BOSTON – The Boston Bruins picked the right time to play their best hockey.
The offence is clicking, the defence is stingy and the coaching philosophy of sticking with the system is working.
The Bruins are in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1992.
“All year long you are building for these moments,” goalie Tim Thomas said. “Some of the reason we are having success right now is everybody is contributing.”
Boston finished its sweep of Philadelphia with a 5-1 win Friday night, its eighth victory in nine games. It was the Bruins’ third four-goal margin in a series in which they outscored the Flyers 20-7.
With a shot at their first Stanley Cup final berth since 1990—and first championship since 1972—the Bruins have home-ice advantage against Tampa Bay. The Lightning also swept their conference semifinal, knocking off the Washington Capitals.
The schedule will be determined once both Western Conference finals are over.
The Bruins and Lightning have identical records—46-25-11 and then 8-3 in the playoffs. In the regular season, Tampa Bay scored one more goal than Boston but allowed 45 more.
“They’re a good team and we just want to make sure to keep playing the way we are,” said Johnny Boychuk, whose 50-foot slapshot broke a 1-1 tie at 2:42 of the third period Friday night.
A year ago, a distraught Boychuk dropped his head onto the sideboard as he sat on the bench moments after Philadelphia completed a stunning comeback. The Flyers lost the first three games in the conference semifinals but forced a Game 7 in which they fell behind 3-0 but won 4-3.
Now, picture this: an ecstatic, smiling Boychuk leaping into the arms of the helmeted Thomas—the two embracing—near the net after another series clincher with much different results.
On Friday, the Bruins had the Flyers down and didn’t let up.
“It was devastating last year how it ended,” Boychuk said. “I think everybody in the (locker) room knew that.
“And for us to come out and close the series off in four was huge.”
The Bruins probably will be without centre Patrice Bergeron, their leading playoff scorer with two goals and 10 assists, for the start of the next series. General manager Peter Chiarelli said Saturday a mild concussion likely would sideline him for a game or two, depending on when that series started.
Bergeron was hit by Claude Giroux moments before Boychuk scored. Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall draft choice last year, probably will suit up in his place, Chiarelli said.
The Bruins didn’t have much momentum at the end of the regular season, finishing on an 8-6-4 record. Then they dropped the first two of their opening series at home to the Montreal Canadiens.
But they listened well to their stay-the-course coach: Don’t panic, don’t abandon the defence-first system and don’t look beyond the next shift.
Boston won the next three games, lost Game 6, then led the finale until P.K. Subban tied it 3-3 with just 1:57 left in regulation. The Bruins persevered and won their third overtime game of the series.
“It’s about focus. It’s about poise, making sure that we focus on our structure and how we play,” coach Claude Julien said. “No matter what the situation is in the game or in the series, I thought it was important for our group not to panic.”
Philadelphia put up a much weaker challenge against a Boston team that’s far different from the one that collapsed a year ago when it became just the third in NHL history to drop a series it led 3-0.
Nine of the 20 players who suited up for the Bruins on Friday night didn’t play in any of the four losses. And they’re key players—David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand with five goals each in this year’s playoffs and Chris Kelly with four. Then there’s Thomas, sidelined for last year’s post-season with a hip injury but the NHL’s leading goalie this season in goals against average and save percentage.
“I wasn’t on the team, but everybody in the hockey world took note of the series,” said centre Gregory Campbell, who came to Boston with Horton in a trade with the Florida Panthers. “It’s good for this team, for this organization, to kind of get some redemption and to show that it is a new year.”
Things are going so well right now that even the power play and Milan Lucic are starting to produce.
Boston was scoreless on its first 31 playoff power plays before Zdeno Chara scored on a 5-on-3 late in Game 3 against Philadelphia. Then Lucic scored on a 5-on-4 on the Bruins’ second power play in Game 4.
Lucic, the hard-hitting wing on the top line, led Boston with 30 goals then lost his touch. He didn’t score a single goal in the last 10 regular-season games and the first 10 post-season games.
Then he came alive Friday night, scoring the game’s first goal and another that put the Bruins in command at 3-1 with 4:57 left.
Can he and his teammates keep rolling?
After all, the Lightning also swept their second-round series. And they won the last three games of the first round after falling behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1.
“It almost seemed like those first two games against Montreal we came out real tense. (Julien) just said, ‘Relax,'” Lucic said. “We’re a determined hockey club right now.”