BOSTON -- If Saturday's rescheduled game between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins was in some ways about the promise of moving forward from a week of incredible loss and uncertainty toward something approaching normalcy, the outcome will do little to calm concerns about the state of the Bruins with the playoffs on the horizon.
In the grand scheme of things, that kind of low-level angst will be a welcome relief for a community still coming to grips with the terrorist bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday and the subsequent violence and manhunt that ended with the apprehension of a second suspect Friday night after the region had been on lockdown for an entire day, a situation that caused the Bruins' game to be moved from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.
Whether the emotional toll of what has been going on around them is a factor or not, the Bruins will likewise be looking forward to moving as the playoffs loom in just over a week.
With fans still reveling in Friday's arrest and the lifting of the lockdown, the Bruins continued their perplexing pattern of playing well for long stretches only to allow games to slip through their fingers.
As they were against Buffalo on Wednesday, the first local professional game after the bombings, the Bruins were the better team through the first half of Saturday's game. At one point in the second period the Bruins were outshooting the red-hot Penguins 27-13 but had only one goal, a first-period marker by Brad Marchand, to show for their efforts.
As has been the case in recent weeks, the Bruins could not deliver the knockout blow and allowed three unanswered goals before scoring a second goal with fewer than three seconds left in regulation to make the final score 3-2.
"I thought we built on last game and we had another very strong game and a lot of opportunities, but again we need results," Marchand said. "We can't continue to lose games like this."
While he did score his team-best 17th goal, Marchand was also in the penalty box early in the third period when Jarome Iginla, the would-be Bruin, drilled a point shot past netminder Tuukka Rask with the Penguins on the power play to take a 2-1 lead. Less than four minutes later, Kris Letang would score on the power play to put the game out of reach.
"We felt the same way as last game, you know, with the ceremony and with all the police and firemen and everything in the building. It was a special time again, and we definitely built a lot of momentum off of that," Marchand said. "We came out very hard, had a great start. Again, we carried that through pretty much the whole game. We just again didn't get the results."
The loss extended the Bruins' winless streak to four games (0-3-1), and while Marchand's goal came with the man advantage, they were still only 1-for-4 on the power play and are 3-for-22 in the last 11 games as the Bruins began the day tied for 25th in the league on the power play.
In an effort to shake up his lineup, coach Claude Julien benched slumping power forward Milan Lucic and inserted top prospect Carl Soderberg, who played with Jaromir Jagr in his first NHL game. The Bruins lost Nathan Horton, another slumping forward, to an injury after a brief, strange fight with Iginla that lasted a matter of seconds but seemed to leave Horton with a wrist or hand injury. He did not return after the first-period altercation.
"You're going to have games where you're going to win games but you feel or you know that that's not your game and you probably shouldn't win," he said. "I still like the approach we had last two games. It's better that way than winning games and knowing that that's not your game."
"We're coming back more to our foundation, and hopefully we will add to that foundation every game from now on toward the playoffs," he added.
Still, if this was a statement game for the two teams that are generally regarded as the deepest and most likely to advance from the Eastern Conference, the talking was all done by the Penguins, who clinched the top seed in the conference with their sixth win in a row.
That gives them an incredible 21-2 record over their last 23 games even though they continue to play without injured star forwards Sidney Crosby and James Neal, who were in Pittsburgh working out on this day, and defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, who skated along with injured defenseman Paul Martin earlier Saturday in Boston.
"To clinch the conference this early I think says a lot for our team and how we've played through this shortened season with different types of injuries and different people in our lineup," coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Pens are as deep a team as there is in the NHL, and that depth, specifically in the form of trade-deadline acquisitions Iginla and Jussi Jokinen, was on ample display Saturday.
Iginla scored the key power-play goal in the third. Jokinen added a goal and two assists and was a general thorn in the Bruins' collective side all afternoon.
The Iginla goal was especially galling to the Bruins, who thought they had reached a deal with Iginla's former team, the Calgary Flames, to acquire the veteran winger at the trade deadline only to have the deal fall apart when Iginla decided he would rather play in Pittsburgh.
The Bruins fans booed Iginla lustily at times, something that didn't come as much of a surprise to the veteran winger.
"I wasn't surprised. It's a great sports city. I'm humbled and flattered that Boston and Pittsburgh were interested and I had the opportunity to go to both teams," Iginla said. "Both teams were interested in me. I made the choice to come to Pittsburgh. I'm thrilled with that, but I also had a lot of respect for city here."
"I've heard some great things from the guys who play here," he added. "I have some friends on that team. Great things about the city and the organization, those things. I expected that. It's not too bad when it's on the road. On the road, you can live with that. At home, if you're getting booed like that, it's hard to take."
Bylsma said the win will allow him to tinker with his lineup over the next few games, perhaps giving players some rest as some of the injured make their way back to the lineup and the Penguins try to integrate all of their impressive parts.
That's a scary thought for the rest of the NHL, and in particular the teams in the Eastern Conference.
"They're a very good team and definitely one of the favorites to win the Cup," Marchand said. "We know if we're going to have to go far in the playoffs, we're going to have to go through them. And we want to make sure that we can match up with them, and tonight was a big test for us, and it shows that we can play with them but we just have to continue to build on our game."