Haggerty: Bruins turn page after letting big chance slip away

Haggerty: Bruins turn page after letting big chance slip away

BRIGHTON, Mass. - It’s really too bad the Bruins couldn’t finish their two-game trip on a massive high note with a statement win over the Predators.

They would have been only the fourth team in 14 tries to get the better of the Predators on their home ice and would have effectively slowed down a red-hot reigning Western Conference champ that’s won 13 of 16. The Preds have been something close to unbeatable since getting Kyle Turris in the three-team deal at the beginning of November. The Bruins got an up-close examination why in their 5-3 loss at Bridgestone Arena on Monday night.


In that way, it was a missed opportunity to take a massive step forward in the perceptions around the league on this season's Bruins and it was also a missed opportunity based on the self-inflicted wounds from mistakes made by Torey Krug, Anton Khudobin, Charlie McAvoy, Zdeno Chara and others.

That’s where the frustration comes in for a Bruins team that had won six of seven coming in and battled all the way back to make it a one-goal game in the third period before again shooting themselves in the foot with a Fillip Forsberg breakaway.

“We did a good job of pushing back and making it a game. We had some really good chances, but we’re at a point where we just need the results,” said Brad Marchand. “Regardless of the score, I thought we played better than they did. We just gave up a few chances that they capitalized on.”

Still, the Bruins deserve some credit for the way they’ve played against the big boys around the league this season. The Black and Gold memorably took down the Predators on opening night and ripped off a stretch to end November where they notched wins against the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. All quality teams that are currently in a playoff position as the Bruins sit just outside the top-eight teams in the Eastern Conference with games in hand.

It’s a good reflection on the Bruins that they’re playing the NHL’s best teams so toughly this season, and even when they lose, they are serving notice that they aren’t going to be an easy out.

“It seems to scare us into playing the right way when we see the firepower and ability of the players we’re playing against, especially when [it’s a team] that went deep last year or is highly-touted at the moment,” said David Backes. “It causes us to value all of the puck possessions and not give away anything while making them earn it all. When we do that our goalies are seeing all the pucks and the chances against them are a little lower quality. It kind of clues everybody in and gives us the extra motivation to prove that we are a good team. We’re moving [healthy] bodies back in here it seems like every day, and things are going pretty well.”

All that being said the Bruins are at a point where it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if they’re beating the best teams in the league. They were a playoff team last season and the B’s are shaping up to again be a group that looks playoff-worthy again with key core members David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand again leading the way with dominant seasons.

They are as close to full health as they’ve been all season and now will be the time for the Black and Gold to start seizing opportunities like the one that slipped through their fingers in Music City.

It’s also about the Bruins beating the lesser teams with the same focus, effort and emotion that they’re bringing against the league’s best. The Bruins have also lost to some of the league’s worst teams: once each to the Oilers and Sabres and a couple of awful back-to-back losses to the Avs now back in their last place residence in the Central Division.   

“We’ve got Stanley Cup champions in there, so they do elevate their game [against big challenges],” said Bruce Cassidy. “That’s a good thing. But you don’t want to shrink down your game [if it’s an opponent] that you don’t have as much respect for. You’ve got to guard against that and play to your standard in every game.”

Guarding against playing down to their competition will be an immediate test with the Arizona Coyotes rolling into town on Thursday night with the second-fewest points (19) in the NHL. So, it’s time for the B’s to turn the page on the missed opportunities and focus on taking care of business against one of the very beatable weak sisters.  

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. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

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 President’s Trophy 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.


Bruins start strong and don't look back vs Lightning

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Bruins start strong and don't look back vs Lightning

GOLD STAR: Torey Krug assisted on all three goals and finished off with a couple of strong games while stepping up in the absence of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. Clearly all of the D-men stepped up knowing that their top pairing wasn’t going to be available against the Lightning, but it was Krug at the offensive end with his three assists that put him over 50 points for the second straight season. They were big plays too, whether it was finding David Pastrnak in the slot for the first goal or firing wide of the net on the second score that David Backes pumped into the net. The third goal was once again a PP shot from the outside circle that Andrei Vasilevskiy kicked out and was eventually shot past him by Riley Nash. Pair that with a couple of hits and a blocked shot in 19:37 of ice time, and it was a full night for Krug.

BLACK EYE: Nikita Kucherov was not his MVP self in this one. Instead he managed just a single shot on net in his 18:43 of ice time, and missed the net with three other shot attempts in a harmless, invisible kind of game. Kucherov also didn’t really do much of anything else in a game where the Bruins didn’t have defensive stoppers Zdeno Chara or Patrice Bergeron, which has to start making the Lightning wonder how difficult it’s going to be for them when those two players return ahead of the postseason. The Lightning were rested and waiting for the Bruins for a couple of days and should have been at their absolute best. Kucherov was among a number of Bolts players that were far from that, including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

TURNING POINT: The Bruins came out of the starting gate firing and roared past the Lightning with a strong opening period. They outshot Tampa Bay by a 12-5 margin in the opening 20 minutes and didn’t even allow a single scoring chance to the Bolts while playing letter perfect hockey for pretty much the entire time. That led to a David Pastrnak goal little more than three minutes into the game, and then the Bruins doubled their lead with a power play strike midway through the game. Once the Bruins had built up a two-goal lead with the kind of strong defense that they were dealing out on Saturday night, it was going to be awfully difficult to beat them. And Tampa didn’t even come close. 

HONORABLE MENTION: Riley Nash was dropped from the top line to the third line to start the game, and responded with one of his best all-around games of the season. Nash scored on a power play strike from the slot after a big rebound bounced to him there, and that pretty much iced the game in the second period. But he was good all night with a couple of shot attempts, a couple of hits and a couple of takeaways in 18:30 of ice time, and was excellent in the face-off circle while winning 9-of-11 draws in a big performance for the Black and Gold. Nash also stepped back into his usual spots once Backes was lost to injury at the end of the first period, and resumed the kind of solid play that’s allowed him to have his best NHL season in Boston this year. 

BY THE NUMBERS: 15-6-1 – the career record for Tuukka Rask vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning after another shutout win on Saturday night. 

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’ll play a second period one of these days.” –a smiling David Backes as he limped out of the visitor’s dressing room in Tampa after leaving tonight’s win over Tampa with a laceration above his right knee caused by a skate blade. Backes was also tossed from Thursday night’s game in Florida with a match penalty in the first period as well.