Bruins score early, Tim Thomas shuts out Lightning to give Boston 2-1 series lead

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When David Krejci scored a little more than a minute into Game 3, it was natural to wonder if we had another wild and wide-open game on our hands. The rest of the first period featured its fair share of defensive lapses and near-scores, but the two teams finally went back to the type of defense-first hockey most of us expected in the last two periods.

That style seemed to suit the Boston Bruins the best, as Patrice Bergeron didn’t miss a beat in his return to playoff action while Tim Thomas earned a 31-save shutout to give the B’s a 2-1 series lead.

Boston 2, Tampa Bay 0; Bruins lead series 2-1

Thomas notched the second shutout of his playoff career in this win. He made some huge stops during this contest, although his defense didn’t hang him out to dry like they did in both home games. There was one play that symbolized that improved work to me: Zdeno Chara made a great play to intercept a pass on what could have been a deadly 2-on-1 play against Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. That odd-man rush had “GOAL” written all over it, but Chara sniffed it out.

Perhaps the biggest story of this series is the outstanding play of Thomas, who is solidifying his place as the best goalie in the world right now. Yes, Boston’s defense was better in Game 3, but the Lightning still put 31 shots on net. Even with some tough moments, Thomas put aside 96 out of 105 shots so far in this series and carried elite numbers into the Eastern Conference finals as well.

Two goals and one controversial penalty call

It’s tough not to throw Victor Hedman under the bus for the first (and ultimately game-winning) goal by Krejci. Hedman left the talented pivot all alone in front of the Lightning net and a sprawling Dwayne Roloson had no chance against a guy with Krejci’s hands. The most impressive part of this goal was Krejci’s patience, as he waited to settle down the puck before putting it past Roloson.

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The first period wasn’t all great news for Krejci, as Marc-Andre Bergeron delivered a big (but by almost all accounts, clean) hit on him later on. Bergeron received a widely criticized elbowing penalty for that check, but like many stated, the onus was on Krejci to be aware of where he was on the ice. On the bright side, the Bruins didn’t score on the ensuing power play.

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The Bruins didn’t have a ton of trouble bottling up the Lightning attack thanks to more responsible defensive coverage, a middling Tampa Bay effort and great play by Thomas. Boston also was wise to avoid “turtle mode” by continuing to create offense, which allowed Andrew Ference to give the team an 2-0 insurance goal. As we know now, that extra goal ended up being unnecessary.

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Outlook for both teams

No doubt about it, the Bruins are a more formidable opponent with their best two-way forward in the lineup. Patrice Bergeron simply looked fantastic tonight. He played more than 19 minutes, went 18 for 28 in the faceoff circle and showed little hesitancy to fight for pucks along the boards.

Boston must be feeling great about this victory, especially since Krejci seemed fine after taking that big hit in the first period. About the only negative is that they were out-shot 15-5 in the third period, but again, they weren’t as passive as that number might indicate.

The Lightning still have some reasons to be concerned, but their outlook would change dramatically with a spirited Game 4 win. They haven’t been down in a series since the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it would be shocking if Tampa Bay bowed out of this one. That being said, falling down 3-1 would be more worrisome against Boston than it was against a limited Pittsburgh squad.

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski