The Tampa Bay Lightning slipped to within one game of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals as they fell to the Boston Bruins tonight at the TD Garden, 3-1.
Guy Boucher displayed a flair for the dramatic to go along with his degree in psychology as he waited until late in the day before tapping Mike Smith to start in net. Smith, making his first ever playoff start, stopped 17 of the 19 shots he faced.
The Lightning, seeking to build on the momentum of five unanswered goals and a dramatic come-from-behind win in Game 4, jumped out to an early lead when Simon Gagne converted a 2-on-1 pass from Steven Stamkos for his fifth goal of the post-season, just 1:09 after the puck dropped to start the game. Tampa Bay continued to apply the pressure throughout the first period, outshooting Boston 14-4 and holding the Bruins to without a shot on net for over 12 minutes.
But momentum could carry the Lightning only so far and the Bruins took control in period 2, opening up the game into an end-to-end battle and collecting two goals on eight shots as Nathan Horton and Brad Marchant scored to take a 2-1 advantage into the locker room. Horton’s goal, a blazing one-timer from the left faceoff circle at 4:24 into the period, stopped Smith’s shutout streak at 85 minutes and 15 seconds.
The Lightning pressed hard in the final period, firing 11 shots at Thomas and creating several excellent scoring chances, most notably a tap-in opportunity by Steve Downie at the corner of the Boston net that Thomas, diving to his right, was just able to stop in mid-air with the blade of his stick.
“It was just a reaction,” Thomas said of the save, “and I got a little lucky there.”
Be it luck or skill, Thomas ended his night’s work with 33 saves on 34 shots and his performance was clearly the difference in the game. His performance did not go unnoticed by Lightning coach Guy Boucher.
“We played well,” Boucher said after the game, “but not good enough. To beat this goaltender we have to do more – he’s making miracles, so we have to come up with miracles.”
Boston closed out the scoring when Rich Peverley rolled the puck into the empty Tampa Bay net as Smith sat on the bench in favor of the extra attacker.
The loss dropped the Lightning to 6-3-0 on the road this postseason and put their backs against the wall as they face a “must-win” Game 6 at home on Wednesday night. But Tampa Bay has been on the precipice before in this post-season; in fact three times previously they faced elimination in the Quarter-Final series against Pittsburgh and they fought back to win each time.
The Lightning get their chance to fight back again, some 40 hours from now on their home ice, the St. Pete Times Forum. The assignment, meanwhile, was made clear by Coach Boucher.
“We have to figure out the ‘Thomas enigma,’” he said.
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