The Boston Bruins returned home for their first playoff game at TD Garden since the Game 7 defeat against St. Louis in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and once again, overcame a third period deficit to force overtime. This time, free agent pickup Craig Smith ended the game with a nifty wraparound goal for his first tally of the series to give the B’s the lead for good in this one. Taylor Hall and Brad Marchand got the other goals for Boston, while Tuukka Rask stood tall in net in regulation, when his team didn’t have the greatest game in front of him before flipping the script in the full first overtime period and all of the second until Smith stole the puck away from Justin Schultz and beat rookie Ilya Samsonov back to his net for the winning dagger. Here are some observations…
1. Tuukka Rask ties a milestone. With 53 career playoff wins, Rask has tied Gerry Cheevers for first place in franchise history, already owning the team’s regular season victories record with 308. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to a player and acknowledge him. Who knows what the B’s would have done if they had not traded for Rask’s rights at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver, but we’ve not had to find out. Toronto drafted him (one spot before Boston could- settling on Matt Lashoff instead in 2005), but after Tim Thomas departed, he’s had the longest run of a B’s goaltender since Cheevers. Since the Hall of Famer’s retirement, the team has had various success over the years with about five or six seasons being the highwater mark (Andy Moog 1988-93; Byron Dafoe 1997-02; Tim Thomas 2006-12). Regardless of how you feel about Rask, he’s given his team a solid decade of stability in net, winning Vezina and Jennings Trophies along the way.
2. Eliminate the turnovers. Boston’s puck management wasn’t great and it cost them on Washington’s go-ahead goal by Nic Dowd when David Pastrnak mishandled a Charlie Coyle pass at the Boston blue line and then turned the wrong way, allowing Garnet Hathaway to find Dowd in front for a redirection. Coyle’s pass was a poor decision, but Pastrnak’s lack of awareness and effort on the play was a bigger issue, and could have been costly for the Bruins late in the second period. The B’s continued to struggle with turning the puck over in the third and some players appeared to be hesitant to take the big hits Washington players were dishing out. Marchand bailed his team out with a big power play marker in the final 10 minutes, as did Rask by stopping every other shot he faced in regulation and OT, but the team could have had a disastrous outcome. The B’s got better at managing the puck as the third period went on and then took over play in OT, but they’ve got to be better in Game 4- the Capitals have the players to make you pay.
3. Hall and Marchand carrying Boston’s offensive load. When the Bruins have needed offense at key moments in the two wins, those two have delivered. Last night, Hall put on a display of wizardry with his hands to answer Alex Ovechkin’s power play goal about a minute later, taking a no-look Smith pass and roofing a backhand-to-forehander over Samsonov in a jaw-dropping display of speed, balance and agility. Once again, for the kids- Hall attacks the net and goes to the high danger areas…that’s how you score- not by hanging out on the perimeter and trying to blow pucks by goalies from the outside. Then, Marchand followed up by batting Patrice Bergeron’s shot out of mid-air on the power play to tie the game in the third period. He got in trouble earlier by taking a bad stick penalty, which resulted in the Ovechkin’s first of the series. It’s an old hockey saw that your best players have to play like your best players to win, and that’s what has happened in the last two wins after the top guns were held in check in Game 1. Hall has infused the team with an energy and excitement not seen in some time, as he has revitalized his sagging career since coming to Boston with the explosiveness and ability to dictate a game’s tempo on one shift. He hasn’t brought a shift-to-shift consistency he’s capable and he’s said that himself, but when the B’s have needed a goal, Hall has been there to get it for them. Ditto Marchand, who made up for his lack of discipline in the second period with the equalizer on a tremendous hand-eye coordination play Samsonov had no chance on.
On the flip side, Pastrnak has struggled, and if he can somehow get going, look out. He played poorly during regulation, turning pucks over and not showing much urgency or effort- at one point in the third period, getting beaten to a loose puck because he was gliding, then reaching for it with his stick. That kind of lazy, uninspired play is unbecoming of No. 88’s pedigree and legacy, but to his credit, Pastrnak pulled out of the funk in overtime, generating several scoring chances. The team had a scare early in the second frame when he and Marchand broke in and he was hooked down and went hard into the end boards. He nearly was the hero, as he got a decent shot off and could have been awarded a penalty shot. If Pastrnak can keep trending to what he did in the extra sessions going forward, he will break through and find the back of the net. It’s simple- if Pastrnak takes it up a notch, the Bruins will likely win this going away, but he’s been more of an anchor on his line than a stiff breeze- he’s got to do more.
4. Washington’s fourth line is outplaying Boston’s. Original amigo Dominic Tiano said before the series even began that one of the keys would be the fourth lines and thus far, it hasn’t been close, with Dowd and Hathaway accounting for 4 out of Washington’s 8 goals in 3 games. They have been fast, physical and effective in all three games, especially last night, when they were able to roll a regular shift and make things happen, giving their team the lead late in the second frame. Dowd did take the penalty that resulted in Marchand’s goal with a bad stick penalty, but in reality, that bottom-line scoring has saved Washington from being down 0-3 in the series as Dom pointed out last night. On the other hand, Curtis Lazar, Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly didn’t do a great deal last night, and were especially noticeable in the wrong kind of way in OT when Bruce Cassidy employed them on several defensive zone draws. On paper, that unit should be an effective, heavy, hard-to-play unit, but we haven’t seen it after Jake DeBrusk moved up to the third line in Kuraly’s spot. We could see a change for Game 4, but whether it is Karson Kuhlman or Trent Frederic who gets the call to try and get that fourth line going remains to be seen, and given that Boston won Game 3, Cassidy could opt to keep things as is.
5. Craig Smith’s Superman arrived none too soon. You don’t see it very often, but bad communication on a muffed behind-the-net handover between Samsonov and Schultz ended in disaster when the former USHL and NCAA star with the Waterloo Black Hawks and University of Wisconsin Badgers swooped in, grabbed the puck and wrapped around the far post to beat Samsonov before the youngster could get set. This is the kind of play that veterans make over inexperienced ones, and it ruined a 40-save night and first-ever playoff game for Samsonov, who had confounded the Bruins in the extra sessions when the B’s owned a decisive advantage in scoring chances in the 25+ minutes of sudden death. The only unrestricted free agent signing of consequence this past offseason by the Bruins has been a revelation: he plays the game so hard, but has more skill and scoring touch than any of us really thought. He’s been able to solidify a spot on the second line and his sheer effort, hustle and determination should be a must-watch for any young, aspiring hockey player no matter how talented they are. When he put the puck in, he celebrated like Clark Kent, simulating his costume change the way New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton has done for years in the NFL, but on this night, that had special meaning for the B’s as it salvaged a game that could have just as easily gone the other way. The Ghost of Past Playoff Disappointments nearly added Samsonov to a long list of upstart players who have broken the TD Garden faithful’s hearts, but not last night, as Superman arrived just in the nick of time.
As an aside- Ovechkin was not happy after Smith score. He broke his stick on the bench and then could be seen (appearing to be) yelling at Samsonov, using a not-very-nice word in Russian (at least it looked like he was using *that* word). Obviously, No. 8 was disappointed to lose a game like that, but the rookie was the major reason the Caps were even playing into a second overtime period. If he was giving it to the goalie, then that’s not the greatest display of leadership from the captain, who, as was pointed out during the broadcast, has yet to score an overtime playoff goal in his career. Glass houses and all of that.
Around the NHL…
The Winnipeg Jets derailed the playoff excitement in Edmonton, taking Game 1 by a 4-1 score. Former Omaha Lancers and University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks star defenseman Tucker Poolman tied it with his first NHL postseason goal. Dominic Toninato (who also played in the USHL- with the Fargo Force) got the go-ahead tally. Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler finished out the scoring with late empty-netters, but Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck confounded the Oil’s high-powered offense. 31 years ago, the Oilers-Jets had a heck of a playoff series that Edmonton won en route to the 1990 Stanley Cup championship, but it is good to see these old Smythe Division rivals going at it again.
The Carolina Hurricanes are rolling…look out.
Can anyone stop Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche? Not the Blues, apparently- he tallied a hat trick and four-point game in a 6-3 victory to go up 2-0, giving him 5 goals and 7 points in the pair of wins. Jordan Binnington gave his team a chance in Game 1, but he wasn’t very good last night. Old friend Torey Krug had a pair of assists, but the Avs are just a powerhouse right now and flexing their muscles. Remember- your best players have to play like your best players, and that’s precisely what Colorado is getting right now.