Four goals in the NHL are normally as sure a thing as there is in this world—death, taxes and get a four-goal lead and you win a hockey game.

Unless the Boston Bruins are the team that has the lead, then it only adds to the drama. The Bruins came into Friday night's game at the United Center against the Blackhawks allowing 43 third-period goals this season, second most in the NHL to only the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Hawks added to that total in the first 5 minutes 54 seconds Friday, turning what should have been an unsightly loss into a nail-biter before they fell 5-3 after an empty-net goal ended things.

Goals by James Wisniewski, Bryan Smolinski and Denis Arkhipov brought the Hawks back into the game.

Jeff Hamilton appeared to tie the game with less than two minutes remaining but for a remarkable glove-hand save by Boston goaltender Tim Thomas.

Friday was the third time in the last four Boston games the Bruins suffered a meltdown in the last 20 minutes. They were outshot 14-0 in the third period of their 2-0 victory over Vancouver on Dec. 21 and 20-4 in the third period of an eventual 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus the day after Christmas.

The Hawks found themselves a player short 27 seconds into the game when Peter Bondra was drilled behind the Boston net by defenseman Brad Stuart. Bondra laid motionless before skating off the ice and heading to the Hawks dressing room.

He didn't return for the rest of the period but played a regular shift in the second and third.

Boston took advantage of the Hawks being careless with the puck to hand Denis Savard his largest deficit in his brief head-coaching career.

Three goals in a span of 11:24 gave Boston a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes and sent goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to the showers for the first time this season.

Just about everyone was culpable for the three-goal breakdown, with the third, from Milan Jurcina, perhaps the one that Khabibulin can claim.

The Bruins also scored short-handed when Mark Mowers outworked both Duncan Keith and Arkhipov behind the Hawks net, then stripped Arkhipov, turned and fired a quick shot past Khabibulin.

Boston scored three times on seven first-period shots, which gave Brian Boucher his first taste of action since starting for a flu-ridden Khabibulin Dec. 9 in Minnesota and only his third appearance in the last 20 games.

One-timers

After playing just 1:50 in the first period, Tony Salmelainen didn't play and wasn't on the bench for the last two periods. … Defenseman Jim Vandermeer was scratched for a third-straight game. Savard said Vandermeer would be back in the lineup Sunday when the Hawks spend New Year's Eve in Columbus. …With Jeff Hamilton recovered from the mysterious flu/hip injury that kept him out of the last three games, the Hawks sent Troy Brouwer back to Norfolk. … Patrick Lalime said the plan is for him to go down to Norfolk next Thursday to begin his conditioning assignment. Lalime said he might play in six games before the two-week stint is up. … Seven Hawk prospects, led by 2006 first-round draft choice Jonathan Toews and 2005 selections Jack Skille and Dan Bertrum, are playing in the World Juniors Tournament in Sweden. … Friday was the 571st meeting between the Hawks and Bruins. Last season was the first in which the two teams did not meet since 1926-27.

rfoltman@tribune.com