ Bylsma repeated. “A very good response by our team.’’
But they’ll remember the series most for how they bollixed the start. In Game 1, frustrated by Rask and some bad luck around the net through the first two periods, they veered far away from their game plan and picked unnecessary battles (with Evgeni Malkin taking on Bergeron in a featured bout) en route to a 3-0 loss.
In Game 2, they spent the night running all over the Consol Energy Center, intent on banging and bruising the Bruins, as if trying to prove they could make the varsity cut in the Heavy Man’s League. And what did it get them? A 4-1 deficit by the end of the first period, and eventually a 6-1 loss. Now they’re holding an E-Z Pass to summer vacation.
The ending carried a touch of irony with it. The goal was made possible by some fine work by Jaromir Jagr along the left wall.
“We don’t get that goal,’’ said Bergeron, “if he doesn’t make that play.’’
Jagr would not be sporting the big B on his chest if Jarome Iginla, who has done next to nothing in the series, had not turned down his chance to come here when the Flames agreed to trade him to the Bruins at the deadline. Iginla instead opted to join his pal Sidney Crosby on the team virtually everyone considered the favorite to win the Cup. Short of a booster shot, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli then turned to Dallas to acquire Jagr in a trade that ultimately cost the Bruins a first-round draft pick.
Iginla is still waiting for his first point in this series. Jagr, after going 0-0—0 in six games, picked up two assists in Game 2, and then made the key play on Bergeron’s winner.
Battling along the wall, Jagr initially lost the puck to Malkin, very near center ice in the area near both benches. But as Malkin made a first stride to rush toward Rask, the long arm of Jagr law reached back and filched the puck away from the Russian master.
Jagr then quickly headmanned the puck to a breaking Brad Marchand, who then bolted down the wing with defenseman Deryk Engelland backing up toward his net. Meanwhile, Bergeron was barrelling down the middle, with ex-Boston College Eagle Brooks Orpik wrapping him up middle linebacker style in a play more commonly seen some 30 miles southwest in Foxborough.
“First of all,’’ said Bergeron, “a great play by Jagr to dig the puck on the wall. He just kept fighting and got the loose puck to Marshy. And then, we have that chemistry.’’
It’s spatial awareness, a shared mental telepathy, that linemates craft over time, during practices, in games, on flights in and out of the next city and game. Marchand and Bergeron are joined at the hip and stick. Marchand carried down the side and looked for his center, with Engelland left with nothing to do but to flash an ineffective stick check Marchand’s way.
The pass came across untouched and Bergeron, with the 6-foot-2-inch Orpik draped on him like a 44-large jacket, angled his stick toward Vokoun and directed the puck into the net. Game over. One more win and the Bruins will face either the Blackhawks or Kings in the Final.
“I just had the stick on the ice and he found me,’’ said Bergeron, fast becoming a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.
Now the Penguins are down to zero, the no-tolerance zone. They have to win Friday, then win three in a row.
“I think if we play the same way we are going to get our chances,’’ mused Crosby. “I thought we generated more scoring chances than them, and I thought we deserved better.’’
Maybe. Above all, they owed themselves a better start early in the series. Based on their haltering start, they’ve probably gotten exactly what they deserved.