By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins spent Games 1 and 2 against Montreal trying to prove that the third period is the most important time in a hockey game.

They spent Game 3 proving that the first two periods matter, too.

The Bruins once again nearly pulled off an incredible third-period comeback, but on this night, their third-period effort was not the story. Instead, their lack of it in the first two periods told the whole tale.

To be sure, it’s always difficult to hit the ice in a hostile environment in the playoffs, and that reality is amplified 10 times over when you’re talking about Montreal. The Bell Centre is a raucous place, fitting more than 21,000 fans who hoot and holler and cause opposing teams and referees to lose the use of their brains and bodies for indeterminate amounts of time.

None of that provides any excuse for the Bruins’ performance in the first and second periods of Game 3.

In the opening minute of the game, Rene Bourque skated in all alone on Tuukka Rask, and though the winger missed wide, his scoring chance was a sign of defensive breakdowns to come.

Midway through the first period, as Thomas Vanek wound up for a slap shot at the right point, Kevan Miller drifted aimlessly to the front of the goalmouth. In doing so, he completely abandoned Tomas Plekanec. Vanek smartly turned his shot into a slap pass, setting up Plekanec for essentially an empty-net goal and making the Bruins look like a lost bunch.

Minutes later, Dougie Hamilton skated far, far away from the penalty box at the exact moment P.K. Subban’s penalty time expired, providing a free lane for the talented defenseman to skate in alone on Rask. Subban deked Rask down to the ice and scored, giving the Canadiens a 2-0 lead and sending the home crowd into a complete frenzy.

A 2-0 hole in any arena is difficult to come back from. A 2-0 deficit in Montreal can seem even larger. And in this game, it proved to be too much, even for these always-resilient Bruins.

“Our team wasn’t good enough at the start to give ourselves a chance here,” head coach Claude Julien said. “We need to rebound here and make sure that we’re ready for the start of the game at the drop of the puck.”

That Julien admitted the first-period issues showed he can state the obvious. That he said the Bruins need to make sure they’re ready at puck drop for future contests showed that there’s reason to be concerned about the team’s ability to actually show up on time for playoff games.

Through three games, it’s now a trend. The Bruins fell behind 2-0 and 3-2 in Game 1 before launching a furious comeback to force overtime. They eventually lost in double-OT. In Game 2, the Bruins did take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission but fell behind 2-1 by the end of the second and 3-1 early in the third. They turned on the heavy pressure to score four unanswered goals to win that one 5-3, but apparently, the proper lessons weren’t learned.

The Bruins once again applied tremendous pressure on Carey Price and the Canadiens as soon as the third period of Game 3 began. They were unable to capitalize on any chances until the 17:44 mark of the period, when Rask was on the bench. Jarome Iginla tipped in an Andrej Meszaros shot, and the Bruins once again found late life. Yet P.K. Subban dislodged the Montreal net with 10 seconds remaining, and the ensuing faceoff sent the puck skidding toward the empty Boston net. Lars Eller burst to the free puck and finished off the Canadiens’ victory with an empty-net goal.

“Definitely not the effort that you want, and we didn’t get the result because of it. … We need a lot more,” said Patrice Bergeron, whose redirect of a Torey Krug shot scored the Bruins’ first goal late in the second period. “We’ve said it — it’s not going to happen every time, and it was a perfect example tonight. We waited too long to make it a game, and we didn’t have enough time.”

“We weren’t as good as them in the first period, and that cost us,” Iginla said. “The first period, they were better than us and that was the biggest difference in the game. It wasn’t good enough. We know that on the road, their first game back, they were going to come out really strong. We didn’t match that, and we weren’t as sharp as them early. That was the biggest difference in the game.”

The Canadiens’ two first-period goals weren’t the only issues for the Bruins, who allowed yet another breakaway nearly 14 minutes into the second period. This time, it was Dale Weise streaking behind Meszaros and Johnny Boychuk, and Weise slipped the puck through Rask’s five-hole to give the Canadiens a 3-0 lead at the time. Just like that, an already-tall task of coming back from 2-0 grew that much more challenging.

“No, of course not — not with our system. But they happened, and it’s just mental mistakes, I guess,” Rask said of the breakaways. “I don’t know. I think mentally you’ve got to be more prepared. Making those mistakes and giving the opposite team the lead — that’s not a good thing every night. So I think we just have to be mentally sharper and do the things we talk about.”

If it took a loss like this for the Bruins to realize that it’s important to compete in the first two periods, it would be a bit troublesome. Of course, the Bruins know what it takes to win playoff games. Many of them were part of the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning squad, and most of them are returning from last year’s team, which came two wins shy of winning it all again. They know what to do. It’s now a matter of actually doing it and not forcing themselves to engineer miraculous comebacks every night.

“As usual, we kind of battled back and got ourselves back in the game,” Julien said. “But certainly, we dug ourselves in a hole too big to get out of tonight.”

You could call it a safe game plan, you could call it “playing scared” or you could simply call it a failure to show up. Whatever it was, it cost the Bruins a chance to really compete in Game 3. They now have a 2-1 series deficit to show for it.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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