The Bruins had a message for the Lightning: ‘We’re a good hockey club’
One whack was not enough.
Louis Domingue wound up and smashed the crossbar, but found his goalie stick unsatisfactorily in one piece. He reared back in a rage and slammed his paddle on the post, shattering the twig in two.
It was the only recourse for the Tampa Bay goalie, whose sangfroid finally abandoned him in the third period of a 60-minute onslaught. Boston’s 4-1 win over the Lightning on Thursday was a shocker, given the Bolts’ season-long dominance over the rest of the league.
After raining hammers on Tampa, the Bruins (38-17-9) were quick to note the visitors were playing back-to-back, and their third game in four nights. They are now merely 17 points back of the Lightning in the Eastern Conference, and not up, 1-0, in a playoff series.
But the Bruins, who have taken points in their last 15 games (11-0-4) and haven’t lost in regulation since Jan. 19, snapped Tampa’s 10-game winning streak, and won the first meeting in NHL history between teams on 14-game point runs.
That alone says the Bruins, who face the Lightning twice more in the final two weeks of the regular season, are eager for a potential postseason rematch.
“We’re playing for a little more than they are right now,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “But I do believe we wanted to put our best foot forward. It’s the team that knocked us out last year. I wouldn’t say a message [sent], but we wanted to let them know that we’re a good hockey club as well. And we’ve changed a little since the last time we’ve seen them.”
The Bruins are a different club than the one that bowed out, 4-1, to Tampa in the second round. It is too early to know whether the major changes — winger Marcus Johansson in, Rick Nash out; center Charlie Coyle in, Riley Nash out — are enough to beat the Bolts, or whoever else rises in the East.
The foundation of this team, however, is as rock-solid as it gets.
Stars like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (both of whom scored on Thursday), David Krejci, and Torey Krug (two assists) are driving the bus. Young players, like sophomores Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk (goal), and Danton Heinen (two assists) have found their games. Pluggers like Noel Acciari (goal) and his bottom-six mates more than pull their weight. The defense, with Tuukka Rask (13-0-3, 1.92, .931 in his last 16) at the forefront, is one of the league’s stingiest.
“Some of our guys are a little more battle-tested,” Cassidy offered. “That’s probably the biggest difference.”
They proved it Thursday by rolling up a 41-21 shot advantage and, despite Domingue’s stellar work, kept hacking until the dam broke. Three third-period goals, in a span of 88 seconds, had Domingue stick-busting frustrated after Marchand tucked a cheeky breakaway backhand between his pads.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said the Bruins “overwhelmed” his club, which leads the league in points, goals for, power play, penalty kill, and is fifth in goals allowed.
The Bruins outshot the Bolts, 17-4, in the first period, when they fired 29 times on net to Tampa’s 12. They got an early lift from David Backes, who took exception to Adam Erne’s cross-checks, dropped the gloves with the fourth-line winger 2:54 in, and scored a decisive win. It was the first time in Backes’s 13-year career he has fought in consecutive games.
After Boston killed a Zdeno Chara cross-checking minor, allowing that vaunted power play zero shots, DeBrusk earned a post-penalty kill breakaway chance on Domingue with a poke-check, then put the B’s on the power play by taking a Victor Hedman whack in front.
He caught Torey Krug’s long outlet at the blue line, then zipped it toward the net, looking for a Marchand tip. Instead, Tampa defenseman Anton Stralman deflected it through the wickets of Domingue at 8:43 of the second. The energetic winger has seven goals and 12 points in his last eight games.
“Right now, there’s not many guys that can catch him,” Cassidy said. “If he gets a little step and a guy has a pivot, he’s gone.”
The Bruins poured it on in a fully dominant second period, extending their shots lead to 32-9 after 40 minutes. Tampa had little presence offensively. The Bruins had chance after chance, thanks to confident play in the neutral zone and gaffes by the gassed Lightning.
Tampa’s top line, including the NHL’s top scorer Nikita Kucherov, hemmed in Boston’s fourth line to start the third period. That bumped Tampa’s shot total up to 10. At the other end, Boston changed its lines while maintaining possession in the offensive zone, and Domingue produced a “save of the year” candidate by snatching a Joakim Nordstrom doorstep try with his glove.
But a full-shielded Acciari, who spent some of the previous day in a dentist’s chair after taking a puck to the mouth, crashed the net for a goal at 11:47 of the second. Bergeron snapped home a feed from Heinen some 45 seconds later. Splinters flew after Marchand’s breakaway with 13:15 left.
These clubs will face off twice in the last seven games, in Tampa on March 25 and a regular-season finale April 6 in Boston. Then come playoffs, when they could — should? — meet again.
“We haven’t played a game like this in a while against an opponent like that, but it’s still no excuse,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We were definitely on our heels tonight. They played well. You’ve got to give them credit.”