Saturday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins finally dropped the puck on a game that was originally scheduled for 17 hours earlier, postponed while the city complied with a shelter-in-place order as police searched for the second suspect in Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Both teams wore 617 patches in honor of those affected by the tragedy, with the game-worn sweaters set for auction to benefit The One Fund Boston. Penguins players and head coach Dan Bylsma wore Boston Strong T-shirts before the game to show their support, and players from both teams – U.S.-born and otherwise – could be seen singing along with the crowd in a stirring version of the national anthem.
And the Bruins came out charged with emotion, dominating from the first shift and keeping the Penguins on their heels and in their zone. After a period, Boston was leading in shots, 13-5, and on the scoreboard, 1-0.
“Right from warm-ups, with the pregame ceremonies and the video presentation, I thought the place was very emotional, very charged up, and I thought their team really rode that emotion in the first period,” Bylsma said. “They were much better. They came at us very hard in that first, and we were a little bit caught standing and watching as that happened.”
But the Penguins stayed calm and stuck to their game. And, by the final buzzer, they had found a way to withstand the Bruins’ barrage of 40 shots on goal – with 31 more attempted – to pull out a 3-2 win and clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I think us being able to keep it at 1-0” was key, Bylsma said. “They had chances to score again, and our goaltender [Tomas Vokoun] played extremely well.”
And when forward Jussi Jokinen, who’s been a major contributor to the Penguins since he was acquired at the trade deadline for a conditional sixth- or seventh-round draft pick, tied it up five minutes into the second, the tide started to turn.
“When we were able to draw even, that carried us through the second,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins’ power play carried them through the third, capitalizing on both of its chances to make the score 3-1 by 8:29 of the period. One of those goals came from Jarome Iginla, and the former Calgary captain drew boos every time he touched the puck for his decision to join the Penguins instead of the Bruins prior to the trade deadline. He also squared off with Boston’s Nathan Horton in a brief, spirited bout late in the first period.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Iginla said. “It’s a great sports city, and I’m very humbled and flattered that I had the opportunity to go to both teams, that both teams were interested in me. I made the choice to come to Pittsburgh, and I’m thrilled with that. But also I have a lot of respect for the city and the organization here. I hear great things from the guys who play here.”
The Bruins got within one with :03 remaining but, by that point, had run out of time.
“I thought we played a pretty good game,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “If we scored some goals today, I think everyone’s walking out of here pretty happy with the effort and the commitment that was put into this game. But when you don’t score goals, it tarnishes a lot of things, and that’s the unfortunate part.”
For the Penguins, clinching the top seed with a week to go in the regular season gives them the luxury of continuing to fine-tune and improve their game for the playoffs. It also gives them time to rest a few important players who might have otherwise tried to rush back, like Sidney Crosby (broken jaw), James Neal (concussion), Paul Martin (hand surgery) and Evgeni Malkin (shoulder).
“It feels good,” Iginla said. “At first, I don’t think guys knew about [clinching] or were talking about it. I think we’ve just tried to be focused on improving, working on certain things, playing hard and competing.”
“It usually comes down to the last game [or] two,” Bylsma said. “To be able to clinch the division and now the conference this early says a lot for our team and how we played through this shortened season, with different types of injuries and different people in our lineup.”
Granted, a few of those different people have been some pretty high-profile acquisitions who have now had time to get comfortable with the Penguins’ system and are starting to make a significant impact.
“I don’t know if we could anticipate the injuries that we had and the opportunity to even rest guys and get them back to 100 percent over the last two and a half weeks,” Bylsma said. “But to be able to have Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jarome added to our team, they’ve stepped right in and been very big contributors in the absence of some of the [injured players] we have.”
“We have great players who are out, but the guys who are in still believe we can get better and work and compete and win games, and it’s been fun,” Iginla said. “We’ve gotten great goaltending, guys have been playing hard physically, and [this] was a fun game to be a part of. With that intensity, it felt a lot closer to a playoff game.”
If the Penguins do indeed meet the Bruins down the road in the playoffs, they’ll have the home ice they’ve now earned until the Stanley Cup Final, if they would get that far. And, although Pittsburgh has struggled on home ice during the postseason over the past three years, their newfound commitment to defense gives them the confidence that this year will be different.
“We have not been as good at home in the playoffs,” Bylsma said. “And part of our game that I really like this year, in terms of turning the tide there and being tough at home, is just how we play defensively and how we play away from the puck.
“It’s not all about trying to outscore teams; it’s not about making sure we get to three, four and five goals to win hockey games. To be able to defend, and be good and confident in that area, is something we’ve been much better at, and something we’re going to need to be able to do to make home ice really work for us in the playoffs.”