SUNRISE, Fla. — In a wild third period with seven goals, four lead changes and three ties, Jake DeBrusk gave the Bruins a lead with a shorthanded strike.
With 9:36 to go, the Bruins were in position to take the series.
Why couldn’t they lock it down?
“It was a great hockey game,” coach Jim Montgomery said. “I mean, wow. That’s what the Stanley Cup playoffs are about, right? Back and forth all night long.
“But to answer your question, it was that kind of game. Teams were making great plays offensively. We do have to clean up a couple things.”
Boy, do they. Or this remarkable, record-setting season will end Sunday, at TD Garden, in a catastrophic Game 7 upset. (The game is set to start at 6:30 p.m.)
The underdog Panthers, the last seed in the playoffs, earned the right to play in that game against the 65-win, 135-point Bruins with their 7-5 win on Friday night at FLA Live Arena.
“I want to enjoy the hell out it,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
They will, if the Bruins keep coughing up the puck and neglecting to cover the front of their net. They absolutely will if rubber keeps rattling off Linus Ullmark, who allowed six goals on 32 shots (.813 save percentage), including four at even strength.
Montgomery said he considered the hook for Ullmark, who started his sixth game in a row after rotating with Jeremy Swayman nearly the entire season.
The coach was more concerned about the play in front of his netminder, as he saw Ullmark hung out to dry. He said Ullmark was screened by Brandon Carlo’s knee when Brandon Montour scored the first of Florida’s seven at 2:01 of the first period, the defenseman given oodles of time to load up a wrister during a four-on-three power play.
Montgomery was not concerned about fatigue or injury, even though Ullmark has rested twice during morning skates, the most recent before Game 6.
“I think Linus is fine,” Montgomery said. “I looked at him in the eyes a few times when he came back to the bench, and I liked the way his eyes were looking. He looked intense. He looked keen.”
The chorus echoed down the hall, in the visitors’ room.
“We have the utmost confidence in him,” DeBrusk said of the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner. “He’s been the reason why we’ve had so much successes this year. It’s not even a question.”
Montgomery didn’t make a change, he said, because he believed the Bruins were going to pull out a win, as they had so many times during the regular season.
“We’re learning in the playoffs that it’s a different animal,” Montgomery said. “It just is.”
His initial point about the game being a thriller, by the way, was accurate. This might have been the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat game of the 2023 playoffs to date. The Bruins’ defensive mistakes, however, were a large reason why.
Connor Clifton, making his return to the series after three games off, committed the most egregious of Boston’s six first-period giveaways. He threw an outlet pass to no one, one shift after taking a charging penalty. On the resulting two on one, Matthew Tkachuk buried a rebound for a 2-1 Florida lead at 13:52 of the first.
It got worse.
But quickly, some good news: The Bruins’ top players have made their mark on this series.
After a quiet start to the series, David Pastrnak scored twice, including a jaw-dropping power-play goal to make it a 2-2 game at 5:42 of the second period, on which he tucked the puck between his legs and threw it top shelf with his back to Panthers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky (29 saves).
Pastrnak called it instinct. He just tried to shoot quickly. If uncovered, he figured, he might place a shot that well one out of every 10 tries.
“It’s been a hard series. It’s going to be another hard game,” Pastrnak said of Game 7. “We’ve been prepping for this kind of game all season long. We have to be excited to play this kind of game.”
Brad Marchand (four assists) surged into the team lead in scoring (4-6—10). And Tyler Bertuzzi, who scored a greasy goal early to tie the score at 1 and launched a rocket to make it 3-3 at 1:32 of the third, was an offensive dynamo.
Bertuzzi, up to 4-5—9 this series, also assisted when the Bruins took their first lead, 4-3 at 3:53 of the third, with a blind, backhand pass to Pastrnak on the power play.
But the Bruins’ mistakes were brutal. They left AHL call-up Zac Dalpe, 33, alone in front to score his first career playoff goal at 7:21 of the third for a 4-4 tie. After DeBrusk’s go-ahead shorty, Matthew Tkachuk had space 27 seconds later to stuff his second of the night past Ullmark (5-5 at 10:49).
When Clifton failed on a clearing attempt, Ullmark couldn’t stop Eetu Luostarinen’s go-ahead snipe that made it 6-5 at 14:22. Sam Reinhart banked home a long empty-netter with 28 seconds left for the final score.
The Bruins lost a third-period lead only five times in their previous 87 games.
“Obviously, it was tough,” Bertuzzi said. “That’s on us to hold it and play simple and smart.”
They believe they can — and will — reach the Panthers’ level of desperation in Game 7.
“We owe it to our fans,” Bertuzzi said.
Pastrnak said the next steps were simple: “Regroup, get back home, get in front of our fans, and get a ‘dub.’ "
It’s every kid’s dream to play in a Game 7, he added.
After this dream of a Bruins season, it feels like a drawn-out nightmare.