COLUMBUS, Ohio — This may not be the center of the hockey universe 4-6 weeks from now, but it is at the moment, and it doesn’t look like the Bruins are about to change anyone’s mind. At least not any time soon.
The Blue Jackets are the best team in the Stanley Cup playoffs at this hour, and they showed that with convincing force and competitive push Tuesday night with their 2-1 win over the Black and Gold that gave them a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series.
Three laps into Round 2, all three games have been settled by a goal, the first two in overtime. All close encounters of the Cup kind. But the Blue Jackets showed in Game 3, before a roaring, snorting, and cannon-blasting sellout house of 19,337, that they can continue to keep the Bruins’ best offensive players quieter than Crane Beach on a frozen January morn, and that their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky (36 saves), has the early inside edge for the Conn Smythe trophy as postseason MVP.
As promised by Blue Jackets winger Brandon Dubinsky, Nationwide Arena was rocking, its devotees of vulcanized rubber indeed a “hell of a lot louder” that anyone or anything on Causeway Street in the first two games of the series.
In the end, though, the Blue Jackets themselves made the loudest statement, taking charge with a late-first-period goal, and then moving to a 2-0 lead with a buzzing, suffocating power play midway through the second that Matt Duchene finished off with his fifth goal of the postseason.
Duchene arrived here as a rental at the February trade deadline. He now has a pair of goals in this series, both of them game-winners. His stay here could be temporary, but he is making a lasting and forceful impact, one that Thursday night could help send the Bruins home with their season on the edge of extinction.
“This is amazing,” said Duchene, shipped here as a refugee that is the NHL shipwreck in Ottawa. “Just the competitive atmosphere. Just sitting on the bench, with the final seconds counting down, and watching guys block shots and grind. That’s what it’s all about. Exciting to see your teammates put it on the line, and exciting to go out and do your part, too.”
Duchene’s main contribution was the power-play strike at 12:42 of the second for the 2-0 lead. The Bruins, pinned back and utterly exhausted in their end, had repeated chances to clear but failed to get a handle, kept coming up short of breaking across the defensive blue line. With seven seconds left on Brad Marchand’s high-sticking infraction, after a quick rip by Cam Atkinson from the right circle, Duchene finally made the doorstep shove. It was the sixth shot the Blue Jackets put on Tuukka Rask during the 1:53 of man-up advantage.
“I felt pretty much all the way through it was our best game, for sure,” said Duchene, who was key to the Blue Jackets bumrushing the mighty Lightning out of the first round with four quick rabbit punches. “I thought we were more on our toes. I thought we went after it a bit more.
“I think we’ve gotten used to the type of hockey we have to play in this series. It’s a very different series than against Tampa Bay. This is, oh yeah, every inch is huge . . . the little things are bigger in this series than in the last series. And I thought we were way better five on five tonight. I thought offensively we created way more — could have had a few more goals. It’s such a stalemate out there five on five, you know, not many goals being scored even strength. So it makes the power play mean that much more. It makes the penalty kill mean that much more. And we are getting better five on five, and that’s what we want to do.”
Blue Jackets management brought in Duchene and fellow Ottawa winger Ryan Dzingel at the deadline, and more important, kept key UFAs-to-be Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, knowing full well that all four could walk when free agency opens on July 1. It was general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s burn-the-boats approach to the playoffs, and right now the Blue Jackets are sailing like no time in team history.
“I think we can even do better,” said team captain Nick Foligno, who had the primary assist on Duchene’s winner. “I liked that most of [Boston’s] shots [72 attempts total] were from the outside. We did a good job doing that, and Bob can make those saves. They got in a couple of times and he was there.”
The second period especially had the Blue Jackets fashioning the energy and strength of game that was their template for success against the Lightning. Tampa out-and-out folded, unable to summon any pushback, as if expecting the Blue Jackets to disintegrate.
Didn’t happen. No sign it’s going to happen. This isn’t a previously sad-sack bunch of expansioneers riding a string of lucky bounces, crazy calls or relying solely on the expert brick-and-mortar work of their Russian stopper. They’re good, they have the Bruins struggling to find a foothold, and they’re gaining belief by the shift.
“I’m only worried about if we’re getting better, and are we winning hockey games at this time of year,” said Foligno. “Win, and you put yourself in good position to be where you want to be. Come in tomorrow, look at what we can do better, and get ready for Thursday.”
In other words, more of the same. All of it surrounded by doubts that the Bruins can do anything different.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@