TAMPA, Fla. -- The close-checking, low-scoring series everyone predicted for the Eastern Conference Finals finally happened in Game 3. For that, the Boston Bruins couldn't have been happier.
The Bruins, playing a perfect road game, ground out a 2-0 victory against Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday night to take Game 3 and grab a 2-1 series lead. The teams had split the first two games in Boston, but those two contests featured a mind-boggling 18 goals allowed by the two teams that were supposed to be the defensive maestros of the remaining field.
"That felt more like a normal game," Boston goalie Tim Thomas said after making 31 saves to record his first shutout of this postseason and second of his career. "That felt like the game we played most of the season. That was Boston Bruins hockey."
The fact that Boston got an early lead -- thanks to David Krejci's tally just 69 seconds into the contest -- certainly helped dictate the pace. Tampa Bay scored first in each of the two games in Boston and had a run of seven games in which it opened the scoring snapped.
"We had a one-goal lead for most of the game," said defenseman Zdeno Chara, who played almost 29 minutes and repeatedly foiled Tampa Bay forays into his zone. "We tried to focus on that part and wait for chances to come."
No chance, however, would be more glorious than Krejci's. Essentially, he was left unmarked in the high slot for several seconds after a defensive-zone breakdown and made several dekes before sliding the puck past goalie Dwayne Roloson, who tried to poke-check it away.
"It was a great pass by Lucic," said Krejci, who now has four game-winning goals this postseason, tying the single-season franchise mark held by Cam Neely. "I don't know how he saw me.
Lucic, who was being chased down by two Lightning defenders, saw only an unguarded stick in the slot, but figured out it was Krejci after accounting for all the Lightning players on the ice. Once he made the pass, he waited patiently for the Bruins to celebrate. It took longer than he ever imagined.
"There were two guys coming at me, so I didn't see what he was doing, but it felt like five to 10 seconds," Lucic said with a laugh. "I was like, ‘what are you doing? Shoot it already, you're all by yourself!' He obviously did what he needed to do and, like I said, it is nice when you start off a game like that and get an early goal."
It also helped that Boston welcomed Patrice Bergeron back into the lineup for Game 3. Boston's No. 2 had missed the first two games of the series as he worked to return from a concussion suffered 13 days ago.
Bergeron played almost 20 minutes, set up Rich Peverley for a golden scoring chance, took two shots of his own and won 18 of 28 faceoffs.
"I really liked the way he played," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Obviously, you see the difference he can make for our hockey club faceoff-wise, but also his responsibility at both ends of the ice.
But, it was the first goal that made the biggest difference. Boston hasn't lost this postseason when it scores first, and the lead allowed the Bruins to revert to the patient, minimal-mistake game that had delivered them four wins in their first five road games this postseason and was the foundation for much of their regular-season success..
Time after time Thursday night, Boston would gain the center red line, dump the puck in deep and go chase it. If the Bruins gained control, they cycled it, exerting pressure on the Tampa Bay defense. If the Lightning won control, they had to carry the puck almost the length of the ice to generate any offense. There were precious few quick strikes off neutral-zone turnovers for the counterattack-happy Lightning.
It proved to be too much effort on this night.
"Offensively, I don't feel like we paid the price," said Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, who was held without a shot until the third period. "I think we have done that in the past couple of games. I'm not going to use any clichés here. We just didn't get the job done."
On those occasions when Tampa Bay could gain the offensive zone and exert pressure, they were foiled by Thomas, who was starting to feel the heat after allowing nine goals against in the first two games against the Lightning.
"He's been our MVP from Day 1 and we have a lot of confidence in him," Lucic said. "I know he wanted to step up tonight and that is what he did."
Thomas was able to nurse the 1-0 lead into the third period until Andrew Ference gave the Bruins a bit of breathing room, slamming a point shot through traffic that somehow just squirmed through Roloson's pads and slid just across the goal line. The goal was made possible after a great cycling effort by Boston's top line, which was capped by Lucic getting the puck in deep to facilitate a line change.
"I think that first quick goal definitely helped the whole team," Thomas said. "Then, not just sitting back in the third but going out and getting that second goal made us able to stay relaxed and calm throughout the whole game."