By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins may be a great hockey team. They may merely be a very good team with a great goaltender. The specifics don’t really matter.
What does matter is that the Bruins — winners of six straight playoff games — now need just one win in order to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. And the way they earned their Game 3 victory on the road in Raleigh on Tuesday night was a perfect picture of how and why the Bruins find themselves in such position.
Boiled down to its simplest form, the formula has been simple: Otherworldly goaltending, combined with a lineup full of poised, composed players from one through 18. Despite having every reason to do so, the Bruins have yet to succumb to any moments this postseason. It’s led to a lot of wins.
Tuukka Rask has often stood taller than he ever has before in order to give the Bruins a chance. From there, a timely goal and some power-play execution has often followed. And so have the victories.
All of that was on display in Game 3. The Hurricanes utterly dominated the first period in every way except on the scoreboard. They outshot Boston 20-6, and had 33 shot attempts compared to Boston’s nine.
It was pure dominance. But it didn’t matter. Rask made sure of it.
The 32-year-old Finn stopped all 20 shots sent his way, including a series of four consecutive shots on a Carolina power play just minutes into the game.
Rask made a blind glove save on captain Justin Williams three minutes later.
And before the buzzer sounded on that first period, Rask turned aside a doorstep bid by a streaking Saku Maenalanen, this time utilizing the toe save.
It was clear from very early in this game that No. 40 in white was going to be the best player on the ice. And outside of one slip-up in the second period, that held true.
It was nothing short of a miracle that the Bruins emerged from those opening 20 minutes in a 0-0 game. Rask’s explanation for that ability was quite succinct:
“He’s in the zone right now,” Brad Marchand said of his goaltender. “He’s confident. Just let him be, and just let him keep giving us an opportunity to win every game. That’s why we are where we are.”
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who admitted he might have had his eyes closed on that sequence of three consecutive power-play doorstep bids, credited Rask for giving the Bruins a chance to regroup after what was clearly a bad period of hockey.
“What it does for the team, obviously, is it allows you to take a deep breath, knowing you’re in the first intermission saying we didn’t play our best, but it’s 0-0,” Cassidy said. “So I think you have to have a short memory in the playoffs, and we were able to find our game after that.”
It didn’t take long for that to take place, either. All it took was one lazy play with the puck by Brock McGinn just over a minute into the second period for the Bruins to pounce. Sean Kuraly found a puck in his skates and calmly fit a backhand feed from the top of the left faceoff circle to Joakim Nordstrom at the dot.
Nordstrom looked up and liked Chris Wagner’s position in front of the net. So, instead of firing a shot on net or trying to make a pass through a body, Nordstrom squared himself to the net, thereby drawing Justin Faulk away from Wagner. Nordstrom saw a window and sent a perfect pass to the tape of Wagner’s stick at the goalmouth.
After all that, after an avalanche of pucks toward the Boston net in the first period, one careless play with the puck led to the Bruins’ fourth line pouncing to give Boston a 1-0 lead.
“That line scored a goal by playing the right way,” Cassidy said. “They’re fourth-liners; you don’t expect them to make a tic-tac-toe play, but they did. Good for them.”
A few minutes later, David Krejci took a high stick to the face, putting the Bruins on a power play. It wasn’t the most crisp power play, but with 25 seconds left in the man advantage, Charlie McAvoy carried into the Carolina zone with speed. He dumped off to David Krejci, who showcased his vision and passing ability to get a puck to Marchand with some space to operate across the ice.
Marchand got Faulk to drop to a knee to block a shot that never came, and Marchand simply deked to the backhand, walked into the slot, and backhanded a shot on net. The shot hit Calvin de Haan in the hand and deflected into the net to give Boston a 2-0 lead.
“I don’t know how it went in, but it went in,” Marchand said.
Just like that, the Bruins went from drowning to thriving. A 2-0 lead on this night seemed insurmountable for the Hurricanes, who just have not been able to solve Rask.
Those two areas — goaltending and the power play — are where the Bruins have really excelled this postseason. Rask leads all netminders in save percentage and goals-against average, and the Bruins have a power play that’s finding success on 31.9 percent of opportunities — best in the league this postseason. Opponents are learning that it’s a deadly combination.
Rask did allow what would be considered a soft goal, when an unobstructed de Haan slap shot from 45 feet out squeaked through the five-hole to halve Boston’s lead. But that would be it for Carolina’s offense on this night.
Sebastian Aho, the Canes’ leading goal scorer during the season, had a chance on a 3-on-2 rush prior to the de Haan goal, but Aho shot it directly into the chest of Rask as the goaltender moved left to right:
Andrei Svechnikov had a chance at an open net, but he missed wide.
Those two missed chances proved to essentially be Carolina’s best opportunity at evening the score. Aho and Svechnikov — unlike, say, Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner — couldn’t deliver when given an opportunity.
In the third period, the Bruins clung to that one-goal lead, and Rask looked quintessentially Raskian when he calmly stopped a Jordan Staal redirect of a Teuvo Teravainen feed seven minutes in:
Another denial of a Svechnikov bid on a rush, and then the denial of a Svechnikov stuff attempt on a 6-on-5, and Rask’s night was done: 35 saves on 36 shots.
“You just try to stay mentally focused and sharp, night in and night out, and not get rattled about anything,” Rask said when asked what it means to be in the zone. “But being in the zone? I don’t … nobody knows what that means. But the way I want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big, and maybe even tough chances kind of make it look easy. If that’s in the zone, then so be it. But I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”
That has been the formula for success this postseason. It may not be the ideal way that Cassidy would prefer to draw things up — in fact, the 6-2 blowout in Game 2 of this series is probably the route Cassidy and the Bruins would rather travel every night.
But with Rask owning a .939 save percentage and 1.96 GAA, the Bruins have had the luxury of not always needing to be great for a full 60 minutes every single night. The play of Rask has buoyed the Bruins during some darker times, and a balanced attack that involves all four lines and all but one defenseman thus far has provided the requisite offense to lead to wins more often than not.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, “good enough” often is not good enough. But with great goaltending, good enough can become more than enough. For the Bruins, it has a trip to the Stanley Cup Final within their grasp.