TORONTO — Slow out of the gate for the NHL's restart, the Boston Bruins are finally starting to hit their stride.
A veteran backup pressed into service and the usual suspects up front led the way Sunday.
Jaroslav Halak made 35 saves, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand had a goal and an assist each, and the Bruins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 to grab a 1-0 lead in their second-round series.
Boston suffered regulation losses in all three of its round-robin tournament games to open the league's resumption to fall from the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference at the time the schedule was suspended because of COVID-19 in March to the fourth slot.
The Bruins then needed double overtime to get past the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of their first-round series, but began to find their groove before putting in the roster's best showing to date, especially early on, against the Lightning.
"Maybe there was a little bit of concern from some people after the first four games," said Marchand, whose team eventually disposed of Carolina in five. "But for the teams that weren't fighting for a playoff position and were playing for standings, those games really didn't mean a whole lot. They were exhibition games, let's be honest.
"None of the teams really were at the top of their game."
Charlie Coyle had the other goal for the Bruins, who will look to go up 2-0 in the best-of-seven matchup Tuesday before the clubs go right back at it 24 hours later inside a fan-less Scotiabank Arena.
Victor Hedman scored twice for the Lightning, while Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 28 shots for a roster that looked stale early.
"It was completely disappointing, to be honest," Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said of his team's first period. "I liked a lot the way our game progressed, but if we aren't going to manage the puck it'll be tough.
"We can't start games the way we did. It put us on our heels and shortened the game."
The Bruins led 2-0 through 40 minutes and pushed that advantage to three 1:17 into the third on a relentless forecheck from their top line. Patrice Bergeron stripped Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh and quickly fed Pastrnak, who in turn saucered a pass to Marchand to bury his fourth of the post-season.
"It's a second-effort league," Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. "There's very few guys that are that good that you know don't need second effort on the puck. Our guys do it very well, our top guys, and now it's bleeding into the middle guys.
"That's what it takes."
Cooper said the Lightning have a plan for the Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak line, but "you hope to just control them."
"They made a pretty slick play there," he said. "They make big-time plays at high rates of speed, so if you let up for a second they'll get you."
Tampa got on the board at 8:50 when Hedman snapped a shot — the Lightning's first of the period — through traffic that glanced off Boston defenceman Charlie McAvoy's stick for his second.
Hedmam then made it 3-2 with 1:14 remaining in regulation on a shot that ticked off McAvoy's leg, but Halak shut the door from there to win his fourth consecutive start since No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask left the Toronto bubble for what team president Cam Neely recently described as a "family emergency" on Aug. 15.
"He's an unbelievable goaltender, a lot of experience," Pastrnak said. "He's been really good for us."
Up 1-0 through 20 minutes, the Bruins doubled their lead at 4:34 of the second on a slick power-play sequence. Boston pinged the puck around for an extended period before David Krejci took it down low and found Pastrnak, who made no mistake for his second. With the helper, Krejci extended his point streak to seven games (three goals, seven assists).
Blake Coleman rang a shot off the crossbar at the other end as Tampa pushed back before Alex Killorn's shot that beat Halak was waved off because of a Tyler Johnston high stick.
Vasilevskiy robbed McAvoy off a feed from Coyle on an odd-man rush to keep the deficit at 2-0. Halak had to be sharp on a quick-fire exchange with saves on Erik Cernak, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. Vasilevskiy continued the goaltending show with a stop Ondrej Kase on a 2-on-1 and Brandon Carlo's follow-up effort.
Halak, who backstopped the Montreal Canadiens on their memorable run to the conference final a decade ago, then stoned Barclay Goodrow at the side of the net.
"He was dominant that period," Cassidy said. "Both goalies did their job. We just happened to be one save better."
The post-season matchup between the teams with the two best records in the East when the pandemic shuttered the season more than five months ago was set after both completed five-game victories in the first round, with Tampa avenging last season's stunning sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Lightning and Bruins played March 7 in a testy affair at TD Garden, a game that included a combined 94 penalty minutes and resulted in a 5-3 victory for Tampa, before the Bruins lost 3-2 in the round-robin on Aug. 5.
The physical play ramped up as Sunday progressed, with scrums and face washes following a number of whistles.
Boston, which fell 4-1 to Tampa in the second round of the 2018 playoffs before a crushing Game 7 defeat against the St. Louis Blues on home ice in last year's Stanley Cup final, took the lead with 68 seconds left in the first seemingly out of nothing.
Coming off the bench on a change, Coyle deftly tipped Carlo's shot that was going wide past Vasilevskiy for his third after a dog-tired Marchand made a nice play to hold onto the puck in the offensive zone instead of simply throwing it into the corner.
Like the Pastrnak goal that would turn out to be the winner, it was an example of extra effort needed when the chips are down.
"We really buckled down when playoffs started, when the games matter," Marchand said. "That's how this group is.
"When it's time to play, guys are prepared."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press