Prior to Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Capitals, there were several Bruins players that warned of the hazards inherent in adding several new, or returning, players to an established hockey mix.
Andrew Ference hadn’t taken a D-man shift since before Thanksgiving. Patrice Bergeron hadn’t played wing in an NHL game since his rookie season in 2003-04, when he did so alongside a who’s who of anonymous B’s teammates like the immortal Rob Zamuner, Michael Grosek and Carl Corazzini. On top of that, Bergeron was coming back from the second significant concussion in his last 15 months of hockey. Milan Lucic hadn’t thrown one of his patented teeth-chattering body checks during a live game in nearly a month, and hadn’t skated on the top line with Marc Savard since the merry month of December.
So it might have been both excusable and a bit expected if the Black and Gold dropped a game to an explosive Capitals bunch that has seemingly owned Boston’s number over the course of this year. It appeared early that the freshly minted skating combinations for the B’s were a little bit out of sorts and a lot of bit out of position. Throughout the game, the B’s never looked particularly crisp in their breakouts or razor-sharp in their execution. Despite those limitations, Boston still found a way to net the win.
As the game progressed the trio of returning players inched its way into the energetic pace of a playoff-style hockey game, and the healthy bodies allowed the Bruins to start resembling their recognizable first-half selves: a team that was in each and every one of their 47 pre-All Star break games from beginning to end. The Bruins again resembled a plucky puck squad that never lost a game by more than a two-goal margin, and that could brazenly skate against style employed by their opponent.
“It has been a while. I thought that all those guys handled their game fairly well tonight,” said coach Claude Julien. “I thought Bergeron, for being out that long and having to play on the wing, I thought he played well. Looch [Milan Lucic] threw some good hits out there, and Andrew [Ference] is such a smart player and he moves the puck well.”
Ference skated 22 shifts and ate up 18:43 chunk of ice time, and — more importantly — supplied the B’s with another puck-moving defenseman to allow Julien to pull back the reins on the rest of his fellow blueliners: Dennis Wideman, Mark Stuart and Shane Hnidy.
Lucic wasn’t quite in midseason bone-crunching form, but he still laid the lumber on four official hits and got back to his role of creating space for center Marc Savard to pull off magic tricks with the puck.
Bergeron was perhaps the most impressive player in his transition back to the ice as he skated five-on-five as well as on both the power play and penalty kill unit — and displayed a streak of fearlessness that led to Boston’s game-tying goal in the second period. In his first game back after missing 15 with a concussion, Bergeron was working the right point on the power play when he saw a puck headed out of the offensive zone and instinctively dove to retain possession.
“Bergy was amazing tonight,” said Shawn Thornton. “Obviously, he played the wing, and he did a great job there. It looked like it was Brian Rolston giving him the puck four years ago. He was great on the wall and all over the ice. It didn’t look like he had missed a beat out there.”
Claude Julien, in a delightful bit of coaching hindsight, shuddered at what might have happened had Bergeron lost the puck and allowed a short-handed odd man rush up the ice, but instead the youngster did something he hadn’t had a chance to do in over a month: he made a play. Bergeron quickly rose to his feet with the puck by the side wall, and reversed a cross-ice pass to a wide open Marc Savard at the right faceoff dot. Savard did a little stutter-step fake and then ripped a wrist shot past Jose Theodore to tie it up at 2-2. It was a big goal and a big play by Bergeron.
“You know, I went for it. I knew it was kind of a risky play, but I mean, if you don’t try sometimes you don’t get any results so it worked,” said Bergeron. “As soon as I got up, I knew (Savard) was going to be there and I saw him coming from the side a little bit so I just threw the pass and he made a great play, a lot of patience and he put it in.”
The power play struggled noticeably in the games immediately following Bergeron’s concussion, and one quick instinctual play illustrated exactly what the youngster contributes beyond the cold, hard hockey numbers along his stat sheet. Bergeron is one of Julien’s most trusted penalty killers and should get a huge slice of the credit along with fellow killers Blake Wheeler (5:01 of ice time on the PK unit), Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, David Krejci, Mark Stuart and Stephane Yelle. The Bruins were short-handed six times and didn’t allow a single power play goal to a Caps team that is sixth in the NHL with a 22 percent success rate on the man advantage.
The lines were certainly a bit jumbled and the on-ice chemistry wasn’t always popping with the normal verve the Black and Gold have shown this season, but last night was the first step in a long journey toward getting their entire team back. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Bring on the role players
Tim Thomas obviously made some huge saves in the victory — including a game-saver on Nicklas Backstrom’s rebound bid of an Ovechkin shot in overtime — and David Krejci nabbed the game-winner in OT, but a huge debt for the win goes to the unsung guys in the B’s trenches.
Any good playoff-style victory needs a strong helping of role players filling out their puck destiny, and there was plenty of that on Tuesday night. Rookie Matt Hunwick would have normally played the role of seventh defenseman relegated to watching in the press box, but instead took shifts at a forward spot and skated with Petteri Nokelainen and Byron Bitz on the fourth line. Speaking of Bitz, the big, brawny winger earned huge verbal bouquets in the form of good-natured F-bombs from Shawn Thornton following the game — an appropriate tribute for a young hockey player who stuck his neck out and tangled with one of the NHL’s toughest guys in Donald Brashear.
“(Expletive) awesome. He was awesome. (Bitz) did a hell of a job. He [Donald Brashear] is one of the top three tough guys in the league. He did a great job. It shows about his character,” said Thornton. “I know the guys love having him in the room; love having him on the team.
“I know I love playing with him, when I was playing with him for a few games. I can’t say enough about that kid. He has great character; he’s a good person. He just did a hell of a job.”
Thornton rounded out the role players’ roll call when he scored Boston’s first goal of the night by dangling through a Capitals defender and lifting a nifty backhanded bid that actually knocked Jose Theodore’s water bottle from its nestled spot above the goal.
“Are you surprised?” asked Thornton. “I don’t score unless they are highlight reel (goals).”