BOSTON — Nathan Horton scored with 7:33 left in Game 7, sending the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in more than two decades with a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals on Friday night.
The right wing on Boston’s top line cleanly beat goalie Dwayne Roloson by deflecting a pass across the slot from David Krejci. That set off a loud celebration among Bruins fans, who have waited a long time for a trip to the finals.
Tim Thomas made 24 saves in his third career playoff shutout and second this season.
Boston will open the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver against the Western Conference champion Canucks on Wednesday.
The Bruins won their most recent championship in 1972 and hadn’t reached the finals since 1990, when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers.
Both goalies were outstanding behind teammates playing energetic, impressive defense in a hard-hitting game without a single penalty.
With 3 seconds left and the puck in the Lightning zone, Bruins center Patrice Bergeron raised his stick while standing in the “B” 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.
“I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill,’” said the 37-year-old Thomas, a Vezina Trophy finalist who was sidelined throughout last year’s playoffs. “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.”
The Bruins improved to 2-3 in Game 7s under coach Claude Julien but have won the last two. The previous victory came in the opening round this season, 4-3 in overtime over the Montreal Canadiens. Horton also scored the winning goal in that one.
Boston is 11-10 in Game 7s.
Andrew Ference started the only scoring play Friday night on the left side behind the red line with a pass to 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 in the open side between Roloson and the left post.
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 contest, the Lightning’s comeback fortunes changed.
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.
Boston’s Milan Lucic had the best scoring opportunity in the first when Krejci fed him for a breakaway. But Lucic shot it right into Roloson with just under five minutes left.
The Bruins also had solid chances late in the second. Roloson made a pad save on Mark Recchi’s shot from a few feet away then made another when Recchi shot the rebound with just under 2½ minutes left in the period. The Bruins were denied again with 1:40 remaining when Zdeno Chara’s shot from the blue line was deflected over the net by Krejci, stationed in the slot.
“I wasn’t concerned about my team,” Thomas said. “I was concerned about Roloson playing so well.”
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. 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, Vincent Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, who missed the last 10 games with an upper body injury. … Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling attended the game wearing a Bruins jersey.