Last night's Game 7 between the Bruins and Lightning prove that there is nothing better than the NHL Playoffs.
In a 60-minute game that separated both Eastern Conference teams between advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals and Round 1 of golf, the battle inside the TD Garden did not disappoint.
Both teams, who took a combined 62 shots on net, took a hard-fought 0-0 tied-up contest into the third period before Nathan Horton lit the lamp at the 12:27 mark of the final frame.
Defenseman Andrew Ference took the puck from his own end and dished it off to centerman David Krejci -- who took the tape-to-tape pass on his backhand through the neutral zone, and into the offensive zone with Horton to his right on a 2-on-2 play.
"I was waiting for that all series. All series, we talked about that," said Ference about the designed play. "We tried it a couple times and tonight was the first time it really just worked perfect, the timing and everything. Krech [David Krejci] came through at a perfect timing. Obviously the finish was sick, but we’ve been waiting for that neutral zone play for seven games."
The former Panther, Horton, came barreling past the blueline and made a bee-line for Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson's doorstep. With his head up and stick flat on the ice, No. 18 tipped the rubber past Roloson for the game's one and only goal of the game.
"We had possession of it. I think Ference had it back there and we just tried to come back and get some speed. We know they’re playing the trap a little bit so we just try to get some speed," said the Bruins' three-time game-winning hero, Horton." Ference made a nice pass to Krech and they were flat footed, they couldn’t keep up with him.
"And I just tried to drive the net and I just went with my stick on the ice. And he’s such a good player and a good passer and such a smart hockey player. He just passed it to me and it just hit my stick and went in."
Tim Thomas was solid, stopping all 24 shots he faced for his second shutout of the post season. The Vezina Trophy finalst is now 12-6 in these playoffs with a .929 save-percentage (3rd) and 2.29 goals0against average (5th).
"Our goal tonight was not to just rely on Timmy to win us a game, we had to do it as a team," head coach Claude Julien said after the 1-0 victory. "Timmy made the saves he had to make and it’s very fitting for him to get a shut-out in a game like that, because he’s been good for us all year and he’s deserving of all the good things that are happening to him."
Perhaps one stat -- aside from the 46 total hits and 35 combined blocked shots -- that stands out the most is the zero total penalty minutes throughout the 60-minute contest. Referees Steve Walkom and Dan O'Halloran swallowed their whistles and let Game 7 play out the way it was meant to be played. And that's by allowing both Boston and Tampa Bay to dictate the pace and the final result of the game, and series.
"What I liked about the refereeing tonight, is that they let the two teams decide the outcome. I think both teams were very disciplined tonight," said Julien. "I thought, for what this game meant, I thought the referees handled themselves extremely well. And I’m not saying that because we won, I’m saying that even as it was 0-0, I liked the way they were handling it."
Give credit where credit is due. Right now, noting Roloson's bounce-back performance from Game 6 to last night should not be understated. The 41-year-old netminder gave the Bolts every chance to win and extend their season last night. He had an iffy win in Game 6, allowing four goals on 20 shots. But last night, Roloson was on point.
"Guys played hard and did everything that they had to do…hits, blocked shots. Everyone did everything their guys and our guys. Give the referees credit for not disrupting the flow of the game when there wasn’t anything out there," said Roloson, who stopped 37-of-38 Boston shots last night. "That’s why these guys are reffing. That’s why we have the best refs in the world. They always do a great job day in and day out."
"Give the refs credit there were no penalties all game," added Lightning forward Steven Stamkos. "They let us play. You like to have it that way."
The spotlight is once again on Horton and his heroics. The 25-year-old winger has been emerging as an MVP candidate for the Bruins this post season. His 17 points (8 goals) leads the team, has the second-most shots on goal (46) and is a plus-10 for the playoffs. And three of his goals, thus far, have been goals that will be in Boston Bruins history forever -- two overtime-winners against Montreal in Round 1, and yet another one last night in front of the 17,565 faithful inside the TD Garden.
"It definitely feels good to get the game winner but I mean it feels better to know that we’re going to the Stanley Cup playoffs," said Horton. "And it’s all about team here and it’s a pretty amazing feeling. In the end it doesn’t really matter who scores the goals but it does matter if you’re moving on. And we are, so that’s all that matters."
Boston now advances to the Stanley Cup Finals, which begins Wednesday in Vancouver, for the first time since 1990...their last Stanley Cup parade was in 1972...Dennis Seidenberg lead all players last night with 8 blocked shots and 27 minutes 57 seconds of total ice time...Patrice Bergeron won 15-of-23 face-offs (65%)...Nathan Horton had a game-high 6 shots on goal...Andrew Ference lead all defensemen with 5 shots.