The Bruins finally showed signs that the team that had the best record in the regular season is still there. They finally played hockey that looked like it was closer to playoff hockey than exhibition hockey.
It still wasn't enough. The Lightning's Tyler Johnson broke a 2-2 tie with 1:27 left in the game to lift Tampa Bay to victory and end the Bruins' hopes of holding onto the No. 1 seed they held going into this round-robin tournament. Boston can now do no better than the No. 3 seed as it heads into its final round-robin game against the Capitals on Sunday.
It looked like this game had a chance to be another disaster for the Bruins, as the LIghtning jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 10:37 with a pair of goals that deflected in off skates.
But then the Bruins finally showed some fight -- both of the literal variety as guys dropped their gloves and got physical, and of the figurative variety as they came from behind to tie the game.
It started with Torey Krug late in the first period, when he responded to what looked like a bit of a blindside hit by Blake Coleman on Brandon Carlo by challenging Coleman and dropping the gloves. There were no big punches landed, but the act of sticking up for his teammate was enough to help spark the Bruins.
Just over a minute later, Charlie McAvoy got into it with Brayden Point and actually drew an extra minor on Point. The Bruins kept up the physicality for the remainder of the game, both during play and after whistles. Matt Grzelcyk joined Krug in sticking up for a teammate when he took on Barclay Goodrow in the third period after Goodrow threw a vicious blindside hit to Anders Bjork's head that was somehow only a two-minute minor.
"We wanted to show more passion, more competitiveness than we did against the Flyers. I certainly thought we did that," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "Some of that is Tampa has become a natural rival. ... I did like that our competitive spirit came out. We got behind, we didn’t get away from our game. We didn’t lose our composure either or discipline. I thought we kept playing, tried to ramp up the physicality, win a few more pucks."
None of that would've meant anything if the offense didn't get going, though. It finally did late in the second period when Patrice Bergeron cleanly won an offensive zone faceoff back to Krug, who then set up McAvoy for a one-timer that rocketed past Andrei Vasilevskiy's glove.
The Bruins then tied the game 1:47 into the third when Zdeno Chara's shot from the point squeaked through Vasilevskiy and was whacked home by Chris Wagner. Momentum remained on the Bruins' side for the next several minutes, and Wagner continued to make things happen when he drew a penalty on the forecheck a few minutes after the goal.
The Bruins had a couple chances to take the lead on the ensuing power play, including a David Pastrnak one-timer that was painfully blocked by Erik Cernak, but couldn't score. Bjork had a good chance from the slot milliseconds before Goodrow elbowed him in the head, but Vasilevskiy made a nice glove save.
Then it was the Lightning who started getting the chances in the final eight minutes or so, but Tuukka Rask stood tall in his first round-robin action, including back-to-back big saves on Ondrej Palat with 5:30 to go.
But then the Bruins suffered one painful breakdown that was reminiscent of Sunday's game, and that was all the Lightning needed. Carlo turned the puck over on the breakout, and then Bergeron and David Pastrnak changed off after the turnover, opening up the neutral zone and allowing Tampa to turn the puck right back up ice.
Yanni Gourde fired a low shot that Rask couldn't control as he kicked the rebound right into the slot, where Tyler Johnson beat both Carlo and Sean Kuraly to the puck and fired it into the back of the net.
"The end of the game we got a little loose there," Cassidy said. "Rush chances, and some of that we have to protect the middle of the ice better. But again, to me it’s puck management. We had the puck on our stick with a minute and a half to go, breaking out of our end, and all of a sudden, they’re coming back at us. That plagued us in the first two games and we have to clean that up."
Goodbye, No. 1 seed. A much better effort, but still a third straight loss. It was a reminder that "good" might not be good enough against a team as good as Tampa Bay in the playoffs, and a reminder that even one breakdown rather than four might be too many.
Now the Bruins enter Sunday's game knowing they're the three- or four-seed, but also knowing that especially this year in a neutral environment with no fans, seeding won't be nearly as important as how you're playing.
"Well that part sucks, I’m not going to lie to you," Cassidy said of losing the No. 1 seed. "But, that’s the situation this year with the stoppage of play. We knew the rules going into it, that we would lose a bit of the advantage we’d gained. We are where we are now. We’re just trying to win a hockey game right now, get our game together for 60 minutes so that we can be at our best.
"This is one year I do believe the seeding is less relevant than others. I think everyone has discussed that. Would I have rather been number one seed? Absolutely, keep it. That’s not going to happen, so like I said, we’ll get ready for Washington and play the best game we can and prepare for the postseason. That’s our ultimate goal, we have to win 16 games. We knew that going in. That will still be our goal."