TAMPA, Fla. -- The Boston Bruins are two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in more than 20 years.
As Boston dismissed the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night at St. Pete Times Forum, the play of goaltender Tim Thomas and the return of Patrice Bergeron stood out.
It shouldn't be surprising that the longest-tenured Bruins have become the model players for an organization attempting to get back to its roots. Since both have become leaders on and off the ice, the rest of the team has fallen in line and the organization is reaping the rewards.
"The atmosphere in our room and the atmosphere within the organization for the last few years, especially when [Coach] Claude [Julien] came, it's been consistent, and in our sport that consistency is a huge advantage for any team," defenseman Andrew Ference said.
"You have a core group of players, a certain attitude, a certain approach to the game and to have it year after year after year allows you to build on the good things and learn from the mistakes."
That philosophy has been evident during the Bruins' run through the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially for Thomas and Bergeron.
Thomas made 31 saves and posted his second career playoff shutout Thursday night. Bergeron returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers on May 6.
As a unit, the Bruins produced a solid 60-minute effort, with Thomas and Bergeron key factors.
Bergeron was given medical clearance Thursday morning to return, but Julien wanted to make sure his assistant captain was ready to go, so he pulled him aside after the game-day skate and asked him if he felt comfortable enough to come back.
"He said, 'I'm fine. I'm ready to go.' That was something that was important for everybody," Julien said. "I really liked the way he played."
Bergeron is considered one of the more dominating centermen in the league in the faceoff dot. That was evident again Thursday as he was 18-for-28 at the draw. Bergeron played as though he hadn't missed any time as he logged 19:13 of ice time. He was solid in both ends of the ice. He was physical and his presence made linemates Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi better.
What's amazing about Bergeron is that this is his eighth year in the organization and he's accomplished so much. And he's only 25.
When Bergeron is out of the lineup, it has an effect on the team's success.
"He's become a more experienced player and he's more vocal in the room," Zdeno Chara said. "He's become one of the leaders on this team and he's bringing that on the ice too."
Bergeron and his line started Game 3 for the Bruins, and it didn't take him long to make a difference, winning the opening draw and playing his normal up-tempo, relentless style. He was physical from the start, and it continued for the next 60 minutes.
"I don't think anybody says a bad thing about Bergy because there's nothing bad to say," Ference said. "He's a solid player and fits into that mold that the coach and GM are trying to build here. It's about consistency and showing up every night with good honest hockey. That's what it was like back in the day when the Bruins were successful and that's what [management] is trying to make it back into the last couple of years."
Thomas has become a keystone between the pipes when most in the hockey world doubted his abilities. He won the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago and should be a lock for the award as a finalist again this season.
"Obviously your goaltender is a key part of any team, the most important player on the ice," Ference said. "For him to be solid after going through the ups and downs over the last couple of years, he's really shown what he's all about this year. It's another brick in what this team is building."
David Krejci, who scored what proved to be the winning tally at 1:09 of the first period, praised the efforts of Thomas.
"He's been great. Today he was really unbelievable," Krejci said. "We can rely on him. We know he's a good goalie and we get full support from him and he's going to keep playing like that."
The Bruins didn't add their insurance goal until 8:12 of the third period when Ference's slap shot from the point found its way through a screen in front by teammate Chris Kelly. It was a major boost for the Bruins because Tampa outshot the Bruins 15-4 in the final 20 minutes as Thomas stood on his head.
"Everybody knows what they bring," Bruins forward Nathan Horton said when asked to describe the contributions of Thomas and Bergeron. "They're a huge piece to our team. Timmy has been playing great for us. He makes unbelievable stops and keeps us in games and that's what you need to do to win.
"Obviously with Bergy coming back after missing a week, he looked as good as normal. He plays the all-around game and really helps us."
If the Bruins are able to win two more games against the Lightning, reach the finals and win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972, it will be a collective achievement, but Bergeron and Thomas will have a special stake in the accomplishment.
"Both personify what the organization is trying to do," Ference said.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.