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Bruins' third period improvement is very encouraging entering playoffs

Bruins' third period improvement is very encouraging entering playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It wasn't too long ago when the Boston Bruins' inability to close out games was a very real problem.

In fact, you could have argued that it was the biggest concern the team had to address before the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive.

There was one point in February when the Bruins blew a third-period lead four times in a six-game stretch, which included several matchups against playoff-caliber opponents.

Fast forward to early April and the B's are finally starting to figure out how to close games. The latest example came Thursday night in Carolina, where the Bruins played fantastic over the final 20 minutes to secure a 3-1 win against an opponent that entered the night with an 8-1-1 record in its last 10 games.

“I think the biggest growth we've seen is how confident we are in third periods now,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said in his postgame interview with NESN.

“It's nice to see in a 0-0 game (vs. Predators on Tuesday), we go out and win a game 3-0, and did it looking like a confident team. And now, we're up 3-1 on another elite team and we push the lead to 4-1. I don't think we gave up that much. I thought our D corps was excellent. I thought they played a great game tonight. And I thought our forwards did their job.”

Back on Feb. 28, the Bruins were 25-1-8 when leading after two periods. That .735 win percentage when leading after 40 minutes ranked 28th out of 32 NHL teams. The Bruins have now won seven consecutive games when they lead after two periods, which is another example of their improvement in clutch moments.

The recent improvement really started last Tuesday in Florida against a very good Panthers team. The Bruins went into the third period tied at two and played fantastic, scoring two goals and giving up only five shots in a 4-3 win.

The Bruins didn't allow a goal in the third period or overtime against the Capitals in a shootout win last Saturday. The most impressive part of that victory was a successful four-minute penalty kill in overtime.

Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators, which Montgomery referenced above, was one of Boston's best third-period performances in a while. The Bruins opened the scoring when Charlie Coyle scored a shorthanded goal 13:18 into the frame. David Pastrnak, Pavel Zacha and Danton Heinen combined to score the Bruins' second goal on a pretty passing sequence, and then Pastrnak later cashed in on the empty-net for a 3-0 win.

Thursday night's matchup against the Hurricanes saw the Bruins play another strong third period, which was punctuated with an empty-net goal that delivered the final blow in a 4-1 win. Once again, the Bruins shut out a highly-skilled team in the third period on the road. The B's held the 'Canes to just nine shots over the final 20 minutes.

The Bruins earned a 6-2 goal differential in the third period over the last five games of their road trip. All of those opponents are in a playoff spot or fighting for one, so it wasn't like the Bruins could just sit back and coast to the finish line in these matchups. They had to fight for these wins.

What exactly is helping the Bruins close out games?

The penalty kill has shown improvement. This unit is 4-for-4 in the third period and overtime over the last five games. The goaltending from Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has been stellar during this stretch, too. These two goalies have combined to tally a .957 save percentage in the third period (45 saves on 47 shots).

The Bruins need to show they can close out third periods in the playoffs before anyone gets too excited about this recent turnaround. Third periods were a major issue for this team in the last three games of their first-round playoff series loss to the Panthers last season.

But it is encouraging to see the Bruins making strides in this area at a critical time in the campaign, and they have a couple more good tests left in the regular season to continue making improvement, beginning with Saturday's showdown against the Panthers at TD Garden.