PITTSBURGH – Even as the Pittsburgh Penguins were streaking to the top of the Eastern Conference, they kept hearing and reading about the Boston Bruins' even-faster ascension … about the Bruins' ability to play the same way, home or away, and how their depth and goaltending were superior.
Seeing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Bruins in person further convinced the Penguins that Boston will be very difficult to defeat – especially should they match up in the playoffs.
Goaltender Tim Thomas was the key to Boston killing off two Pittsburgh 5-on-3 advantages in the second period, and the Bruins improved to 14-0-1 in their last 15 games by beating Pittsburgh 3-1 Monday night at the Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins came in with an Eastern Conference-leading 36 points, but Boston closed to within a point of them in the overall conference standings by overcoming a 45-27 Pittsburgh advantage in shots. Thomas made 44 saves in winning his 10th in a row.
"That's a really good hockey team. But so are we," said Gregory Campbell, who scored Boston's first goal. "We hold ourselves to a high standard. The challenge is to not only compete against certain teams, but to compete every night -- whether it's on the road, or whether it's against a top team."
The longer that the rest of the NHL waits for the Bruins to stop streaking – they haven't lost in regulation since Oct. 29 – the better they seem to play. They have outscored their opponents 66-27 during their 15-game points streak, and the edge is 17-7 during their last four.
"We've done a good job of coming to play and finding a way to win," Thomas said. "We don't know how we're going to win every night, but we do it different ways with different guys – all of us together at the same time. It's been pretty nice to be part of."
Thomas is playing the best of them all. He hasn't lost since Oct. 27 during the longest winning streak of his career, and the longest by a Bruins goalie since Andy Moog won 10 in a row from Feb. 27-March 25, 1993.
Thomas is 7-1 on the road with three shutouts, allowing only 12 goals, and the Penguins – 7-0-1 at home in their previous eight – couldn't get to him until they trailed 3-0 midway through the third period despite having plenty of chances.
Especially in the pivotal second period, when the Bruins not only got their first two goals, but they didn't allow the Penguins to score during 3 minutes, 10 seconds of 5-on-3 play.
"We didn't capitalize on the special teams opportunities and that was a big part of the second period, not getting on the board," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "They dictated, and played very well."
The Bruins figured the Penguins might be the most difficult of tests, especially now that Sidney Crosby is back in the lineup. But Pittsburgh played without three of its top six defensemen (Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek and Deryk Engelland) due to injuries and that inexperience frequently showed up.
"They play a physical game, and we never got to ours," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We
didn't win enough pucks to create any offense or be aggressive. We were just chasing it all night."
Both of the Penguins' big stars – Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – had rough nights physically.
Crosby, held without a goal for a seventh consecutive game, accidentally collided knee to knee with teammate Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone during the third period and limped off the ice. He returned after being in visible pain for a few minutes.
"It was just kind of bit of a stinger, but nothing major," Crosby said. "I'm fine."
Not long after that, Bruins forward Daniel Paille checked Malkin along the boards – they appeared to hit visor-to-visor – leaving Malkin with a cut upper lip.
Boston, playing in Pittsburgh as the defending Cup champion for the first time since Jan. 20, 1973, couldn't score despite getting two early power plays but finally solved goalie Marc-Andre Fleury early in the second. Fleury had been 8-1-1 at home.
With Boston's fourth line on the ice, Campbell's faceoff win allowed Paille to collect the puck behind the net and find Campbell open at the side of the net for his second goal. Recently recalled defensemen Alexandre Picard and Robert Bortuzzo were on the ice for Pittsburgh.
The momentum from that goal carried over to a 5-on-3 penalty kill lasting 70 seconds that developed from penalties on Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara. Then, less than a minute after those penalties were killed off, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik turned the puck over in the defensive zone, allowing third-line center Rich Peverley to start a rush that ended with Benoit Pouliot's hard wrist shot from the right circle that sailed over Fleury's glove.
The Bruins capped off the period by killing off yet another 5 on 3, one lasting two minutes following simultaneous penalty calls on Peverley and Pouliot.
"Our penalty killers did a great job … all of them," Thomas said. "That was big. The game could have totally changed momentum and they could have ended up winning the game."
Chara felt exactly the same way.
"Any time you kill two 5-on-3s, it gives you a real big jump and boost on the bench, such a lift," the Bruins captain said. "Especially when they have such good players. I thought we did a good job of taking away what they tried to do, and (we) not give them quality passes or shots."
The Bruins, 13-0 when leading after two periods, stretched the lead to 3-0 barely a minute into the third on 19-year-old Tyler Seguin's team-leading 13th goal and his 10th in 14 games. The power-play score was created by Staal's interference penalty as the second period ended.
With the Bruins spending so much time on the penalty kill, Seguin played only about eight minutes in the first two periods, only to capitalize when he finally got some ice time.
Seguin's goal meant that Matt Cooke's first goal in 12 games, and sixth of the season, did little more than prevent Thomas from getting his fourth road shutout.
"You hope it's a habit more than a streak," coach Claude Julien said of the Bruins' remarkable run. "It's gotten us back to where we wanted to be and certainly has erased the tough (3-7) start we had."
It's also made the Penguins realize what could be ahead of them in another four months.