The Boston Bruins and Tampa Lightning entered the postseason with vengeance in mind. On Sunday night, the Bruins took the first step toward avenging last year’s bitter ending in the Stanley Cup Final.
Bruce Cassidy’s squad had to persevere through the final moments after Victor Hedman scored twice to cut Boston’s lead to 3-2. But they put themselves in a position to earn a hard-fought win from the opening stanza.
The Bruins punched and counterpunched the Lightning in a physical game featuring several net-front battles and post-whistle scrums. They also delivered timely moments in all three zones.
The offensive moments included another mid-air tip from Charlie Coyle late in the opening stanza, a magical pass from David Krejci to David Pastrnak on a second period power play, and Brad Marchand scoring on a tic-tac-goal sequence all set up by another stellar backcheck by Patrice Bergeron.
“That goal was all him, his forechecking there, a great read,” Marchand said regarding Bergeron’s stuff of legend. “That’s why he’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
“I’m glad my parents signed me up for little league when I was younger,” Coyle said of his second tipped mid-air goal of the postseason.
Aside from Coyle’s new-found technique from the proverbial batting cage, the Bruins nor Lightning displayed any little league moments.
But it wasn’t all bells and whistles for the Black and Gold. They let things slip away a bit following Pastrnak’s tally, but Halak held the fort to keep the two-goal lead intact at the end of the second. Then they survived a relentless final push for the equalizer in the last minute of regulation to secure the Game 1 win.
Here’s what we learned from Boston’s series-opening triumph.
Top line in peak form
The Bruins hardly looked like a playoff team following round-robin play. But then again, there’s something to Marchand’s oft-quoted reply on the team’s mindset regarding those first three games — including their 3-2 loss to the Lightning on Aug. 5 — inside the Toronto bubble.
Marchand echoed the round-robin quote again following Game 1. And however you feel about those exhibition-like showcases is moot now, especially with the top-line finding its groove again.
Pastrnak kick-started the top line’s productive night on his second period power play tally. But Bergeron’s back-checking prowess provided the highlight of the night.
The future Hall of Famer quickly transitioned to the attack after pick-pocketing Ryan McDonagh, feeding Pastrnak on the outlet who found Marchand on the doorstep.
Tic. Tac. Goal.
“Just trying to sustain some pressure on the forecheck. I thought the three of us were kind of going in and out and reloading and sustaining some pressure,” Bergeron said. “Ultimately, you’re trying to do that and get the puck back. We were able to do it and a great pass by Pasta. Obviously, a great finish by March.”
The top line found success early in their last series against Tampa two years ago. They didn’t get much help following their Game 1 win, ultimately bowing out in five games.
On Sunday, they were once again tone-setters.
“You typically aren’t going to advance if your best players aren’t your best players,” Cassidy said of the top line. “And you know the second period they weren’t as strong on the puck as they were early on, but they got it back. And again, full value, their line carried us. I thought some other guys did their job as well, just didn’t get rewarded on the score sheet but [a] nice start for that line.”
Cassidy knows what he has from his top line. But he has a deeper squad to work with this time around.
A center of riches
The Bruins were a one line team in their second round matchup with the Bolts in 2018. Only Krejci and Rick Nash lit the lamp among Bruins’ forwards outside of the top trio during the brief series.
Don Sweeney played his cards right at last year’s trade deadline, adding Coyle and Marcus Johansson. But the revolving second line door next to Krejci and Jake DeBrusk played a significant role against the Blues.
This time, the Bruins have a formidable second line with Ondrej Kase — albeit snakebitten — fitting in well with Krejci and DeBrusk. Combine that with Coyle anchoring the third line with a mix of Nick Ritchie, Anders Bjork and Jack Studnicka and you have yourself a formidable middle-six.
Each top-nine trio has one thing in common, however: a top-tier centerman. Coyle, Krejci and Bergeron each came through in the clutch against a deep Tampa defense core to begin the series.
“When you have three first-line centers, it definitely makes it hard. You’re having two of those lines play against a lesser matchup,” Marchand said. “It’s a little different against a team like Tampa where they have six top two defensemen. They have a good matchup over there but the depth that we have…I think that’s one thing the organization really put an emphasis on, is getting a lot of depth. That’s how you win playoff series.
“You can’t win with one line. You have to roll all the way through. Different heroes every night, different series. That’s why we were a good team last year, that’s why we were dominant all season long. And why we’re here tonight. We rely on our group. We always have that next up mentality and that continues.”
From next man up to the last line of defense, the Bruins have themselves a good formula for success against a fellow elite team in Tampa.
Halak weathers the storm (no pun intended)
The journeyman took over the starting role from Tuukka Rask following his exit from the bubble. Aside from his hiccups in Game 4 against Carolina, Halak’s confidence never wavered in backstopping the Bruins to the next round.
Halak has a bigger test in front of him. A Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasiliveskiy stares him across the rink instead of James Reimer or Petr Mrazek. He’s facing an exceptional cast of talent, including last year’s Hart winner Nikita Kucherov, a perennial Norris finalist in Hedman and a quality of young snipers like Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde (to name a few).
On Sunday, Halak passed his first test against the high-octane Lightning. He found himself busy after the Bruins dominated possession in the opening 20 and stood tall during Tampa’s array of quality scoring chances throughout the middle stanza and during the final moments of regulation.
“The two goals [he allowed], I think one went in off Charlie [McAvoy], the other one had eyes, so they certainly got a couple of fortunate ones. But boy did he make some saves in the second where they probably deserved better,” Cassidy said of Halak. “And I thought their guy [Vasilevskiy] did too, made a great save on McAvoy and a couple others in tight, Kase on a breakaway. So I thought both goalies did their job. We just happened to be one save better.”
By that logic, Halak only needs to be three saves better over Vasilevskiy to send the Bruins back to the Eastern Conference Final.
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