Bruins show new kind of determination
TAMPA, Fla. -- The odor of failure lingers long after the actual act of failing itself.
It gets into the jerseys and equipment of teams such as the Boston Bruins, and you never know when it will dissipate.
Then, you go into a locker room after a game such as the Bruins' 2-0 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night and you sense something else -- confidence and determination.
After allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to score 10 times in the first two games in Boston -- and being more than a little fortunate to earn a split in those contests -- the Bruins locked down one of the most dynamic offenses in the playoffs to take a 2-1 series lead.
Outside his team's locker room with his tie loosened around his neck presumably in relief, Boston president and former Bruins great Cam Neely said he thinks last season's disappointment -- blowing a 3-0 series lead and losing to Philadelphia in the second round -- has served them well this spring.
"I believe the guys that have been here in the past, and especially last year, learned a lot from last year," he told ESPN.com. "They're a determined group. You can see that in the way they're approaching the game, the way the coaching staff has got them prepared. They appear to me like they're a very determined group."
We remember talking with Washington forward Mike Knuble near the end of the Lightning's four-game sweep of the top-seeded Capitals in the second round, and he was gobsmacked at the Lightning's ability to produce goals at the most opportune times. When the Bolts needed them, it was like they hit a switch and there they were, Knuble marveled. It was high praise from one of the game's hardest-working players.
On Thursday, though, the Bruins denied the Lightning that magic, and they were the ones who scored opportunistically.
Unlike in Game 2, in which the Bruins put up five goals in the second period en route to a frantic 6-5 victory, Boston gave Tampa Bay very little Thursday night. Yes, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas was Vezina-like in stopping all 31 shots, but he didn't face the kinds of quality chances he saw in Game 2.
"That felt more like a normal game. That felt like the game we played most of the season," Thomas said after registering his second career playoff shutout. "The playoffs are always faster and more energy and a few more scoring chances than a regular-season game. But that was Boston Bruins hockey."
"Yeah, it was a great road game for us," Neely added. "We've played really well on the road all year. Getting that early goal certainly is helpful, but [it was] just a solid game from the goaltender on out."
When you do the impossible and blow a three-game lead, as the Bruins did last season, a million little things go wrong. Battles for pucks are lost, faceoffs are lost, shots aren't blocked and line matchups are not executed.
But was there anything the Bruins did not do well Thursday?
They once again won the faceoff battle, winning 57 percent of draws, a statistic that speaks to the Bruins' ability to keep the puck away from the Lightning's talented forwards. They kept the most productive power play left in the playoffs off kilter all night, denying the Lightning on three power plays. They also were credited with 14 blocked shots to the Lightning's nine and outhit them 23-19.
"We tried to really focus on our position play, being in the right place away from the puck," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said.
The big man is without a point in the series, but he made a brilliant stick check to thwart a 2-on-1 with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier with the score still 1-0. It was just another example of a moment that did not become something ominous.
"We made some stronger plays, some better decisions, and seemed a little bit more aware out there of what was going on," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "So comparing it to last game, where I thought it was pretty sloppy, I thought we bounced back well tonight."
No one is awarding the Bruins anything since this series is still in its infancy, especially after last spring. But a game such as Thursday's makes it seem like last season's playoff pratfall has receded further into the distance.
Does it seem like that to the players?
"I mean, last series seems like a long time ago to me, it really does," said Andrew Ference, whose second goal of the postseason 8:12 into the third sealed the victory.
Ference is a thoughtful type, and he insisted the specter of last season's collapse doesn't really lurk in the way that the media might imagine it would.
"I think that hockey players are pretty good at turning the page," he said. "There isn't a whole lot of talk about years past. You don't kind of dig into those stories too often. You kind of live for the moment. You build on things and you have a continuation, but we weren't trying to redeem ourselves from last year or anything like that. You're playing for the moment. You're trying to just win."Our motivation isn't to ... prove ourselves from last year. We want to win this year, and that's really the only thing that's on our minds."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.