As often as not it has been the deadly one-two punch of the brilliance of goalie Tim Thomas and an unwavering five-man commitment to defense. But in this round, it has been the penalty kill that has allowed Boston to survive against the highest-scoring team left in the postseason.
Never was that more evident than in Monday night's Game 5, a 3-1 come-from-behind victory.
Boston trailed 1-0 and faced back-to-back penalties to Nathan Horton – each for interference – bridging the end of the first period and start of the second period. Going down 2-0 might have been more than the Bruins could handle -- at that point the Bruins just four shots, had yet to challenge replacement goalie Mike Smith. Now Tampa Bay's big guns – Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos
-- were being given free reign with extra open ice with which to operate.
Somehow, though, Boston found a way to get two important kills, relying on the work up front from Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly, Patrice Bergeron and Rich Peverley. On the back end, it was heavy doses of Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Brad Ference.
"We were kind of struggling a little bit on the power play, but when you do that, hopefully, the penalty kill steps up," Horton said. "They sure did tonight."
Horton rewarded the penalty-killers for that hard work, scoring just 17 seconds after he was released from the second of his two penalties. He was stationed in the right circle, took a pass from Milan Lucic and hammered a one-timer that beat Smith to the stick side, getting the Bruins even at 1-1 in a game in which they were being badly outplayed.
Using Horton's goal to build a bit of momentum, Boston got another goal – by Brad Marchand – later in the period – and then used the brilliance of Thomas to hold on for a 3-1 victory that moved Boston to within one win of its first Stanley Cup Final since 1990. Rich Peverley, one of the key penalty-killers, had the empty-net goal.
The Bruins knew how important those kills of the Horton penalties were -- as the two that came before the Horton penalties – because they lived through it two nights earlier. In Game 4, Boston took a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Tampa Bay killed two penalties to start the second and that was the fuel for a spirited comeback that ended with a 5-3 victory to even the series.
"I think it kind of actually did the same thing in our favor that it did in their favor last game," Boston coach Claude Julien said of the momentum swing that followed the successful kills. "We had those two early power-plays in the second period (of Game 4) and we didn't do much and they built momentum off that. I know that when Horts came out of that second one there, he scored a big goal for us and got us back in the game. So it did build some momentum.
"I think our penalty kill did a great job tonight for us. Right now, before the series started, special teams were the big concern, and right now I think in both areas, we're pretty even."
Actually, on the penalty kill, Boston is more than even in the battle. Tampa Bay entered the series with a man-advantage unit that was clicking at near 25 percent. After five games, the Lightning are just 2-for-18 (11.1 percent). On Monday night, Tampa Bay was 0-for-4.
"Our penalty kill, like I said, has been great -- especially this (last) game," Bergeron said. "It's been one reason why we won (Monday), the way that we competed and the way that we played out there even though there's one penalty kill where (Chris) Kelly and, I can't remember who, stayed on the ice for almost two minutes. Still, they didn't give out much and they found a way to get the puck out."
While Thomas, Horton and Marchand were celebrated in the media Monday night, the penalty-killers were being celebrated by teammates inside the Garden dressing room.
"It's important for teammates to realize what the less-talked-about guys do and it is important for them to feel that respect and that importance of their game," Ference told NHL.com earlier in the series. "You can't just say it. It has to be heartfelt and it has to be meaningful and it is. They've earned all that respect from what they have done. They've done all these things for us."
As the Bruins go for the win that will deliver them to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990, the penalty-killers are already working about having an impact again.
"We're always in each other's ear encouraging each other," Campbell told NHL.com. "I think our role is appreciated inside the dressing room if it is not written about every day; as long as we are contributing. Now, it seems like the penalty kill is a huge part of our game and it has the potential to be a huge part of the rest of this series. So that is what we are focusing on now."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Managing Editor