The Boston Bruins are one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final and earning a second opportunity in three years to lift the best trophy in sports, a dream that seemed so unrealistic just a month ago.
Of course, these are the same Bruins who were 10 minutes away from an embarrassing exit from the playoffs when the young and inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs held a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 in the first round.
But the Bruins, like they have so many times in the playoffs over the last few years, dug deep and found another gear of effort and determination to become the first team in postseason history to win a seventh game after trailing by three goals in the final period.
Since that dramatic victory to eliminate the Leafs, Boston's confidence has grown in each and every game. They have outscored opponents 27-12 in that span, which includes seven victories in their last eight games.
Now the Bruins find themselves on the brink of a most improbable sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, a team that looked unbeatable in March when it won 15 straight games and traded for future Hall of Fame winger Jarome Iginla to add to an already star-studded group of forwards.
After dominating the Penguins in the first two games of the series on the road by a combined score of 9-1, the Bruins needed to play their best game of the season to prevent Pittsburgh from getting back in the series with a Game 3 win.
What transpired at the TD Garden on Wednesday was one of the greatest playoff games in recent memory, one that reminded fans why they love this wonderful sport. It was playoff hockey at its best, with each team giving every ounce of energy available to find the one goal that would secure a much-needed victory.
In fact, it was the longest game played in Boston since Game 1 the 1990 Stanley Cup Final when the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Bruins in triple overtime from a goal by Petr Klima.
Two overtimes were required for a victor to emerge, and a third was almost needed before Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron scored the game-winning goal off a deflection from a Brad Marchand pass, a play that was remarkably similar to the goal Marchand scored in overtime of Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the second round.
The Penguins played their best game of the series in Game 3; there's no doubt about that. They dominated large portions of the contest and improved in several areas that were weaknesses for them in the first two games, including faceoffs, creating more scoring chances with speed through the neutral zone and an aggressive forecheck.
Pittsburgh also out-shot Boston by 14, out-hit them by 12 and committed two fewer turnovers.
"It was hard-fought all over the ice, and we threw a lot at them," said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma postgame. "We threw a lot at them in regulation, we threw 50-plus shots, and we played exactly how we wanted to play, just couldn't find the second goal."
But the Bruins were able to withstand a tremendous effort by the Penguins and still grind out a victory without playing their best hockey. This is the kind of result that builds character and confidence in a dressing room.
"I think character is always the word you want to use, a lot of character in that room," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien postgame when asked about his team overcoming Pittsburgh's best performance of the series.
"But like I said, we didn't play a bad game, but we weren't at the top of our game, and Tuukka [Rask] was good for us. But the character is because you get into overtime, and all of a sudden you become a better team."
If there was one moment in the game where Boston's character, resiliency and will to win was on full display, it was when forward Gregory Campbell blocked a shot on the penalty kill in the third period and remained on the ice to finish his shift, still willing to block shots and defend even though he was barely able to skate.
When the Bruins finally cleared the puck, Campbell made his way to the bench with over 17,000 people chanting his name. According to ESPN Boston's Joe McDonald, the veteran center has a broken leg, an injury that will end his 2013 playoffs.
"That's just the kind of player [Campbell] is, and it doesn't surprise me, it doesn't surprise his teammates, but certainly it shows the character of that player," said Julien.
Campbell's effort on that shift summed up what the Bruins are all about. There is no quit in this team, regardless of how fatigued it is both mentally and physically. The Bruins' last five playoff series losses were all in seven games, proving how difficult it is to eliminate this team.
While the fact that Boston has a 3-0 lead on the top-seeded Penguins is a surprise in itself, the way it has dismantled this Pittsburgh juggernaut is what's most impressive.
The Bruins' fundamentally strong defense and exceptional penalty killing has helped them completely shut down one of the most explosive and talented offenses the league has seen in the last decade. Pittsburgh came into this series as the playoff leader in goals scored and also led all teams in power-play goals.
But credit Julien for out-coaching Bylsma and putting his players in position to succeed against a collection of the world's most skilled offensive players, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla and Kris Letang. These players combined for 69 points in the team's 11 games prior to the conference finals, but they have all failed to tally a single point in this series.
Julien has won the matchup game by getting top defenseman Zdeno Chara and Bergeron (reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner) on the ice against Crosby and Malkin as much as possible.
Crosby's scoreless streak has now reached three games, the longest drought of his postseason career since he failed to get on the scoresheet in the final three matchups of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, Malkin's scoring drought is also at three games, which hasn't happened since December of 2010.
Boston's penalty kill was 6-of-6 on Wednesday to remain a perfect 12-of-12 in shorthanded opportunities against Pittsburgh. Preventing the Penguins from scoring with the man advantage is a huge plus for the Bruins, because Pittsburgh doesn't match up well with Boston at even strength.
We also must not forget about the performance of Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, whose 53 saves in Game 3 set a new playoff career high. The 26-year-old star has raised his game to another level in the postseason after being snubbed as a Vezina Trophy finalist.
He became the first goalie to shut out the Penguins in 2013 with a 3-0 Game 1 win and has allowed a total of just two goals in this series. That's a remarkable achievement given the talent and depth Pittsburgh brings to the ice each night.
With Rask, the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite at the moment, playing as well as Tim Thomas did in the Bruins' championship run two years ago, Boston is going to be the toughest team to beat for the remainder of this year's playoffs.
Wednesday's thrilling victory wasn't just a win to move the Bruins one step closer to the Cup final—it will give them the confidence needed to finish this series as quickly as possible and focus on the next challenge.
Boston is capable of playing any style of hockey and winning games, whether it's a high-scoring affair where two teams are trading chances in a frantic pace or a defensive battle where Rask's goaltending and the team's defensive structure has to be strong for 60 minutes.
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Despite the jubilation and excitement about the Stanley Cup Final being so close, the Bruins remain focused on the task at hand, knowing full well that the Penguins will not go down without a fight.
"We're not even thinking about that right now," said Marchand, responding to a question of whether or not his team can "taste" the Stanley Cup Final. "It's one win but a very long ways away. We have to make sure we do everything to prepare for the next game and come out very hard because we know [the Penguins] are going to."
The Bruins and their fans expected another deep playoff run this spring, one that would culminate with a rolling rally of duck boats parading down Boylston Street to an audience of a million-plus screaming Bostonians in late June.
Never has that dream become so real and attainable than after Boston's season-defining victory on Wednesday—one that will motivate this group of players to be the last team standing when it's time for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to award the 35-pound trophy that four teams are currently battling to hoist.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.