BOSTON -- While the Tampa Bay Lightning had given other members of the Boston Bruins defense corps trouble with forechecking pressure during the Eastern Conference Finals, there have been instances where it seemed like they were giving Zdeno Chara too much time and space once the puck settled on his stick.
Ryan Malone changed that in the second period of Game 4, and he may have altered the course of this series in the process. Malone's willingness to get physical with the imposing Boston captain helped ignite a Tampa Bay rally.
"It takes a lot of energy to take on a big guy like that and put that guy down," teammate Simon Gagne said. "Maybe it starts with that. That's what we need. We need to be physical but at the same time we need to make sure we get that puck after. He was one of the best players for us."
Boston stunted Tampa Bay's offense in Game 3 and the first period of Game 4 with size and physical play, but Malone went a long to way to proving the Lightning wouldn’t be pushed around by engaging with Chara.
He collided with Chara along the left wall near the Tampa Bay blue line early in the second period, knocking the defenseman to the ice. A few minutes later, he slammed into Chara again -- this time sending him to the ice and dislodging the puck from his stick behind the net.
Gagne collected it and sent a pass to Teddy Purcell for Tampa Bay's first goal to start the comeback from a 3-0 deficit.
"He's a big, big man. I think I'm feeling a little bit of that today," Malone said. "He's a force out there so any chance you have to put the body to him -- even if you don't knock him over and you might take the brunt of it, you try to tire him down. He's a big bear. I don't know what other animal you can compare him to, just a big guy so you try to make it hard on him because he plays a lot of minutes."
Later in the period Malone and Chara came together in front of the Boston net during a post-whistle scrum. Chara shoved Malone away from goaltender Tim Thomas, but he went right back at the defenseman with a shove and some words.
An official stepped in to intervene and inadvertently tripped Chara, which drew a rousing approval from the St. Pete Times Forum crowd. There was plenty of symbolism to draw from -- Malone had stood up to the towering defenseman on several occasions and the crowd loved it.
Other teammates seemed to follow suit after the first couple hits by Malone. The physical tenor of the game changed. Tampa Bay's third goal came from another mistake by a Boston defenseman forced by a forechecking forward.
"He's a warrior. He pays the price in so many areas," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "Sometimes you notice, sometimes you don't notice it. We notice it every game and every shift he plays. He inspires this team. And I think tonight I gave him one of our two stars for sure because I felt that he was part of the guys that really inspired the rest of the group. And he keeps on doing what he's been doing. He's one of those guys that you never know when he's going to make a difference and it could be with a body check, could be with a goal, could be with heavy stick in front of their net. He has just been terrific for us and continues to be, so we rely on him heavily."
The Bruins lost their physical edge and the Lightning ended up scoring five unanswered goals. Malone played a big part on the game-winner as well. He intercepted a pass through the middle of the ice by Milan Lucic and then carried it toward the Boston net along the right wing. He sent the puck toward the cage and it ended up on Gagne’s stick to put Tampa Bay up 4-3.
Purcell had two goals, Gagne had three points (including the game-winning goal) and backup goaltender was 21-for-21 in saves. They were all great, but Malone was deservedly the No. 1 star for his effort.
"He's a big power forward and when you play teams like Boston you know you're going to need your big guys to skate with the puck," Gagne said. "We know their defensemen are really good physically and take a lot of space. When you get a guy like [Malone] who can go at the net and drive the net and taking that space away -- that's what he did on the game-winner, that's why I had the time to take my shot there because he went at the net and those defensemen. That's the type of guy we need in the playoffs and he did a really good job."
This was not an easy regular season for Malone. He had 14 goals in 54 games -- both totals were the lowest of his seven-year NHL career.
He played only once between January 21 and March 31 because of an abdominal injury and Tampa Bay felt his absence. The Lightning went 34-17-5 this season before and after Malone's injury but only 12-8-6 during that time.
"He's been a guy all year that we're a different team when he's in the lineup," Teddy Purcell said. "When he was out of the lineup we didn't really have that much grit and sand paper. Him and Chara have been having a good battle all series and that definitely inspires us. He's been a warrior and he was a horse yesterday."