BOSTON – The end came at 12:13 a.m., on the 104th shot, in the 96th minute. It came after so many chances and saves and blocks and posts, so many oohs and ahs and gasps and sighs, all the sights and sounds of an epic. It came cruelly for the Pittsburgh Penguins and sweetly, oh, so sweetly, for the Boston Bruins.
Here was Jaromir Jagr, the former Penguins superstar, the Bruins’ consolation prize after Jarome Iginla waived his no-trade clause for Pittsburgh and not Boston at the deadline. He was 41, the oldest player on the ice, a role player now with no goals. But he had stayed in shape by working out with weighted vests after games and skating at midnight sometimes, just for moments like this one.
He won a battle along the boards with Evgeni Malkin, a 26-year-old, the winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player last season. After Malkin swiped the puck from him and looked like he was heading up ice in front of the Pittsburgh bench, Jagr – slow but strong – outmuscled him, stripped him and sent the puck the other way. He got away with a little hook.
“I don’t know what happened,” Jagr said later with a sly grin. “I know we scored.”
Brad Marchand took off down the left wing. He saw Patrice Bergeron to his right, slipping inside defenseman Brooks Orpik. He fired the puck across, and Bergeron got his stick on it, and Orpik couldn’t stop it. Neither could goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
“I just didn’t get his stick, and he got a deflection on it,” Orpik said. “That was the difference.”
The Garden roared at 15:19 of double overtime. The Bruins beat the Penguins, 2-1, after Wednesday night had turned into Thursday morning.
Had the coin flipped the other way, the Eastern Conference final would have been 2-1, Boston, entering Game 4 on Friday night. But it is 3-0, Boston, instead, and unless the Penguins mount one of the most amazing comebacks in NHL history, the Bruins will have a shot at their second Stanley Cup in three years.
“We found a way, I guess,” Bergeron said. “That’s the only way you’ve got to look at it.”
This game was what this series was supposed to be – two Cup-worthy teams, nose to nose, neck and neck, guts and glory and agony.
The grinders ground, the Bruins’ Gregory Campbell blocking a shot, rising to his feet, somehow staying on his feet, trying to break up a play, ignoring obvious pain – then heading to the dressing room never to return, never to hear the chants of his name. He reportedly suffered a broken leg.
The stars shone, generating scoring chance after scoring chance, both teams pinging posts at different points. The goaltenders were excellent. Vokoun made 38 saves. The Bruins’ Tuukka Rask made 53.
There is no pride after a game like this. There is no shame. There is only a score.
“That’s the type of game I think you clash, you bang heads, and win or lose, you come out and say, ‘We gave it our hardest,’ ” said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference. “We’re obviously happy to come out on the right side of it, but I don’t think anyone’s kidding themselves. You know that it can go either way in a game like that. Happy, for sure. But proud? Either side of the coin.”
“I think the whole game we felt really comfortable with our play,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “I think we felt like it was just a matter of time before we were going to get it. Unfortunately they hung around and got the one at the end.”
The problem for the Penguins is that they didn’t play like this in the first two games. They came out strong in Game 1, then faded in a 3-0 loss. They self-destructed in Game 2, a 6-1 loss, when their best players were at their worst. They left themselves little margin for error, and now they have none.
The Penguins didn’t panic in Game 3. They didn’t lose their patience and didn’t deviate from their plan as they had before. They fell behind for the third straight game, fell behind early for the second straight game, fell behind on a fluke when David Krejci’s shot went off the inside of the left skate of defenseman Matt Niskanen and slipped past Vokoun 1:42 into the first period, but they stuck with it.
Chris Kunitz broke through 8:51 into the second period, and the Penguins dominated the third. Crosby hit a post. Malkin hit a post.
After 60 minutes, the Penguins had 70 shot attempts to the Bruins’ 44. They had 39 shots on goal to the Bruins’ 25. But both teams had opportunities, and both teams had more in the overtimes – including two power plays each. The deeper the game went, each missed chance loomed larger. Some were destined to be forgotten, some destined to haunt.
The Bruins’ Nathan Horton had a breakaway and then hit a post in the first overtime period. The Penguins’ Craig Adams hit a post in the second OT.
“You think about it, obviously,” Adams said. “We hit three or four, I think. They hit one in the first overtime. Obviously you wish the puck would go the other way, but nothing you can do about it. Obviously the series has a totally different look if we get one of those pucks to go in. But we didn’t.”
The Penguins were the top offensive team in the NHL in the regular season. They were the top offensive team in the NHL in the playoffs entering the third round – by a huge margin. Crosby and Malkin are former scoring champions. Iginla and Kunitz and Kris Letang and James Neal and Pascal Dupuis have put up huge numbers.
Yet in more than 10 periods, more than 215 minutes of hockey, they have managed only two goals. Crosby has zero points. Malkin has zero points. Iginla and Letang and Neal have zero points. Some of that is because of bad luck. Some of that is because of their bad play. Some of that is because of suffocating team defense by the deep, disciplined Bruins. Some of that is because of sharp goaltending by Rask.
The Penguins have lost three in a row for the first time this season. Now they have to beat the Bruins four straight.
They won all three meetings with the Bruins in the regular season, and they posted winning streaks of 15, seven and five games. They have the talent and the defiance, and the Bruins have the demons.
Three years ago, the Bruins became the third team in NHL history to take a 3-0 lead and lose a series when they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round this year against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they would have been eliminated in Game 7 had they not rallied from a 4-1 third-period deficit.
Asked if this 3-0 deficit is almost insurmountable, Adams said: “I guess you can say it’s almost insurmountable – almost being the key word.”
Yet the Penguins fell into a 3-0 hole against the Flyers in the first round last year and made only half a comeback, winning two games, bowing out in six, and there is already regret here. Go back to Game 2. Go back to Crosby’s turnover that led to Marchand’s goal 28 seconds in, the first snowflake of a snowball. Go back to all the errors that followed.
“We can’t get that one back,” Crosby said.
They can’t get this one back, either.
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