The Boston Bruins very well could have won the Stanley Cup on Monday night, at least figuratively.
With a 2-0 shutdown win over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Bruins took not just a 2-1 lead in the series but wrestled away complete control during a game that built off Saturday's dramatic overtime win. Outshooting Chicago 35-28, Boston worked through another tough first period to once again find a groove in the second -- this time not letting up on the pressure until the final minute of regulation when the game was all but out of reach for the frustrated Blackhawks.
The win was fueled by another stunning performance by the Bruins penalty kill, as well as absolute mastery of the faceoff circle -- the Bruins finished by winning 40 of the 56 faceoffs in the game. While the complete effort on special teams and in goal formed the backbone for these two straight victories, once again it was the third and fourth lines that truly fueled the win for Boston in what has become a heck of a chess match between two very talented teams.
"When you look at I guess the matchups, it just kind of seems to even itself out," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, on how the depth is making a difference in the series. "Their top lines, our top lines. Our top lines haven't scored that much five-on-five either. It's the Kelly line that gives us that goal five-on-five. Right now it just seems that both teams are very aware of the other team's top players. Playing a chess match right now."
The line of Chris Kelly, Daniel Paille and Tyler Seguin -- responsible for both goals in Saturday's overtime win -- kicked things off for Boston once more by opening the scoring in the second period. The Bruins certainly played a better first period this time around yet Chicago had fought just as hard; Paille's goal, just 2:13 into the second, seemed to quickly take the fight out of Chicago's sails and the Bruins never looked back for the rest of the game.
The goal was once again the result of hard work and energy from a third line that didn't exist at the beginning of Game 2, yet suddenly that combination has become the spark the Bruins have needed against Chicago. Boston never relinquished control from that moment forward and never came close to the meltdown that led to the loss in Game 1.
"We told ourselves when we came into the locker room, we said, we've been in this position and we gave up the two-goal lead, so let's do it better today, keep attacking," said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg after the game. "If you attack, it's tough for them to score in our end. We did a good job, kept playing our style, kept putting pucks deep, except the last couple of minutes actually. They threw everything at us, like Tuukka said earlier. They got quite a few chances. For the most part we did a decent job."
It's interesting to think of how momentum changes within games and within a series. The Chicago Blackhawks, fresh of a two-goal comeback and triple overtime win in Game 3, exploded onto the ice in the first period on Saturday in as dominant a 20-minute performance you might ever see in a Stanley Cup Final. Yet the Blackhawks were unable to build off that momentum thanks to the incredible play by goaltender Tuukka Rask, and the Bruins stayed alive long enough to earn a comeback overtime win of their own.
The difference here is that the Bruins, heading back to their home ice, were able to continue the momentum from that big win in Chicago and engineered an impressive performance in front of a rowdy Boston crowd.
So dominant was this game for Boston that the Chicago Blackhawks looked as frustrated and as discombobulated as we've seen from that team this season. The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL over the course of the season, yet on Monday night looked lost and uncertain on the ice. Errant passes, poor turnovers and defensive breakdowns gave the Bruins all the space they needed even while Corey Crawford was doing his best to keep his team within reach during most of the game.
Perhaps the frustration at even strength carried over from one spectacularly poor power play, which has only gotten worse for Chicago as the series has progressed. In one sequence during the second period, the Bruins recorded more scoring chances than the Blackhawks on a Chicago power play -- the Bruins' control on the penalty kill has quickly become a deciding factor in this series.
"We know they've got some great players on that other team," said coach Claude Julien. "Our penalty kill has to be at its best. It really got better as the playoffs went on. But we really picked it up against Pittsburgh for the same reasons, same kind of a dangerous power play. Again, it just continues to give us some help in these games. Obviously we don't want that to be a momentum changer against us. I think killing those has really given our bench a boost."
The Blackhawks are clearly dealing with some tough adversity on their top lines, with Marian Hossa out for Game 3 and Jonathan Toews very obviously playing through some sort of injury. The Chicago captain has been absolutely absent in this series and it's clear that the depth of the Blackhawks has not been nearly as effective as the team needs. Blame the Boston defense and goaltending for rendering the bottom six of Chicago completely inert.
With the series tied 1-1, Game 3 was perhaps the most important game of the Stanley Cup Final for both teams. Boston now has complete control over the series and look to be nearly impossible to beat on home ice. In fact, the Bruins have not lost a game in regulation -- home or away -- since their Game 6 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
We knew this series was going to be close and it may still go down to the wire, but it's becoming clear that the Bruins just have too much momentum for the Blackhawks to overcome. Aside from a few poor periods across three games, the Bruins have had almost complete control of the series from the first puck drop. This is a team that is proving to be too deep -- deeper even than what some thought to be the deepest team in the NHL -- along with some truly astounding play by the goaltender in net.
There's still plenty of time for Chicago to pull this off but right now it appears the best team on the ice is truly starting to really assert itself and seize momentum in the series -- and time may have already run out to get it back.