It's hard to take any larger lessons from Bruins-Penguins, a low-yield bet to be your Eastern Conference finals matchup, since neither team was at anything close to full strength. Evgeni Malkin is out at least a week with a mysterious "upper-body injury," most likely a shoulder injury suffered Saturday. Boston turned to Anton Khudobin in net, their young backup who had already surpassed his own mark for NHL starts in a season. And both teams were playing their third game in four nights, with the Bruins on the second of a back-to-back, both on the road.
But last night's game was of massive immediate import—the Bruins came into the game a single point ahead of the Penguins, and could move into first place in the East with a win. And for more than 50 minutes, it looked like that's exactly what would happen. Zdeno Chara scored early on a power play, on a screened slap shot, and Tyler Seguin made it 2-0 10 minutes later. And 2-0 it would stay until more than halfway through the third, as Boston clogged up the middle and put four men in the neutral zone, daring the tired-legged Penguins to force their way around the parked bus.
It was the Bruins who ran out of gas, and spectacularly. With 6:18 left, Kris Letang slid one through traffic to Chris Kunitz at the right circle. Kunitz slapped it past Khudobin, halved the deficit, and woke up a dead crowd.
Less than a minute later, Brandon Sutter—who Pittsburgh acquired this summer in the first but probably not the last a-Sutter-for-a-Staal trade—tied things up, with the most casual of wristers over Khudobin's far shoulder.
“Every goal is possible to save,” Khudobin said. “I could stop the first, second, and third. It was a great play. You can’t say they just scored easy goals. They were good goals. But I think you can stop any of them.”
To make matters more difficult for Khudobin, each of Pittsburgh's three tallies came off of a turnover, none more direct that the third. With just 2:03 left, Sutter picked off a pass just inside the blue line, and had all day to aim a shot from the left circle for his second straight. The Bruins didn't even get a point out of a game they led nearly the whole way.
After the game, neither Claude Julien nor Patrice Bergeron would pin the loss on fatigue, instead blaming a third period where the Bruins abandoned the neutral zone, and were content to sit back in their own end.
"The first 40 we were going at them on the forecheck, we were first on pucks, and we were getting results," added Bergeron, as he spoke from the locker room, looking unable to find the words after the frustrating loss.
"I don't know exactly how to explain it, but it's unacceptable."
That's six straight for the Penguins, who with Chicago's two-game "losing streak," are the hottest team in hockey. Five of those six have been by a single goal, but a win's a win, and with the season more than half-over, Pittsburgh is now tied atop the conference. (Montreal still has a game in hand.) The Bruins and Penguins face off again Sunday, and yet again each will be playing their third in four days. Coaches like to tell players that it's a marathon, not a sprint, but in this lockout-shortened year, there's not much time to catch your breath.