Netminder Anton Khudobin’s stick slam upon authorizing the go-ahead goal to Penguins forward Brandon Sutter was the visual of the night for the Boston Bruins. It was the last of Pittsburgh’s three unanswered tallies in a span of 4:15 and the decider in a foul, fall-from-ahead 3-2 falter for the visitors at the Consol Energy Center.
To think that at the start of the third period, the leading candidate for Tuesday’s top storyline was Khudobin fostering his first career shutout in Boston attire at the expense of the NHL’s most prolific offense.
To think that, after a wretched eight minutes to start their two-night, two-city, two-country road trip, the Bruins were primed to cultivate their maximum allotment of four points. This was coming one sleep and one flight after they had surmounted a 2-0 deficit to escape Ottawa with a 3-2 shootout decision on Monday.
After that game, they shuffled back stateside to Pittsburgh, where their hosts had been idle the preceding night. Two unanswered goals by Zdeno Chara and Tyler Seguin held up for a little more than 40 minutes of playing time, setting the B's on a path to defy logic, snap the Pens’ five-game winning streak and pilfer a momentous victory.
Instead, they found another slice of musty white bread to sandwich some 110 minutes of irreproachable shutout hockey between Khudobin and colleague Tuukka Rask. A carryover streak of four unanswered goals ended when Chris Kunitz slugged home Pittsburgh’s icebreaker and, apparently, Boston’s spirit-breaker.
That was with 6:18 to spare in regulation. Khudobin faced a sparse two shots over the next four minutes and 15 seconds.
Both went soaring off of Sutter's stick over him, homeward bound.
There went a two-goal lead and two points in the standings along with it. Consequently, the Penguins are now in a virtual tie with the Montreal Canadiens for first in the Eastern Conference with 38 points apiece.
Under altered circumstances—if they'd stayed sharp for the full 60 minutes—the Bruins would currently have three more points than the Pens and one more than the Habs.
They still have two games in hand on Montreal and three on Pittsburgh, but the fact is they just spilled a chance to claim possession of first place. In addition, as the grind continues, there is a trade-off between all teams in that the Bruins have the advantage of more potential points to gain, but all of their adversaries have a little more rest time to gain.
And whether they ultimately surmount the Habs or not, their head-to-head collection with the Penguins could be a factor in which of those parties garners a higher seed in the playoffs.
It could be a difference between first and second or second and third place if both teams clinch their divisions. If they both fall short, it could be the difference in who gets home ice in the event of a first-round meeting.
With only three installments to each non-divisional season series on this year’s 48-game schedule, Boston must now win out to better ensure the upper hand. That will not be easy with the next installment coming this Sunday afternoon on the same ice, and as the latter half of yet another pair of back-to-back games.
The Bruins will revisit Pittsburgh for a 12:30 p.m. EST draw less than 24 hours after a home matinee versus Washington.
It will be a similar story this time for the Penguins, who will be returning from a Saturday afternoon visit to the New York Rangers. With that said, the importance of starting and finishing with equal, maximum assertion instantly heightens based on Tuesday’s result.
After Tuesday’s horn, the Bruins still own the best winning percentage (.771) in the Eastern Conference, immediately trailed by Montreal (.731) and Pittsburgh (.704). The best way to ensure they sustain that is to get the better of their fellow heavyweights.
Granted, home ice for any playoff series is hardly the be-all, end-all. Boston and Pittsburgh alike know that from their respective first-round downfalls in 2012.
Nevertheless, toying with the prospect of playing Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 7 at the Consol Energy Center when they could be at TD Garden if these teams square off in deep spring is not the best way to go.
It could be sort of like, let’s say, apathetically toying with a two-goal lead against a peerless offense with a confidence-seeking backup goalie in your cage.
Even the best can be burned when they juggle with torches, especially when it works the advantage of some of the other best. The Bruins learned that Tuesday when they lost Khudobin’s shutout, the lead, the game, the upper hand in a season series and, at least for the moment, first place all around.