The Bruins, masters of the NHL’s regular-season class, flat-out flunked puck management and defensive-zone coverage Friday night in Sunrise, Fla., and now they’ll take their failing hands and Cup hopes into a decisive Game 7 Sunday at the Garden vs. the Panthers.
The customarily sure-handed Bruins, after finally moving out to a 5-4 lead on Jake DeBrusk’s shorthanded goal in the third, twice botched chances to work the puck out of their own end, resulting in goals by Matt Tkachuk and Eetu Luostarinen that proved the gateway to Florida’s 7-5 victory.
The first of those strikes, Tkachuk canning the 5-5 equalizer at 10:49, had coach Jim Montgomery as mad as he’s been all season behind the Black and Gold bench. His fiery ire, on display for television cameras, clearly was directed at his charges, the first-year Boston coach irate they failed to move the puck out of the zone and protect the lead.
Only 3:33 later, Luostarinen struck for the game-winner, the happy recipient of a Connor Clifton bank pass off the left wall that, once again, failed to get out of the zone. Luostarinen, with help from Brandon Montour, curled in from high in the zone and nailed the winner by Linus Ullmark.
“We’re learning here in the playoffs, you know, it’s a different animal,” said Montgomery. “It just is.”
The Bruins, who left Sunrise Sunday night with a 3-1 series lead, have lost two games in a row for only a second time this season. They have trailed at the 40:00 mark the last two games — the first time that has happened since Feb. 11 and 14.
DeBrusk’s goal for the 5-4 lead, which lasted all of 27 seconds, initially appeared as if it would be the series closer for the Bruins. Until their hands crumbled like sand castles in the Atlantic’s late afternoon tidal wash.
“I thought it was more what Florida was doing,” noted Montgomery, collected and calm after the storm. “And us not winning races to our net, not protecting the slot. You have to give credit to Florida. What a determined group, you know, to force a Game 7 here.”
▪ As the inevitable ending played out, Ullmark looked slower and slower, be it from fatigue or the added weight and pressure of the game/series.
Either way, he wasn’t sharp, which had Montgomery hinting at a possible move to Jeremy Swayman for Game 7. Keep in mind, he hinted at that a couple of times earlier in the series, only to run Ullmark out there.
Montgomery added that he considered yanking Ullmark during the game, but felt confident enough to leave him in there. That’s a twist.
“They hemmed us,” lamented Montgomery. “And we didn’t protect our net front like we usually do.”
▪ The Bruins appeared to have their first lead in two games with 8:28 gone in the second, on what would have been their first goal by a defenseman (Brandon Carlo) in the series.
But … forensics.
An alert Florida video crew noticed that Jake DeBrusk, on his knees in the right-wing corner, subtly touched the puck with a gloved hand before Patrice Bergeron swooped in for the pickup. Brad Marchand then made a relay to Carlo in the right-wing circle. Carlo fired through a screen and the puck was in the net. Bruins, 3-2.
The play went to review per request of the Panthers bench. Sure enough, it was ruled an illegal hand pass, although it was an inconsequential touch more than a pass. No matter, the goal was wiped off the board for DeBrusk’s violation.
A picayune ruling, a nitpick, and not really the spirit of the law.
“It was like my fingertip or something,” said DeBrusk. “You know, it is what it is. They obviously looked at it and called it what it was.
But them’s the breaks.
Only 54 seconds later (you could all but set your clock for this one), Aleksander Barkov got under Charlie McAvoy at the left post and knocked home Anthony Duclair’s backdoor feed.
Panthers, 3-2, on a sequence torn straight from the old Montreal Forum Book of Boston Horrors.
▪ The decision to swap Clifton in for Matt Grzelcyk on the back line looked suspect in the first.
The harder-hitting Clifton was tagged with a charging minor at 9:55 of the first. The Bruins successfully burned off the two minutes, only to have Clifton log a big boo-boo on his very next shift, giving away the puck under no pressure as he tried to advance from his own zone.
The Panthers, harder on pucks and faster all over the ice, cashed in Clifton’s mistake for the 2-1 lead at 13:52. Tkachuk, who scored the overtime game-winner on Wednesday at the Garden, cashed in the rebound on a two-on-one break, with Clifton the lone man back after the blatant giveaway.
▪ The Panthers never led in either of the first two games in their own building. They needed only 2:01 to take the lead in Game 6, connecting on a four-on-three power play less than a minute after McAvoy was whistled off for a squirrely tripping infraction, Tkachuk falling on the rear wall.
Brandon Montour beat former Sabres teammate Ullmark on the short side with a drag wrister from the left-wing circle. With ample space because of only seven skaters on the ice, it was Tkachuk who fired a low-to-high diagonal to the left circle that set up Montour.
Ullmark, who never worked with a lead in Game 5, a Garden rarity this season, appeared to have the short side sealed. But Montour’s shot beat him at the base of the left post.
Short-side goals top the list of goalie sins. Ullmark should have had it. Once again, the Bruins were playing uphill.
▪ By Montgomery’s count, his Bruins had only eight Grade A scoring chances in Game 5. Despite landing 43 shots, they simply didn’t fight to get to the tough scoring areas — a playoff lament for much of the Bruce Cassidy era, too.
The gritty Tyler Bertuzzi was all grit on the Bruins’ 1-1 equalizer with 6:09 gone in the first. Chin tucked and elbows locked, he rushed to the paint and acted as a target for Marchand’s flat-angle shot from the right side. Marchand hit the target and Bertuzzi potted his third of the postseason.
▪ One of the more promising signs for the Bruins came late in the first period when David Pastrnak landed two attempts at five-on-five, the first at 17:05, the second at 17:36. A sign that his stick finally was heating up.
Sure enough, Pasta connected for the 2-2 equalizer at 5:42 of the second, a clever power-play strike off a pass from Marchand. Pastrnak cradled the pass and beat Sergei Bobrovsky short side with a sleight-of-hand between-the-legs shovel.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.