NEW YORK -- The Boston Bruins aren't celebrating yet. They've been through too much to start prematurely thinking about the Eastern Conference Finals, even though they're one win away from getting there.
"That fourth game is going to be the toughest one and out of any team in the NHL we should probably know that the best," Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk said.
Indeed they should, but the Bruins have given no indication that their prior problems in closing out a series after taking a commanding lead will become an issue against the New York Rangers. They've clearly been the more dominant team in all three games, and Tuesday night it took an all-world performance by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to just keep things close.
Fourth-liner Daniel Paille beat Lundqvist for the game-winner with 3:31 left in regulation at Madison Square Garden to give the Bruins a 2-1 victory and a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Paille also had the assist on Boychuk's game-tying goal 3:10 into the third period. Paille's linemates, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell, were on the ice for both goals. Thornton had assists on both for his first two points of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tuukka Rask needed to make only 23 saves for the win. The Rangers couldn't help out Lundqvist, who was excellent in making 32 saves -- but not good enough to keep his team from falling into an 0-3 hole with its first home loss in the 2013 postseason.
Game 4 is Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET, CNBC, TSN, RDS).
"It means nothing because you have to win four games to move on," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "[Wednesday] is a new day, get ready for the next game. We gotta play strong again. It's going to be a close game again."
It's easy to understand why the Bruins aren't thinking big just yet.
For starters, the 11 players remaining from the 2010 team vividly remember their historic meltdown in the Eastern semis, when they blew a 3-0 series lead and then a 3-0 lead in Game 7 only to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers, who went on to the Stanley Cup Final.
But freshest of all is the memory of nearly giving back a 3-1 series lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round this year. The Maple Leafs won Games 5 and 6 and had a 4-1 lead in halfway through the third period of Game 7 before the Bruins stormed back with three goals in regulation, including two in the last 82 seconds, before winning in overtime.
"The Toronto series, I didn't think our team was in the zone the way it is right now," Bruins coach Claude Julien said, "so I anticipate, knowing my team, that we're going to come out the same way next game and certainly not be the Jekyll and Hyde team we talked about in the first round."
The question facing the Rangers is how much do they still believe after Tuesday night, when their power play again failed them (0-for-2; 2-for-38 in the playoffs) and they couldn't generate a consistent forecheck.
"The season is on the line," Lundqvist said, "so you have to leave everything out there."
The Rangers were hoping to do that in Game 3, especially after grabbing a 1-0 lead on Taylor Pyatt's deflection goal 3:53 into the second period. But they couldn't generate any momentum off the goal and were again chasing the Bruins, relying on Lundqvist to bail them out.
That was the story of Games 1 and 2 at TD Garden in Boston, and it was the same tale in Game 3. Boston outshot the Rangers 14-2 during the final 16:07 of the second period and 11-8 in the third period for a 25-10 edge after Pyatt scored.
Lundqvist, who stoned Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin on breakaways in the first period, had to make a superb glove save on Campbell with 8:24 left in the second to preserve the 1-0 lead. He made a quick left pad save on Torey Krug five minutes later and then got some help from the right post as Nathan Horton found iron with his shot off the rebound.
The Bruins were not discouraged. They knew they were playing well.
"We know in the playoffs things change quickly," Campbell said. "We wanted to stay the course, keep chipping away. Lundqvist was on his game. We knew we were going to have to keep firing away and it wasn't going to be easy."
It took a relentless shift from Boston's fourth line, some traffic in front of Lundqvist and a seeing-eye shot by Boychuk for the Bruins to pull even. Paille got the puck up to Boychuk, who had Campbell and Thornton in front of the net when he fired his wrist shot from the right point past Lundqvist. The shot may have deflected off Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, who was coming out to challenge Boychuk.
Paille scored the winner after Campbell's shot from above the left circle shot up and hit Lundqvist in the head. Lundqvist lost the puck and was almost guilty of putting it in himself, but Paille curled around the net and simultaneous with Rangers defenseman Steve Eminger whacked at the loose puck in the slot from the right side. The puck shot up and went into the near side.
"I didn't see it," Lundqvist said. "It went straight up. Nobody saw it, and then it just landed on his stick."
The Rangers used their timeout with 1:36 remaining and were able to settle the puck in the zone with roughly a minute left so Lundqvist could head to the bench for the extra skater. They had six forwards on the ice but couldn't get off a shot on goal.
"I think we played our best defensive game in a long time," Rask said. "When we play like that, we're a tough team to beat."
They've been impossible to beat in this series. But the Bruins know their most difficult test is yet to come.
It may be an old cliché, but when a Bruins' player says the fourth one is the hardest to win, he's speaking from experience.
The question now is have they learned anything?
"I hope so," Campbell said. "That remains to be seen."
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