Haggerty: Early returns good for Bruins, but still plenty to prove

Haggerty: Early returns good for Bruins, but still plenty to prove

BOSTON – There’s little question that the Bruins are, at least partially, hanging 10 on a giant World Cup of Hockey wave right now.

Zdeno Chara is playing much tighter and stronger hockey than he did a year ago at this time and some of that is probably carryover from his Team Europe stint as well as enjoying the benefits of impressive rookie Brandon Carlo as his defensive partner.

Tuukka Rask has played very well in two of his three games thus far after starring for Team Finland and is 3-0-0 with a .947 save percentage in a stunning turnaround from the embattled goaltender under siege a year ago. Rask is also doing all of this while very clearly dealing with some kind of lower body issue, or as he called it, “something” that’s causing him discomfort when he extends for certain saves in the butterfly position. Brad Marchand shares the NHL scoring lead with nine points (three goals, six assists) in four games, and has been carrying the B’s offense in the early going every time they require an important shift to get the team going.

David Pastrnak has a four-game point streak to start the season after his time playing for the Czech Republic and has four goals in those four games while generating a team-leading 18 shots on net and blossoming into an offensive star at 20 years old. David Backes has two goals and a plus-7 in four games, and was a shooting (team-high six shots on net) and hitting (team-high seven hits) machine in his first home game as a member of the Bruins.

Even Patrice Bergeron got into the act on Thursday night with the winning goal after missing the first three games of the season with a lower body injury that may, or may not, have been caused by the wear and tear of starring in the high-intensity World Cup tournament during the preseason.

That doesn’t even count the impressive contributions of young players Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen, or new faces Dominic Moore, Riley Nash and Tim Schaller, who have contributed right out of the starting gate as mere hockey mortals that had to endure the full NHL training camp.

So, with all that going for them it was the proper way to start the season on the TD Garden ice with a win after so many home-game stinkbombs thrown last season and that’s exactly what they did coming-from-behind in a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.

“I think that we are all disappointed with our record here last year and it was important to get off to a good start,” said Claude Julien. “You know you want the fans to come and watch. Well, you have to give them a reason to do that and you’ve got to pay the price and play some exciting hockey and show that you are competing hard. This is a fan base that loves players to compete hard and get their nose to the grind and that’s what we needed to do tonight.”

With nearly all of the B’s key players off to strong starts, it’s really no wonder the Bruins are off to a 3-1 start in contrast with the Black and Gold dumpster fire of a three-game homestand to open last season. It’s plain to see there’s a much better feeling around this group and that’s been obvious from the first moments of the preseason.

“I think we’re growing as a team, but I think right off the bat when everybody showed up, we looked like we were ready to go and everybody seemed to have that right mindset,” said Rask. “So, that’s a good thing to have. I think guys should show up to work and we get a game plan and we go out there and execute it and it pays off. It’s a cliché but that’s how it isand now we have the guys to do it.”

More important, they showed it on Thursday night while leaving the home fans happy after bitterly disappointing everybody on home ice so many times last season. There was no big-game anxiety or home jitters in the opener. Instead, it was a solid, focused effort against a Devils team that was going to make them earn everything they received.

“It’s good to get that one at home, especially your home opener. Feeling good about yourselves and get the fans excited. We don’t always want to play from behind,” said Marchand, who scored the tying goal in the third period on a sensational individual play and shot through the legs of Jersey D-man Andy Greene. “But coming from behind tonight and getting the win, it just shows that the guys have a lot of character this year. We’re going to bear down when things aren’t going well.”

It’s impossible to argue Marchand’s point because there’s been only one stinker in the first four games and there are plenty of things happening on Causeway Street that should inspire encouragement.

There are also still Bruins things to be worked on, of course.

The second and third lines still aren’t kicking in offensively like they need to, even if David Krejci looked much more like himself with Backes on his right side on Thursday night. The Bruins are 1-for-14 on the power play to start the season and really looked lost on the man-advantage without No. 37 around. The Bruins have allowed their opponents to score the first goal in each of the four games and that's the kind of over-the-top largesse that prevents sustained success if it’s not addressed.

More than anything, it’s about the competition. The Bruins have played four teams that didn’t qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season and Boston has taken care of business in three of those four games. Granted, three of those games were also played with the B’s missing their best player in Bergeron, but the point stands that the Bruins still haven’t been tested by anything approaching the top players in the league.

Maybe, just maybe, the Bruins are exhibiting encouraging signs that they’re going to be better than the unfortunate editions that collapsed the past two seasons while failing to make the playoffs. Certainly it looks like this year’s group plays with a more exciting, emotional and inspired brand of hockey, buoyed by enthusiastic young players and core veterans riding the momentum after their World Cup experiences.

That might just be the magic formula to get the Black and Gold off to the strong start they absolutely needed with so much stuff swirling around them after two disappointing seasons.

Six of their next seven opponents are playoff teams from last season. That should show just how improved the B’s truly are at this early point, with the only exception being the new-look Canadiens, who should recharge the rivalry atmosphere with Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw now in the Montreal mix.

Once the dust has settled on the next few weeks, we’ll know a lot more about these Bruins, but the straight truth is this: The B’s buzz has been good thus far with only the early precincts reporting in this arduous, 82-game election cycle. 


Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that 'wasn't too dangerous'

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that 'wasn't too dangerous'

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

MORE - Haggerty: B's make a statement to Lightning, rest of NHL

There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

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It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

MORE - Talking Points: B's start strong and don't look back vs Tampa

Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the top spot in the East and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.