WASHINGTON--As late as the first intermission of Game 3 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Boston Bruins looked like a very good bet to be the second straight Stanley Cup champion to lose in the first round of their title defense. Despite outshooting Washington 8-7 after the first 20 minutes, the Bruins trailed 1-0 and had run their streak of power play futility to eight straight goalless extra-man opportunities, including a particularly toothless effort in the game's first three minutes, when Alexander Semin was temporarily dismissed for tripping.
With the feasibility of their title defense at stake, Boston did all the things in the final 40 minutes that make them so annoying to play against and so tough to defeat. They won face-offs. They won battles along the boards. They hit, and hit, and hit some more. They parked themselves in front of Braden Holtby's net and dared the Capitals defense to keep them out. And yes, when they felt necessary, the Bruins stepped over the line of what is permissible by NHL rules, and dared the officials to penalize them for it. But more on that later.
This was hardly a triumph of Boston's big names. Zdeno Chara scored the game-winning goal with 1:53 left, but he was also in the penalty box for Washington's first goal and was on the ice for Washington's other two tallies. In particular, the big Slovak completely fell asleep on Brooks Laich's game-tying goal in the third period, and was routinely beaten to the puck by speedier skaters, like Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle. David Krejci was largely anonymous (1 shot in 18:46), and it is easy to believe that he is not himself following his rap on the head after Game 1. Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic also struggled Monday night (despite 8 hits by the latter), and a mid-game center swap by Julien (Patrice Bergeron was placed between Lucic and Rich Peverley, while Krejci centered Marchand and the similarly struggling Tyler Seguin) didn't seem to have the desired effect.
And then there was Tim Thomas. A focus of the Verizon Center's energy before the game, the Michigander did make one truly stunning save, a denial of Jay Beagle late in the second period with the score tied at 2-2 that no one will likely ever be able to fully explain. But he had no chance on two opportunities that might very well have secured a different outcome.
With just under 12 minutes to go in the second period, shortly after Holtby denied a point-blank chance by Benoit Pouliot, Nicklas Backstrom snapped a shot off the crossbar. Off the ensuing face-off, the puck came back to Semin, who tried a wrist shot from the edge of the face-off circle. Thomas never saw the puck until it was sailing harmlessly past his far post.
If either shot had gone in, it would have marked the first time in this series that either team had taken a two-goal lead. (Of the 10 full 20-minute periods that have been completed in this series, the teams have been tied at the end of seven.) Instead, the Bruins tied the score less than 90 seconds later, when Daniel Paille knocked down Greg Zanon's slap shot and backhanded the rebound past an already-committed Holtby and into an open net.
Speaking of Holtby, what's to be made of his performance? He allowed four goals on 29 shots, and admittedly let himself down on the first goal, by Peverley. But Paille's and Brian Rolston's goals were more the result of defensive lapses by Mathieu Perreault and Brooks Laich, respectively, than of any fault of Holtby's. As for Chara's winner, which deflected off the stick of Roman Hamrlik on its way in?
"That's just a tough break," Holtby said.
"Unfortunately on the winning goal, it was going wide and it deflected off of [Hamrlik], and you can do nothing with that," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said.
The Bruins did not win themselves any new fans in Washington, even among neutrals. In contrast to the usual theories of rough stuff increasing as games get out of hand, this one upped the dosage of physicality and emotion as the clocked ticked down and the score remained tied. Lucic, in particular, ran amok. He and Laich received matching unsportsmanlike conduct minors after the Bruin dumped the Capital to the ice prior to a face-off in the second period. "I didn't think I did much to deserve a penalty," Laich deadpanned afterward. "But that's the way it goes."
In the third period, Lucic dove at the back of Chimera and took him down in the neutral zone, somehow avoiding a penalty for his actions, to general press box astonishment. He was called for a double minor for roughing late in the third period after mixing it up with Matt Hendricks and Karl Alzner in front of Holtby's net with 2:26 to go, but the sting was taken out of that when Chara scored 33 seconds later.
Not that the Capitals were completely innocent in this regard. Before Backstrom received a match penalty after the final horn, the Swedish center had been sent to the box three previous times. The last of these was for a cross-check that sent Marchand flying headfirst toward the boards. However much Marchand may have embellished the hit, it was still a dangerous play. Chimera, meanwhile, received a two-minute penalty for spearing Marchand in the groin, an action for which Alzner later apologized.
The guess here is that Backstrom's match penalty will be rescinded before Game 4, largely due to the fact that Peverley appeared to suffer no injury and that appears to be this week's criteria for the Department of Player Safety in determining length of suspension. Selfishly, we hope that's exactly what happens. After the relatively sedate quality of Games 1 and 2, Monday night's madness launched this series into the rarefied air occupied simultaneously by thrilling play, high emotion, sneak attacks, dirty vigilantism, and good, old-fashioned hate without resorting to the outright buffoonery seen in Philadelphia Sunday.
Monday night, in short, gave us true playoff hockey, and wouldn't we love to see four more just like it?