TAMPA, Fla. – There was nothing special about Boston's special-teams play Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. As a result, the Bruins could see their chance at hockey's ultimate trophy dies the cruelest of deaths.
With a chance to book passage to the team's first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 21 years on the line in Wednesday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins were completely outplayed on both the power play and penalty kill. The result was an excruciating 5-4 loss that sets up a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday at TD Garden.
The Lightning scored three straight power-play goals in less than 13 minutes to erase a 2-1 deficit, then held Boston to just a late power-play goal, in five attempts, to turn the game on its ear. Even the power-play goal the Lightning allowed was negated when Boston had a defensive breakdown and allowed Martin St. Louis to score on a 2-on-1 just 29 seconds after David Krejci struck with the man-advantage to end a run of 15 straight unsuccessful power plays stretching all the way back to Game 2 of this series.
"Obviously it was a difference maker," Boston coach Claude Julien said, talking about the special-teams play. "They scored three goals on the power play and it took us a long time to get our first one, and that certainly dictated the game."
Tampa Bay's power-play outburst was as surprising as it was stunning.
Boston had killed 11 straight power plays, dating back to Vinny Lecavalier's man-advantage goal in Game 2. It was a run of 240 minutes and 7 seconds of perfection that ended when St. Louis banged home the rebound of a Lecavalier shot just 16 seconds after defenseman Dennis Seidenberg took a cross-checking penalty at 7:39 of the second period.
The carnage continued on the next power play for Tampa, awarded when Rich Peverley was whistled for interference at 11:52. This time, Boston killed all but 17 seconds of the infraction as Teddy Purcell scored off a nice feed from Steve Downie to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead, an advantage the Lightning would never relinquish.
The run ended 34 seconds into the third period while Andrew Ference was still serving a cross-checking assessed in the final minute of the second period. The Lightning moved the puck around the perimeter until Steven Stamkos unleashed a slapper from the bottom of the circle to the right of Boston goalie Tim Thomas.
"Our PK has been so good," said forward Milan Lucic, who had Boston's first goal. "You look at last game, it won us the game. Today, it wasn't there and they were able to capitalize on it."
In Game 5, Boston killed two Tampa Bay power plays at the start of the second period to gain momentum and fuel a two-goal rally that laid the foundation for a 3-1 win. On those kills, Tampa Bay barely got a sniff of the net.
But in Game 6, Thomas seemed to be facing a shooting gallery whenever one of his teammates reported to the penalty box to serve time.
What was the difference?
"They were shooting the puck more, getting around the net and getting to the bounces," Seidenberg said. "The one goal when I was in the box, the puck seemed to go in the corner and it came back in front of the net and St. Louis is there to put it more or less in an empty net. They were just doing a better job of getting to rebounds and out-battling us in front of the net."
What made it even worse is Boston's power play remained an exercise in futility even as the Lightning found its way with the man advantage.
The Bruins had the first three power plays in Game 6, yet barely got a sniff. Not even the full-time deployment of defenseman Zdeno Chara as a net-front presence helped much until Krejci scored a power-play goal midway through the third. On that play, Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson was distracted by Chara's presence in his line of vision and barely reacted as Krejci redirected a shot from Nathan Horton into the net.
Krejci's goal was Boston's first since Game 2, a stretch of 253:20 between power-play goals for Boston. It was also Boston's first road power-play goal this postseason, coming on opportunity No. 26.
The Bruins tried to find positives about their power play, which is now 5-for-61 this postseason, pointing to an early power play in which they had almost a full two minutes of zone time, as well as to the Krejci goal.
"For our PP, even if we don't score, looking at our first PP, we spent two full minutes in their zone," Lucic said. "It's not always about scoring; it's about creating momentum and applying pressure."
Actually, with a chance at the Stanley Cup on the line in Wednesday's game, it has to be about results. The process is no longer relevant.
"In the end, results count and they were more effective and efficient with their power play," Seidenberg said.
So, with all the empirical evidence stacked against the Bruins, do they still believe their special teams can be special in their most important game of the season?
They have no choice.
"I think the main thing is that everything that has happened to now doesn't matter," Lucic said. "It comes down to one game and if our power play is great then nobody is going to be talking about how bad our power play has been."