Gary Bettman said there would be nights like these. When the league went all dark 15 years ago — locking the doors for the entire 2004-05 season chiefly to stop player salaries from rocketing into another galaxy — it was nearly impossible prior to then for teams to erase leads of two goals or more late in the game.
Those were the NHL days of the neutral-zone trap, the left-wing lock. The dead-puck era. Remember those beauties? If your favorite team was down by a goal headed into the third period, it was usually time to flip over to your favorite sitcom or cop series. Morning coffee and a game summary sufficed the next day.
Bettman, the NHL commissioner, promised better. The Lords of the Boards predicted increased scoring, less predictable finishes, action, and goals galore.
It’s a far more open, entertaining, and unpredictable game these days, even if Bruins fans wore long faces as they shuffled out of the Garden on Tuesday night. The Panthers, trailing by a 4-0 score to start the third period, roared back to stick the Bruins in the eye with 5-4 shootout win, built around goals by Aaron Ekblad, Frank “The Springfield Rifle” Vatrano, Mike Hoffman, and Keith Yandle in a span of 17:31.
Yes sir, that’s entertainment. Granted, maybe not all that enjoyable from a Black-and-Gold perspective. But entertainment nonetheless, particularly if you remember the mind-numbing, emotion-ossifying days of the left wing lock and Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Trappist Wonks.
For the record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in their nearly 100-year history that the Bruins booted away a 4-0 lead in the third period.
The closest “comp,” per ESB, came Dec. 30, 1989, in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Bruins held a comfy 6-2 lead at the 5:00 mark of the third. When it was over that night at the corner of Carlton and Church streets, the Leafs were 7-6 winners over a Mike Milbury coached team that was paced in those days by Cam Neely, Ray Bourque, and Craig Janney. Who knew they would be the harbinger of the New NHL? Way ahead of their time.
The post-lockout NHL, now 15 years on, is played at a far faster pace and with a rulebook engineered to promote puck moving, goals, and crazy comebacks. The biggest change out of the lockout was the removal of the center-ice red line. Truth is, the lack of a red line wasn’t a factor in the Bruins turning Grade-A beef into American chop suey Tuesday night. It was more a blend of Florida speed, crazy hops, penalties, one blatant non-call (Jonathan Huberdeau allowed to hogtie Patrice Bergeron in front of Tuukka Rask on the 4-4 equalizer) as well as substandard Rask netminding that sent the Panthers high-stepping down Causeway Street.
“It’s on us,” said a disappointed Zdeno Chara, captain of a team that extended its doldrums to 0-2-2 in the last four outings.
For his part, Big Z wasn’t buying into the appreciation, or perhaps the understanding, that games like Tuesday, though hardly the norm, are infinitely more possible nowadays. There would be days like these, the NHL promised. Just eight days earlier, in fact, the Bruins moved to a 3-0 lead over the Penguins at the Garden, only later to have to battle back from a 4-3 deficit to preserve the 2 points.
Obviously, the trend here is not good from a Black-and-Gold perspective. Against Pittsburgh, they proved the old adage that 3-0 is the most dangerous lead in hockey. Only eight days later against the Panthers, they did that one better. Or worse. They’re back in action Friday night in Toronto, where the sons of Bruce Cassidy could go into a 20-man death rattle if they happen to find themselves up by 5-0 at Scotiabank Arena (the old Gardens, still at the corner of Church and Carlton, is now a Loblaws supermarket).
“I’ve got to be concerned,” said Cassidy, pondering the alarming givebacks of late. “It’s a strength of our team to close out games. Having a lead going into the third period is a trademark of this team . . . so, yeah, it is a concern. Part of it is goaltending. Part of it is staying out [of the penalty box].”
To underscore his point, Cassidy quickly thumbed through the parade of horribles of how a team like the Panthers, or any team, erases a substantial deficit.
“You mismanage pucks,” he said. “You give them odd-man rushes. You take penalties and put them on the power play. We did a little bit of both. You don’t tighten up and protect the slot because typically [defensemen] are activating. If you take care of that, you are going back the other way and finish the job. We didn’t do any of that very well.”
Today’s NHL is firewagon hockey. No lead ever safe. It’s just that no one around here, especially the home audience, is accustomed to seeing the Bruins go up in smoke.
They were a tighter, more defensive-minded team for all those years under Claude Julien, but they were also very boring, the defensemen rarely jumping up into the play. When things were humming along in the first period vs. the Panthers, it was Chara — yep, the nimble 42-year-old — dancing down the left side, dishing right, then sweeping behind the Florida net to pop out from behind the right post to pot career goal No. 203.
Chara’s goal provided the 4-0 lead, and the Panthers had the Bruins right where they wanted them. The good times were about to roll . . . right over the Bruins.
“I don’t think it’s because of rules,” said Chara, asked his opinion of a more open game in 2019. “I think it’s the way teams are structurally coached and obviously it’s a different game — much faster, a skating game, with different systems, different players, different skill sets. More of that than anything else.”
And often more surprises. After all, that’s entertainment.