It’s ironic that on a night two more Bruins reached the esteemed 20-goal plateau — to make it a league-best seven 20-goal scorers for Boston this season — the Black and Gold again look like the mighty three-zone force that terrorized Eastern Conference teams over the first three months of the season.
To put that in perspective, the Bruins had two 20-goal scorers last season (Marco Sturm with a whopping 27 lamp-lighters and Chuck Kobasew with a 22-goal effort that he’s got a chance to match this season) and couldn’t resemble this offensively-rich team any less.
The power-play units are humming (7 PP goals in their last four games) and seemingly scoring goals within seconds of stepping on the ice, David Krejci has racked up three straight multi-point efforts after going more than a month with just one, and opponents are again cowering at the snarl displayed by big boy B’s like Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic when things spiral a little out of control.
The passion, the offensive skill and the suffocating defense — and even a solid night of tending between the pipes for the too-much maligned Manny Fernandez — were all on display in a 3-1 smackdown of the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning at the TD Banknorth Garden Tuesday night. With the win, the B’s are only mere points away from clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference and enjoying home ice throughout their entire Stanley Cup playoff run. A B’s win on Thursday combined with losses by both New Jersey and Washington locks up the top conference spot for the Big, Bad B’s — their first Eastern Conference crown since 2003-04.
After the game, Claude Julien applauded his charges for playing more of a straightforward ”North/South” game with the puck. It was clear to the B’s coach that the confidence — and the elusive offensive flow that comes along with it — is again picking up to optimal levels in the B’s dressing room.
“We’re going in direct lines and our speed is much better coming out of our own end as a unit instead of being all spread out and standing still,” said Julien. “That part of our game is slowly coming back. We’re getting better. I think there’s no doubt we’re getting better.
“Still, I know we’re at a stage where we need to be even fussier than we’ve ever been and I still think there’s areas that we can improve,” added the B’s bench boss. “It almost seems like we’re afraid to run up the score and all of a sudden there’s times where we’re starting to make those cute plays again. Those are the things you can’t have once you get to the playoffs. You’ve got to keep playing the same way from start to finish.”
Perhaps nobody more than Krejci and Blake Wheeler epitomized the offensive slowdown of February and early March — with Krejci going through a 15-game stretch through March 10 where he managed only 2 goals and 3 assists and Wheeler doing the exact same scoring line through that very same span — and both skaters have almost simultaneously emerged from their offensive doldrums fully intact. Krejci has been revitalized skating with the bruising Lucic and Michael Ryder, and Wheeler has been a good finishing fit with Marc Savard and P.J. Axelsson in Phil Kessel’s absence.
If ever an answer was needed whether the February/March B’s swoon was nothing more a drift in focus, confidence and concentration amidst a huge Eastern Conference cushion, the response has been resoundingly affirmative over the last four games. This Bruins team has always had the talent, top-end skill and physicality to do damage in the playoffs, but perhaps a slowdown was inevitable given how big their lead was over all competitors.
With the playoffs mere weeks away, everything has snapped back into focus for members of the Spoked B tribe.
“(The confidence) is getting there,” said Wheeler. “We feel good about ourselves offensively. It’s all about playing solid team defense. Everyone saw that in the beginning of the year. That we were so tough to play against and we got a lot of offensive chances. We weren’t going to give them anything.
“We’re getting back to that,” added Wheeler, who has three goals scored in his last six games after scoring three during the entire month of February. “We’re getting pretty stingy and that’s the biggest thing for us is just being really stingy in our defensive zone. Then we’re getting a lot of scoring chances.”
Kobasew and Wheeler both collected their 20th goals of the season in a dominant first 40 minutes of the game, and the second period became a power play extravaganza put on by the quintet of Kobasew, Krejci, Chara, Ference and Bergeron. Both man advantage scores heavily involved Z’s big stick as the first PP score was a simple backdoor play that saw Bergeron slide a perfect feed to Chara as he motored toward an open seam near the right faceoff circle.
The second was pure power, as Chara wound up and unloaded a howitzer from the right point that knocked the stick right out of Kobasew’s hands in front of the Tampa net, and then bounced right past Tampa Bay goaltender Mike McKenna.
“Z told me that he got all of it when he shot the puck, and I believe him,” said Kobasew, who confirmed that the sizzling slapper knocked the composite stick clear out of his gloves.
The three goals on Tuesday night wasn’t quite the offensive outburst that Bruins Nation witnessed over the weekend, but during their current four game winning streak — which started with that pivotal win of the New Jersey Devils almost two weeks ago — the suddenly puck-confident Bruins have piled on 18 goals in their last four games. Guys like Kobasew and Mark Recchi look like rabid dogs chasing after loose pucks around the net, and every player on the Bruins roster — from Patrice Bergeron to Wheeler to Lucic — has picked up the physicality over their most recent stretch. It all starts down the middle for the B’s, but they’re again getting contributions from everyone.
“I think the game has changed where a lot of teams that are having success are lining up with at least three good lines, and obviously that next line is the one with energy and physical presence,” said Julien. “Just by looking at our center position — Savard, Bergeron and Krejci — you look at three guys that are all highly-skilled and then complement them with good players around them.
“You’ve got yourself three scoring lines and it’s spread out,” added Julien.
Once again the team is talking about rolling out their three lines and making things hard for teams to defend against: the good times are back for the Spoked B and it couldn’t have happened at a better time with only six games remaining in the regular season ledger.
Injury Ward: Shawn Thornton missed the game with an unspecified injury that he suffered during the morning skate at the Garden. Julien termed the injury minor after the game, and indicated that the B’s brawler would be back on the ice Wednesday or Thursday.
Player of the Game: Zdeno Chara: A goal, an assist and a fight for a Norris Trophy favorite. In the NHL that’s what we like to call a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, and it’s always a notable accomplishment in the hard-hat city of Boston. Chara displayed everything in his punishing bag of tricks during the victory. Not only did he show his ability to crash back door and rush the net during his power play goal, but he set up Kobasew’s tip goal with a prototypical Chara-powered rocket from the right point. The oversized blueliner also did such an overpowering shutdown job on the Bolts’ top line that Tampa coach Rick Tocchet broke up Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lacavalier mid-game — so Big Z couldn’t shut both scorers down at the same time on the ice. Extra points for Chara sticking up for Krejci when big Evgeny Artyukhin began shoving around the much-smaller center after a whistle had blown following a big Lucic hit. Z’s involvement eventually led to the fisticuffs with Artyukhin, and it’s the exact kind of backbone that Chara has shown time and again over the last two seasons under Julien when a teammate is in need. That’s what leadership is all about.
“We didn’t want to have Chara checking both Vinny and Marty, so we tried to have somebody free,” said Tocchet. “Chara’s a pretty good player.”
Extra credit to for Kobasew, who led the Bruins with six shots on goal and was again utilizing that aggressive style of play to be a big factor in the game.
Goat Horns: The whole team let down a bit in the third period after playing physical, sandpaper hockey over the first two periods that helped build up a 3-0 lead. The B’s can’t afford that in the playoffs, and shouldn’t be taking their foot off the gas pedal in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Turning Point: The Bruins power play unit really took the game over in the second period on strikes by Chara and Kobasew, and Byron Bitz and Lucic put up victorious exclamation points with a pair of beatdown brawls when the Lightning attempted to stir up a little emotional response.