TAMPA — The never-a-doubt, never-out-of-it Bruins had two comebacks in them on Thursday night, but not three.
In a battle of two of the NHL’s best, the Lightning’s 3-2 win was delivered by defenseman Victor Hedman, who scored the winning goal at 13:19 of the third period.
It came after a speedy rush from Brayden Point, who shot through the Bruins’ defense. Hedman fired into an open net after defenseman Brandon Carlo lost his balance and bowled over netminder Linus Ullmark.
“Physical mistakes we never worry about, it’s mental mistakes,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. He then pointed to one of his own, saying he hadn’t prepared his team properly for Tampa Bay’s fast-paced breakout.
Ullmark (32 saves) was able to stop most everything else. He went down as the hard-luck loser in a duel with Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 37 saves and all but stole the first two periods.
“I thought [Ullmark] made a lot of saves look easy,” Montgomery said. “Vasilevskiy played great, too. He made a lot of high-quality saves. It was a playoff-type game.”
The Bruins (38-6-4) had won their previous six games by a combined 25-7 score, were 10-1 in their last 11, and were 9-0-1 in their last 10 road games. They also beat the Lightning (31-15-1) in two prior meetings this season.
“They got a lucky goal on that third one. We made a couple mistakes,” said Brad Marchand, who made it 1-1 with a wicked snap shot late in the second period. “They’re a good team. You make mistakes, they’re going to capitalize. That’s a hell of a team over there.”
Another unfortunate crash involving a Bruins defenseman came in the opening minute of the third period. The Bruins lost Charlie McAvoy after he slid hard into the end boards, then allowed the go-ahead goal on the ensuing faceoff.
Until McAvoy’s surprise return, it looked like the worst two seconds of the Bruins’ season.
McAvoy, upended during a puck race with Brandon Hagel, was down for some 30 seconds after apparently hitting his left shoulder/collarbone area. Once McAvoy labored off the ice, Nikita Kucherov beat Ullmark with a snap shot from the slot at 0:58 of the period, directly after David Krejci lost the draw cleanly to Steven Stamkos.
But officials missed a clear violation, since a replay showed Stamkos smacked away Krejci’s stick before the puck touched the ice.
“I’ve been kicked out for that many times,” Krejci said. “I don’t want to accuse the ref. That’s how I felt. But I haven’t seen it yet.”
But the Czech Mates atoned.
David Pastrnak dangled through the slot and was in danger of overpassing — as Krejci conceded they were guilty of a few times on Thursday — but Krejci smartly shifted Pastrnak’s short dish to Pavel Zacha. He hammered home the tying goal at 2:24 of the third.
“We wanted to get it back really badly,” Krejci said. “Try to be better at creating those chances next game, and I guess make it a little more simple.”
The Bruins will be off Friday before facing the Panthers at 6 p.m. Saturday in Sunrise.
Breaking through against Vasilevskiy’s force field, the Bruins overcame an early deficit and first knotted the game at 16:58 of the second.
In a four-on-four situation, the Bruins executed a clean line change while keeping possession high in the offensive zone. McAvoy and Pastrnak jumped off. Connor Clifton and Marchand jumped on.
Clifton drew Hedman out high, heard Marchand screaming for the puck, and beat the defenseman’s check with a backhand slip. Marchand, streaking off the bench, had Stamkos in front of him, not the 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound Hedman. Marchand fired an icebound dart through a Stamkos screen that beat Vasilevskiy to the far corner of the net.
“I told Pasta, that’s an incredible change by him,” Marchand said. “Little surprised he changed. In the O-zone, four on four, that’s where he thrives. Very, very unselfish by him to come off.”
Vasilevskiy was otherwise immense, stopping a Zacha break-in, a Krejci chance off a turnover, a blocker denial of a Patrice Bergeron one-timer, and Matt Grzelcyk’s walk-in chances from the left and right wings.
Ullmark’s highlight reel included a left pad stop on a Point break-in, a shorthanded Stamkos one-timer from the slot, and early in the first, a robbery of Anthony Cirelli from between the hashes. After closing his pads on a Stamkos redirect, Ullmark left for an extra skater with about two minutes left, but the Bruins couldn’t tie it.
The Bruins went down at 10:42 of the first after Marchand’s high-sticking penalty. It was easy to diagnose the issue: The Bruins’ high-pressure penalty kill saw Carlo and Derek Forbort bunch together near Point and Kucherov. That left winger Brandon Hagel in front for a tuck.
Emotions ran high in the first after veteran agitator Corey Perry threw an elbow to the face of Clifton, as the Bruins defenseman was spinning from a Zach Bogosian hit. Clifton cross-checked Perry from behind, and when the two dropped the gloves, Clifton pounded a player some 4 inches and 20 pounds larger, and 10 years his senior.
“They were letting a lot go,” Clifton said. “One for one. We squared it away.”
The teams remained hot, with several post-whistle scrums. The crowd was electric, too, a blender of black and gold and blue. For most of 60 minutes, the fans tried to outdo each other with dueling “Let’s go Bruins” and “Let’s go Lightning” chants, call and response, louder and louder.
It would be a highly intense, highly skilled playoff series. They’ll next meet March 25 on Causeway Street.
Matt Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.