With all the focus leading up to Monday's Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final zeroed in on Tampa Bay's goaltending situation, it was the goaltender at the other end of the ice that stole the show.
Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand each scored second-period goals in support of Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, who stopped 33 shots to lead the Bruins to a 3-1 victory in front of 17,565 at TD Garden to give Boston a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven series.
The teams will return to Tampa for Game 6 on Wednesday, when Boston has a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990.
To get there, Boston will need to get another strong effort from Thomas, who might have been the sole reason the Lightning are not the team heading home with a chance to close out the series.
While the mystery of who would start in net for Tampa Bay, which opted for Mike Smith who made 17 saves in place of Dwayne Roloson, was solved during pregame warm ups, the Lightning failed to figure out Thomas enough to seize control of the series.
"We are still trying to figure out the Thomas enigma,'' Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.
That's not entirely true, as Tampa Bay has scored 14 goals on Thomas in this series. But on Monday, Thomas was at his best making save after save seemingly every time Tampa Bay touched the puck in the offensive zone, particularly in the first period.
Although Simon Gagne converted on a 2-on-1 chance just 69 seconds into the game, Thomas looked like Old Ironside the rest of the way stoning several quality chances the Lightning created.
Tampa Bay dominated the entire first period, winding up with a 14-4 shot advantage and looked every bit like a team that wanted to seize control of the series, holding the Bruins without a shot for a span of 12 minutes, 33 seconds in the first. But after finding the net on the opening shot of the game, the Lightning came up empty the rest of the way, although it wasn't from a lack of trying or creating enough chances.
It was just too much Thomas for Tampa Bay to overcome.
"We played extremely well that first period,'' Boucher said. "We were very poised with the puck, and it was something we wanted to correct from the previous two games where we had too many turnovers. I think we didn't really have any turnovers in the first period. We played really good, and should have had probably one or two other goals.''
Although Tampa Bay failed to capitalize on the early lead, only holding the one-goal advantage heading into the second period, the Lightning continued to push the pace with a carry over power play to start the second – Thomas made a sliding stop on a Steve Downie rebound chance – and another power play chance two minutes into the middle frame.
That's when the Lightning began to lament all the missed opportunities, and paid for it when Horton – who took both of the previous two penalties –fired home a one-timer on Milan Lucic cross-ice pass at 4:24 that snapped Smith's shutout streak at 85 minutes, 24 seconds. Marchand then tapped in a cross-ice pass from Patrice Bergeron, which followed a defensive zone turnover from Dominic Moore, to give Boston the lead with 4:04 left in the second period.
At that point, Tampa Bay's 0-for-4 power play showing loomed large in why the Lightning fell behind.
"Our power play is struggling right now,'' center Steven Stamkos said. "We had a few chances in the second (period) to kind of get another one and get some breathing room. But, it seemed like they got some momentum off the penalty kill. We started to get away from our game. We had probably a four or five minute span where it was odd man chances both ways. Kind of a run and gun style and that is not our team. We got away from what worked. In the end, yeah we got a lot of shots on net. We had some chances. But, our power play has to be a lot better, and then we have to stick to our plan for the whole sixty minutes if we want to win.''
But for all of Thomas' saves in the game, his best came midway through the third period when Eric Brewer sent a shot off the end boards that caromed off back to a wide open Downie at the side of the net. Downie quickly sent the puck toward the open net, but the puck glanced first off the post before Thomas came diving across with his stick to keep it from going in for what would have been a tie game.
"With the way the new boards are now-a-days in all the arenas, you got to be on your toes with the big bounces and the big bounce came out, and you know, it was just a reaction and a desperation and I'll admit I got a little bit lucky there.''
Luck or not, the stop was nothing short of sensational during a key moment.
"He's making a miracle , I guess we are going to have to come up with miracles,'' Boucher said.
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