BOSTON -- In a series decided by the slimmest of margins, it required perfection to win game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
"That was as close to a perfect Game 7 as you are going to get," said Boston goalie Tim Thomas
, who was a perfect 24-for-24 against the Tampa Bay Lightning
in Friday's Game 7 at TD Garden.
But Thomas was not the only flawless one in Friday's game. Boston needed perfection from virtually every player in its lineup to assure the franchise advance to its first Stanley Cup Final in 21 years. The players delivered.
"It was an incredible hockey game," said Boston defenseman Andrew Ference
, who started the game-winning goal sequence that was finished off by Nathan Horton
with 7:33 left in the game. "A couple of guys in here just said (Tampa Bay) can't hang their heads; they played a great hockey game.
"I don't know, we have been waiting for that 60-minute game -- and that was it, man. We had a good start, a good middle and we just kind of kept it up. I was impressed. It was a heart-stopper because it was so close. Both sides played well. It was a great Game 7. Persistence paid off."
Now Boston faces the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Game 1 is Wednesday in Vancouver on NBC, CBC and RDS, 8 p.m. ET.
Boston led this series two-games-to-one and three-games-to-two, but could not put away Tampa Bay in either instance, allowing the Lightning to even the series each time.
Friday night, however, the Bruins finally found the right formula, living up to their own expectation of its first 60-minute game of the series.
And, it was fortunate that Boston was so good, because that is what it took on this night to beat Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson
in Game 7.
Entering the night, Roloson was 7-0 in elimination games, including a 5-4 win Wednesday in Game 6.
He showed why he is so tough to knock out by stopping all 15 shots he faced in the first as Boston fed off a wild crowd at the Garden and looked for an early knockout blow.
It was more of the same in the second period as Roloson stopped 14 more shots -- including bang-bang saves against Mark Recchi with his right leg and a follow-up save with the crown of his mask on a slapper from the point.
"Roli really stood the fort there, he was outstanding tonight," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "It was a competitive game, just one goal takes you to the Stanley Cup Final."
In the third, it didn't appear that goal would come against Roloson, who had his elimination mojo going again.
That is until somebody with even more elimination-game mojo -- Horton -- ended the streak on shot No. 35 of the night.
It was the simplest of shots; really merely a redirection of a perfect pass from David Krejci
, but it was all Boston would need on this night.
And, it would allow Horton to become the first player in Stanley Cup Playoffs history to score two Game 7 winners in the same year. Horton also had the game-winner against Montreal -- in overtime, no less -- of Game 7 in the first round.
The goal came on a set play by the Bruins, according to Ference, who suggested the play after Game 1 as a means to beat the Lightning's often suffocating 1-3-1 defensive system.
"We know they're playing the trap a little bit so we just try to get some speed and I think Fer made a nice pass to Krech and they were flat-footed, they couldn't keep up with (Krejci)," said Horton, who has eight goals this postseason, including three game-winners. "I just tried to drive the net and I just went with my stick on the ice. He's such a good player and a good passer and such a smart hockey player. He just passed it to me and it just hit my stick and went in."
Despite deflecting praise for his goal, Horton was still happy to be the only player to score on this winner-take-all night.
"It does feel good; it definitely feels good to get the game-winner, but I mean it feels better to know that we're going to the Stanley Cup (Final). It's all about team here and it's a pretty amazing feeling."
The goal ended the most competitive Conference Finals series in recent memory -- and the first one to go to seven games since Buffalo and Carolina went the distance in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. Each team scored 21 goals in the series and it was the last of the 42 goals that made all the difference.
"Just goes to show how close of a league it is," said Tampa forward Teddy Purcell
, who had a monster playoff for the Lightning. "It comes down to the seventh game and one good play by them and it is a 1-0 game.
"That is definitely a hard one to swallow. It will be a tough summer; but you have to learn from it and you have to give them credit."
It was credit earned by the Bruins who have showed deep character in advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the first round, Boston erased an 0-2 deficit to defeat Montreal in seven games, exorcising plenty of demons in the process. In the second round, they swept Philadelphia in four games, just one year after the Flyers mounted one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the League against Boston in the second round. In this series, Boston overcame losing Game 1 at home and blowing huge leads in both Game 4 and Game 6.
"It feels incredible and I can use all the words everyone uses; incredible, unbelievable," said Thomas, who had two shutouts and a one-goal outing in this series. "We found a way to do it again. I'm sure everybody else's blood pressure is up -- ours was too. But, we've just got such great character on this team. We got it done."