BOSTON — Call it the 800-pound Bruin in the room, but for all there is to admire about the professional way this team goes about its business, it has simply had a lot of trouble putting playoff opponents away during the past few seasons. “It hasn’t been our strong point,” Boston defenseman Andrew Ference admitted. “We’ve let some teams back into things a little bit, and of course we can’t afford to do that sort of thing now.”
They can’t because they haven’t faced a team with type of firepower that the Pittsburgh Penguins possess. Though they scored only once while taking 54 shots in their Game 3 loss on Monday night, the Penguins seemed a step or two away from opening their scoring reserves. Star forwards Evgeni Malkin, who had 10 shots on goal during the game, and Sidney Crosby, who seems to be missing a spark, perhaps from the cumulative effects of his injuries, haven’t gotten on the board against goaltender Tuukka Rask. “Tuuk’s been a rock for us,” said forward Nathan Horton, “but against these guys, you know how explosive they can be. We can’t let up for a minute. We know how fast a series can turn on you.”
More specifically it can turn on the Bruins. And the history pages are still fresh in their minds. In 2010, they held a 3-0 lead in games during the second round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, seemingly assured of moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals, especially after a decisive 4-1 win at Philadelphia in Game 3. Boston’s Mark Recchi opened the scoring in Game 4 and later netted a tying goal with 32 seconds to play in regulation. All signs pointed to Boston winning … until they didn’t. Philadelphia’s Simon Gagne scored to win the game in overtime, 5-4. Then the Flyers shut out the Bruins, 4-0, in Game 5 and squeaked by them, 2-1, in Game 6. Boston returned home for Game 7 and, with Milan Lucic scoring a pair of goals, soared to a 3-0 lead in the first period. But the Flyers tied the score in the second, and Gagne popped in the eventual winner in the third, making the Bruins only the third team in NHL history to cough up a series after leading it 3-0.
“Thanks for reminding me,” said Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, who was sitting in the penalty box during Gagne’s goal after Boston was whistled for too many men on the ice. “No, we understand how hard it is to close out a great team. The hardest win is usually the fourth one.”
Sometimes it doesn’t take a great team, merely a persistent one, to come back from the dead. The Bruins were up three-games-to-one in the first round this year against the Maple Leafs, who hadn’t been to the playoffs in what felt like eons. Toronto forced a seventh game and built a 4-1 lead in it before Boston rallied for a pair of goals with Rask on the bench. Patrice Bergeron tied it with 51 seconds left in regulation, then scored the winner at 6:05 of overtime. “We don’t want to go through that again if we can help it,” says Horton. “And Pittsburgh won, what, 15 in a row this year, so we know they can win four.”
Including a loss in Game 4 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the second round, and a subsequent win at the TD Garden two nights later, the Bruins are only 6-11 in closeout games dating back to that Flyers series. Add to that the fact that the Penguins have come back five times from 0-2 deficits to win series.
“We know the series isn’t over,” said Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. “Nobody in our room thinks that. If you get the first one you have something to build on.”
“There’s no questions what’s at stake for our future is a chance to play in Game 5,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “We know the history and the odds . . . Down 0-3 you can look at the odds. It’s not a very encouraging picture. To win a gold medal in the Olympics for Canada, you have to win four elimination games. We have to look at winning one hockey game against the Boston Bruins and then go from there.”
Bruins coach Claude Julien, echoed that sentiment with a wariness born of bitter experience and witnessing the Penguins’ effort in Game 3. “I think we know how we need to play,” he said. “It’s about bringing it tonight. This is about one game. It’s nothing more than about one game, what we need to do here. I mentioned yesterday that we didn’t play our best game last game. They played better. So we need to be a better team tonight.”
If they aren’t, that 800-pound Bruin could be on the loose.