BOSTON – The Bruins were not at their best in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but, fortunately, they had an insurance policy in the form of Tim Thomas.
As a result, Boston overcame a brutally slow start at TD Garden – managing just 4 shots on goal in the first period and giving up the game's first goal on Tampa Bay's first shot on net – to rally for a 3-1 victory on Monday night to move within one win of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years.
Game 6 is Wednesday night at the St. Pete Times Forum and the Tampa Bay Lightning will be looking for a victory there to extend this series to a winner-take-all Game 7.
"I mean I don't need to say it, everybody else says it; (the fourth win) is the toughest one to get, right?" said Nathan Horton, who started the comeback with a screaming one-timer past surprise starter at the 4:24 mark of the second period. "We're going to have to work even harder because we're going into their building and they're going to be all excited, and just need to play smart and work hard, and play a good, solid road game."
Boston will have to play better than it did Monday night because they can't rely on Thomas to bail them out yet again.
After allowing a goal to Bruins killer Simon Gagne on a 2-on-1 just 69 seconds into the contest, Thomas stopped the final 33 shots he faced in the game.
"It's unbelievable some of the saves that Timmy makes," said forward Boston Chris Kelly. "He's a pleasure to have. I think every guy in this room cannot say enough good things about him."
Even the Lightning were saying good things about Thomas after the game-changing save he made on Steve Downie halfway through the third period.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead after second-period goals by Horton and Brad Marchand, Downie appeared to have the equalizer 9:20 into the third when he picked up the rebound off the end boards when a Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer missed the net and had an over-aggressive Thomas out of position as launched a wrister.
Somehow, though, Thomas scrambled back and used the very heel of his stick to bat the puck out of mid-air and out of harm's way.
"Against this goaltender, you need more; you need more," Boucher said. "You need miracles. (Thomas) is making miracles. We have to come up with miracles."
On this night, Thomas had no intention of letting Tampa Bay author any more miracles after Gagne put a jolt of fear into the Bruins with his game-opening goal just 69 seconds into the game.
In his last nine playoff games against Boston, Gagne has 7 goals.
But, thanks to Thomas and the Boston penalty killers, Tampa Bay could not build on the lead. Despite being out-shot 14-4 in the period, Boston went into intermission trailing by a manageable 1-0 score.
"Even he said himself, after that first goal went in, he kind of relaxed a little bit, which is kind of funny because you would think you'd tighten up a bit," said Boston forward Milan Lucic, who set up Boston's first goal with a nifty backhand pass. "But for him, he just kind of relaxed and he knew he needed to get the job done and to not let in another goal. And he did that, he stood on his head for us today."
And the Bruins rewarded Thomas with a more concerted effort across the final 40 minutes, finally going to work on surprise starter Mike Smith, who had been perfect in replacement duty in Game 4, allowing Tampa to rally after Boston rang up three goals against starter Dwayne Roloson.
Smith, who also replaced Roloson is Game 2, found out he was starting after Monday's morning skate.
"Obviously it was my first start in the playoffs … I was definitely excited about it," Smith said. "I just wanted to go in there and give my team a chance to win.
"I thought I did pretty well. Two goals, but they were tough plays. I'm never satisfied with letting in goals, so I'm going to take a look at them and see what I could have done better."
Smith had little chance on the first goal, a tic-tac-toe passing play that ended with Horton slamming a one-timer past him on the stick side. He also had little chance on the second goal, a simple redirection by Marchand of a brilliant Patrice Bergeron feed for the game-winning with 4:04 left in the period.
Rich Peverley added an empty-net tally. Now, Boston has to get that ever-elusive fourth win to close out this series.
Last season, in the second round, the Bruins could not do it – even with four opportunities to get it against Philadelphia. Instead the Flyers authored a comeback for the ages to send Boston home early for the 20th straight spring.
Plus, Tampa Bay has already rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in these playoffs, running off a three-game rally against Pittsburgh in the first round.
"We're happy with (the win); but you haven't accomplished anything with a 3-2 (series) lead," Bergeron said. "Obviously, we need that fourth win and it's the toughest one to get. And we know they're not going to quit and for us, it's about finding a way."