SUNRISE, Fla. - Had events proceeded as expected last night, three third-period plays - a roofer of a goal by Phil Kessel, a block by Aaron Ward, and an aggressive stop by Tim Thomas - would have been mere afterthoughts in a Boston win.
But the Bruins, up, 4-1, over the Panthers in the third period, saw Florida roar back for two goals, including one in the final minute of regulation, that made each of the three plays critical in a 4-3 Boston victory before 14,926 at the BankAtlantic Center.
Thomas, when asked to describe the final two frenzied minutes of play, shook his head and raised his eyebrows.
"Mmm," said Thomas, pausing to collect his thoughts. "I don't know. Obviously, they pressured us really hard. They didn't give up. You've got to hand that to them."
It should have been an easier 2 points for the Bruins, who finally beat the Panthers after going winless in seven previous showdowns.
They took a 3-1 lead into the third period, thanks to a pair of power-play goals by Zdeno Chara and a second-period strike by Glen Metropolit. The Bruins stretched their advantage to three when Kessel, dropped to the fourth line in the third period, roofed a shot over goalie Craig Anderson at 4:57 after some along-the-wall grinding by linemates Brandon Bochenski and Jeremy Reich caused a Florida turnover.
But forward David Booth made it 4-2 at 17:41 when he beat Thomas with a shot the goalie wanted back. Then with 29.8 seconds remaining, captain Olli Jokinen tapped in a goal-mouth shot to close Boston's lead to 4-3.
"I'm sure Tim would like that second goal back," said coach Claude Julien. "It seemed to give them a bit of a second wind."
Because of Florida's comeback, Kessel's strike turned into the game-winning goal. But it stood up only because of the plays by Ward and Thomas.
With the score 4-1, Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester uncorked a fast-moving slap shot from the right point that Thomas kicked out. But forward Nathan Horton was floating near the crease, ready to dump the rebound into the net. Instead, Horton's shot was stuffed by Ward, who hit the deck and performed his best imitation of a goalie's two-pad stack, freezing the puck at 13:03.
After Booth scored Florida's second goal, the forward had another glittering chance in front of the net after a defensive-zone turnover by Marc Savard.
Thomas, steamed he let in a softie a minute earlier, attacked Booth's shot aggressively. Thomas shot out from his crease and gloved Booth's attempt at 18:47.
"At that point, I had just let in a goal that I'd like back," Thomas recalled. "So I'm just thinking to myself, 'I'm going to bear down and make up for it. Just do whatever I can to keep the score 4-2.' That was my thinking going into the save. I was just following the puck wherever it went."
Aside from the scrambling conclusion, the game was controlled by the Bruins. In the first period, the Bruins held a 17-6 shot advantage over the Panthers, backstopped by the seldom-used Anderson because Tomas Vokoun had played the night before in a 4-3 shootout win over the Capitals in Washington.
The game was a showcase for Chara, deployed by Julien to shut down Jokinen during even-strength situations. For two-plus periods, Chara did exactly that, frustrating the Florida captain.
At the other end of the ice, Chara proved he can be just as dangerous when attacking opposing nets. In the first period, during Boston's second power play, Chara rotated from the point to the edge of the crease. Marco Sturm spotted the Boston captain and slipped a cross-crease pass to Chara's blade for an easy goal at 10:11.
Then in the second period, after Metropolit and Florida defenseman Steve Montador traded goals, Chara extended Boston's lead to two. With Booth in the box for slashing, Chara went back to his usual position at the top of the power-play formation. Chara took a feed from Dennis Wideman and threaded a one-timer through Anderson's pads at 16:24.
"I've known Z to be able to put up points," Julien said. "Even in Ottawa, he was a guy where you had to respect his shot and respect him when he went up the ice. He's done a good job standing in front of the net when he's been utilized in that area. For his size, I think he's got great hands."