Thomas/By S. Bradley

MONTREAL — The 3-0 lead. Maybe it’s the most difficult lead to hold for this modern incarnation of the Boston Bruins.

Tim Thomas might not have had a hand in any past squandering of a three-goal margin. But he sure seemed ready to write his name into the record book next to Tuukka Rask tonight, as two goals beat him 5-hole to pull Montreal within 3-2.

When it mattered most, however, the odds-on favorite for this year’s Vezina Trophy made huge stop after huge stop as the Habs pulled out all the stops in an effort to notch the equalizer. Chris Kelly’s empty-net goal finally took off the heat and the Bruins hung on for a 4-2 win in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with Montreal at the Bell Centre.

The Bruins are back in the series now, as they’re down just two games to one.

“It was a necessary win. You’re down 2-0 in the series. Playing in Montreal is not easy. It was a gut-check for us. And we got the job done,” said Thomas, who finished with 34 saves, including 14 in the third period.

Boston was up 3-0 when the tide began to turn in Montreal’s favor. Andrei Kostitsyn turned his spin move on a drive to the slot from the right wing into a backhanded goal that got through Thomas’ legs 7:03 into the second period.

Just 4:08 into the third period, Tomas Plekanec sliced the lead to one when he backed away from Zdeno Chara along the goal line on the right side of the ice and fired on from a tough-angle off the inside of Thomas’ right pad through the chute.

“Five-hole goals, especially, are ones you never want to give up,” admitted Thomas. “I think somebody might’ve hit Kostitsyn’s stick on the first one as he was shooting and made it go in a little different place. And actually, I didn’t pick the puck from Plekanec until late. He did a spin around and I didn’t pick it up until late. It was nearly to me and I just moved my stick out of the way.

“They’re not pretty goals, but it’s hockey. You’re going to get scored on. It’s how you respond to it that is big.”

Thomas responded with game-saving poise. He earned the praise of his coach with his performance.

“He made some big saves. I think the fact that he was able to do that just shows a lot of character because there’s no doubt he’d like to have [back] those two goals that went in on him,” said head coach Claude Julien. “A goaltender could have just negative thoughts in his mind and not been sharp at the end, but for him to do what he did just meant that he was willing to redeem himself and give us some big save. And he did that. They were huge. Instead of a tie game, now you score an empty-netter and you get a big win.”

Thomas credited his past for helping him survive a sticky predicament in the present.

“You had to [shake off those goals]. Probably experience helps in that situation, “he said. “The only thing that matters is winning at the end.”