Between the starting troika of Patrice Bergeron, Jordan Caron and Brad Marchand and the lately streaking unit of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Tyler Seguin, the Boston Bruins had a perfectly decent top half of offense to commence Tuesday night’s contest.
In addition, they all but had a sentient Shooter Tutor guarding the Tampa Bay Lightning net in Dustin Tokarski. Tokarski, on recall from the AHL and standing in for Dwayne Roloson and the injured Mathieu Garon, was coming off two unremarkable three-goal outings with the parent club.
The tone-setting shifts were ripe for the Bruins to sting the unripe Lightning goalie whilst returning some of the confidence that their first-time starter, veteran Marty Turco, gave them in a relief outing on Sunday.
And within the first 91 seconds, Boston’s two top pivots were doing enough to presage productive possession. Bergeron won each of the game’s first two faceoffs and Krejci, upon hopping into action on the fly, landed a hit on the gritty Ryan Malone.
Yet, by the time Krejci and his wingers returned to the bench for their first breather of the night, they all had a minus-two rating on their tab. Ditto defensemen Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk.
With a mere 2:26 off the clock, the Lightning had a 3-0 advantage in the shooting gallery and a 2-0 upper hand on the scoreboard. By the 4:31 mark, the Bolts had thrust six unanswered shots on goal and put three in the goal, which Tokarski himself assisting on Ryan Shannon’s power-play strike.
Translation: Turco and Tokarski had swapped personas, owing chiefly to their respective skating mates’ disproportionate difference in drive. And the two inverse proportions carried on long enough to let the Lightning pace themselves to a 6-1 victory, with Tokarski stopping 31 of 32 shots in the final 40 minutes.
The Bruins’ swift, self-imposed deflation served to cloud the fact that Tampa was missing Garon as well as towering sizzler Vincent Lecavalier and point-based playmaker Marc-Andre Bergeron. It allowed the Bolts to translate their desperation cleanly and move stealthily to within one point of the idle Winnipeg Jets for 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
The natural head-scratcher was why Boston could not pull off anything remotely comparable in this matchup. Logically speaking, the Bruins had at least the same odds off masking the wearing down of Tim Thomas and the injuries to Tuukka Rask, Nathan Horton, Benoit Pouliot, Rich Peverley and Daniel Paille.
They could have used that defiance for their own desperate situation in the standings. But because they let the Lightning have it all for their benefit, the Bruins left themselves with only a two-point lead and a now one game lead on the Ottawa Senators for tops in the Northeast Division.
Bruins buffs are now left to root for the Montreal Canadiens (who have been relegated to the spoiler role, if it makes any difference) to ward off the Senators Wednesday night. Otherwise, Boston will enter Thursday night’s bout with the Florida Panthers leading the division only by virtue of having played one less game.
The meltdown is magnified not only by the Bruins’ first three-game pointless skid since the tail-end of October, but also the pattern of their last three losses.
They won Saturday’s third period versus Washington, 1-0. They tied Sunday’s third period in Pittsburgh, 2-2. They tied Tampa within the final 20 minutes, 1-1.
But these were all after granting the opposition a 2-0 lead or worse. In fact, on a game-to-game basis, the initial deficits grew exponentially greater with exponential rapidity.
Boston started biting back at the Capitals before adjourning for the first intermission to make it a 2-1 difference and hopped on board against the Penguins when Krejci whittled the disadvantage down to 3-1.
And the Bruins could have perked up and tuned the mesh at either of those points in their burial from the Bolts. If they made it 2-1 or 3-1 when Tokarski was still cold, well, only the hockey gods know what would have followed.
Yet it took them until the second period, after they had brooked a 4-0 deficit and let the Lightning go on a 10-2 shooting run, to genuinely thaw out their twigs. And it took them until 1:55 of the third to solve Tokarski, when Caron made a negligible dent in a 5-0 pothole.
Of all the recent nights to sputter in this fashion, this was the least likely. Stranger things than this debacle may not have happened after all.