For a game that felt like a marathon and a sprint all at once, it was a sprint that made all the difference, an all-out dash to the puck that casts Craig Smith as a playoff hockey hero.
There was Smith in the second overtime of the Bruins-Capitals Game 3 Wednesday night, streaking toward the idling puck with the energy of a first-period shift, as if bursting out of the starting blocks to a finish line located behind the Capitals goal. It was there that Washington goaltender Ilya Samsonov had left the puck, thinking his defenseman, Justin Schultz, would be by to pick it up. But it was Smith who would get there first, ahead of Schultz and before Samsonov would get back in his net.
One wraparound goal later and the Bruins were exploding off their bench, the jubilation of a 3-2 win and a 2-1 series lead temporarily reviving their exhausted bodies, even while it left the rest of us puddles of our own nervous sweat.
That’s three straight playoff games and three straight overtimes now for these oh-so-familiar foes (and 12 straight postseason games decided by one goal, extending an NHL record, for those keeping count). When the Bruins and Capitals arrange a playoff date, a long night of hockey awaits. But here’s the thing: As nerve-racking as that might be, we are all better for it.
Drained and wrung out, but better, too. Better for the experience of watching sports at its most intense, for the chance to enjoy hockey at its playoff finest, for the privilege of seeing in real time how these games are won and lost on the biggest of hits and the smallest of details.
Forget a best-of-seven. These games make you wish this one was a best-of-nine.
We kid, we kid. Our hearts couldn’t take it.
When one of the postgame questions to Bruce Cassidy described the series as “razor thin,” the Bruins coach couldn’t help but agree.
“You’re watching it,” he said. “There’s not a lot to pick from. Special teams have been fairly even. The five-on-five play, pockets go their way, pockets go our way, the momentum swings. That’s playoff hockey. Who can get out of it, get back to their game, that’s the key. Who can build on their game and get better. I think we’re starting to see that out of our group. I think we’ve gotten progressively better.
“I think we’d say that Game 1 was our least effective. We stayed in it. They’d probably say Game 2 or 3 was their least effective, but they’ve stayed in it. I don’t think it’s going to change. It’s going to be close games and you’ve got to be comfortable playing in them. Players have to know, the little things matter, the details, and we’ve got to make sure we stick to ours.”
Details such as avoiding bad penalties so they don’t lead to power-play goals, a mistake that bit both sides of the equation Wednesday, but managed to do so in a fashion commensurate with the drama of the night. Brad Marchand was the first offender, his ridiculous decision to put his stick blade near the head of another player, this time Brenden Dillon, costing him two minutes in the box. Alex Ovechkin made him pay, his second-period power-play goal finally cracking a scoreless night and giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead.
The lead would last all of 56 seconds (more on that in a minute), but even after the Capitals pushed their advantage to 2-1, karma gave Marchand a second chance. The hero of Game 2 would come up big once again, tying this game at 2-all with a third-period power-play goal, an opportunity earned when the Capitals’ Nic Dowd decided to high-stick Charlie McAvoy long after a play and well away from the action.
The action in between was wild and brutal and dramatic and intense — everything that makes hockey the perfect postseason sport.
McAvoy getting sent over the boards and Nick Ritchie returning the favor on his behalf a few shifts later. Tuukka Rask getting his helmet knocked off his head and paying that back with a few blows of his own, using his blocker like a boxing glove in the scrum clogging his crease.
There was the penalty call on Zdeno Chara that was cheered lustily by the TD Garden crowd, one more potent reminder the former captain is the enemy now. And the rising chants of enmity at the real Capitals Enemy No. 1, Tom Wilson, the primary target for all the pent-up energy of those locals lucky enough to be inside the building waving their yellow towels.
There’s the continually growing legend of McAvoy, whose motor, energy, physicality, and relentlessness powered the Bruins’ engine all night and the ongoing artistry of Ovechkin, whose fiery competitiveness could be seen as he smashed his stick at game’s end as well as when he jawed at his own young teammate, Samsonov, whose mistake led to the winning goal.
And let’s not forget the exponentially emerging confidence of Taylor Hall, the man so singularly responsible for keeping that initial Capitals lead so short-lived, his ability to take a pass from Smith and then spin, flick, and lift the puck past Samsonov all the reminder you need this guy was once the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
And then there was Smith, whose sprint to finish a marathon night provided the most dramatic moment of all.
“My first priority is to get a stick on a puck, the defenseman was just far enough away to give me time to get in there and get it,” he said. “It just worked out.”
There were stretches it felt like that might not happen Wednesday, like when the Bruins had a 17-5 shot advantage in the first overtime with nothing to show for it, or when they opened the second OT with similar dominance that was going nowhere. One fluke the wrong way and all their work would have been for naught. It had been 707 days since the Bruins hosted a home playoff game, from the heartbreak of a Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss through the heartache of a pandemic that moved the tournament into a bubble.
They finally got to come home, and with in the span of one night, won both the marathon and the sprint.
- Craig Smith pounced on a golden opportunity to give the Bruins a double-overtime victory in Game 3
- On Hockey: Capitals rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov made exactly the kind of mistake you worry about in the playoffs
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.