BOSTON — The Boston Bruins are in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 21 years. Now they have a shot at their first NHL championship in 39.
They advanced Friday night with a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals behind Tim Thomas' second shutout of the series and Nathan Horton's goal with 7:33 left in the third period.
"This is a great moment. (It's) been a long time for Boston. How long has it been actually?" the 37-year-old Thomas said, "Also a long journey for me to get here. Can't be too happy too long, though, unless you are the last man standing."
The Stanley Cup finals begin on Wednesday in Vancouver against the Western Conference champion Canucks, who had the best record in the NHL, scored the most goals and allowed the fewest.
For now, though, the Bruins can savor their success after one of their best performances of the season.
"It's great to be a part of something amazing. That was the highest level of concentration I have experienced," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. "I couldn't wait to jump on Timmy and enjoy the moment."
Boston won its most recent championship in 1972 and hadn't reached the finals since 1990, when it lost to the Edmonton Oilers.
Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, but missed the playoffs the past three years before falling short of its ultimate goal this year.
"It's difficult," Lightning rookie coach Guy Boucher said, "because you know that your players on the ice used every ounce of energy left that they had."
In a very well played, penalty-free game, the Bruins left far behind the specter of last year's playoff failure. They blew a 3-0 lead in games and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, losing 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers.
"From the beginning of the season, we knew we had some unfinished business," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "Guys were hungry throughout the playoffs."
This season, they squandered 3-2 series leads in the first round against Montreal and then against Tampa Bay. But they beat the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime in Game 7, with Horton scoring the winning goal. Then the forward, playing in the postseason for the first time in his career after five years with the Florida Panthers, came through again with his eighth playoff goal.
"He certainly has played like a big-game player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
So has Thomas – all season.
He led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage after missing all of last year's playoffs because of a hip injury. After offseason surgery, he was as good as ever, and that includes the 2008-09 season when he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.
"I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill," Thomas said. "I knew it wasn't true. I put in a lot of work over the summer and I've had an unbelievable year. I've been blessed."
He made 24 saves in his third career playoff shutout. Horton's goal spoiled an outstanding game by Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who stopped 37 shots.
"It is hard to explain how good this feeling is," Horton said.
Andrew Ference started the scoring play on the left side behind the red line with a pass to David Krejci, also on the left. Horton was on the same side, but when Krejci got the puck, Horton veered to the right. Krejci skated in and threaded a pass to Horton, who put the puck between Roloson and the left post.
"I don't think he could have stopped that puck and I don't think he could have done better than he did tonight," Boucher said. "It's hard to look at. One little defensive mistake."
With 3 seconds left and the puck in the Lightning zone, Bergeron raised his stick while standing in the "spoked B" logo symbolizing the Bruins at center ice. And when the game ended, Thomas raised both arms and arched his back against the net that the Lightning never reached in the decisive game as yellow and black towels given to fans fluttered to the ice.
"Once they went up 1-0, they really came back (on defense) with five guys and it was tough to get anything," said Vincent Lecavalier, who had 6 goals and 13 assists in the playoffs. "We got a few shots, but it was tough to get the rebounds."
Roloson fell to 7-1 in elimination games during his career, including 4-1 this postseason. Tampa Bay rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the first round, with Roloson shutting out the Penguins 1-0 in Game 7 on the road. But after beating the Bruins in Game 6 to force one more game, the Lightning's comeback fortunes changed.
"We came back all year long," Boucher said. "We kept coming and kept coming and we really believed we were coming back. It's a shock. When you really believe, it's difficult to accept."
Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos was struck in the face by a puck early in the second period and briefly left the game. He was hit on the left side of the head off a hard shot from the right point by Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk and he immediately dropped to the ice. There was some blood on the ice when the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008 got up and skated quickly to his bench, holding his face.
He missed about five minutes of game time, then returned with a full cage face shield in place of the visor he had been wearing.
Notes: Tampa Bay's Sean Bergenheim, third in the playoffs with nine goals after scoring just 14 in the regular season, missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury that also kept him out of the last two periods of Game 5. ... The 41-year-old Roloson played in his 50th postseason game and fell to 7-1 in elimination games. Thomas appeared in his 36th. ... The date of the game, May 27, is the latest the Bruins have played in club history. ... The Lightning have three players remaining from their 2004 championship team – Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, who missed the last 10 games with an upper body injury.