DETROIT — In overtime, David Krejci, Jarome Iginla, and Milan Lucic strapped on their boots and their hard hats. Then they went to work.
Krejci and Iginla battled against Drew Miller and Niklas Kronwall along the left wall deep in the offensive zone. They cycled. They fought. Finally, Iginla pried the puck free and scraped it off the boards. After some more cycling between Lucic and Iginla, Krejci controlled the puck along the wall.
Krejci spotted Dougie Hamilton open at the right point. But the musclemen didn’t stop grinding. Iginla engaged Miller in the slot. Lucic broke for the front of the net and gained position on Danny DeKeyser.
Hamilton ripped off a shot. Iginla tipped it. The puck glanced off DeKeyser’s left leg. Then it bounced past Jonas Gustavsson at 13:32 of overtime, giving the Bruins a 3-2 win Thursday night and a 3-1 series lead.
It was a whole lot of ugly. For the Bruins, it couldn’t have been more beautiful.
“We had a good shift,” Iginla said. “I thought we had a little bit of zone time, some plays, some rotations, some corner battles. Krech made a nice pass over to Dougie. I was just going to the net and Looch was already in front of the net, battling with one of their guys. I was just trying to get a stick on it and tip it.”
Everything fell into place for the first-line forwards. They made plays. They went to the right areas.
But above all, they worked their tails off. Considering their assets, that’s usually good enough to swing in the top line’s favor.
There are not many players who can handle the thickness and straight-line speed of Lucic and Iginla. Certainly not mobile, puck-moving defensemen such as DeKeyser and Kyle Quincey, who’ve seen most of the ice time against the No. 1 line. Krejci always jacks up the bite in his playoff game to complement his skill.
But the Bruins were down by two goals in Game 4, partly because the first-liners were playing the parts of ghosts. Through 40 minutes, they combined to put a mere two pucks on Gustavsson — not even close to good enough.
The big boys never had the puck. They burned their gas chasing opponents instead of driving their teeth through the glass. On the few occasions they managed the puck well, they didn’t cycle. They didn’t grind. They were irrelevant. If not for Rask’s game-saving play in the first period, the Wings could have pulled ahead by a handful of goals.
“We’ve got some big guys that can hang onto the puck a little bit more than we did in the first period,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “We weren’t managing the puck well. The play kept on going back and forth, and that certainly goes in their favor.”
Even worse, the Wings picked the first line apart for their second goal. After Kronwall ripped a shot off the end boards, Krejci couldn’t clear the zone. Kronwall beat Lucic to the loose puck, then tried to hit Pavel Datsyuk with a cross-ice pass. Kronwall’s dish hit traffic in front, but Krejci failed to clear the puck once more. An instant later, Kronwall peeled around the net and hit Datsyuk at the back door. At 4:27 of the second, Detroit had grabbed a 2-0 lead.
“As a line as far as production goes, it definitely hasn’t been the best series for us,” Lucic said. “Going into the third period, we talked about being better, trying to impose our will, and trying to take the game over.”
Krejci and Co. didn’t panic. They’d been in far stickier situations. Being down, 2-0, in the second period of Game 4 is nothing like nearly driving off the cliff against Toronto last year in Game 7.
They are also high-pedigree players. Such talent doesn’t stay dormant for very long. All they had to do was settle into their game. They did just that.
The Bruins managed the puck. They bricked up the neutral zone to prevent the Wings from using their speed and skill. In the offensive zone, they flexed their biceps in the dirty areas.
And like big-moment players often do, Lucic scored a critical goal to reward his team for its hard work. At 1:15 of the third, Lucic barreled into Gustavsson’s office. Hard net-front drive usually leads to good things. Lucic was in the right spot to take Carl Soderberg’s clever dish and jam the puck past Gustavsson.
“You want to get better as the series goes on,” Lucic said. “We were able to do that in the third period as a line. We were in the position last year, winning overtime in Game 4 in Toronto. We all know what happened after that. We’re not taking anything for granted. We all know how hard it is to close out a series. We know how desperate they’re going be going into Saturday.”
A team’s best players know when to elevate their play — late in games and late in series.
These are the critical shifts and most important games. In the third period and overtime, Lucic landed four shots on goal compared with the lonely one he recorded through 40 minutes. Iginla landed two shots and had three more blocked by the Wings.
When they’re on their game, the Bruins are relentless. They roll shift after stubborn shift until they’ve chewed up the offensive zone with their hard-digging skates. There is no unit that does this better than the No. 1 line. They saved their best and most committed work for last.