BOSTON -- It’s time to give the Bruins some credit for hanging in there, and hanging tough, through the difficult times this season.
Clearly the B’s caught the Tampa Bay Lightning at the right time, thanks to the NHL schedule-makers and to Tampa’s own four-losses-in-six-games slump. But they still got the better of Hart Trophy candidates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov while hanging on for a 3-2 feel-good win over the Bolts, who were playing their second of a back-to-back, at the TD Garden on Wednesday night.
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The Bruins dominated in the first period, outshooting the Lightning 19-5 and taking advantage of them having played the night before in Buffalo, but it became a much more competitive game after that. It was up to the B's to hold on and close things out against the high-powered Lightning, and that’s exactly what they did while finally getting some timely saves from their franchise goaltender.
“I think we played a really strong game, for the most part,” said Bruce Cassidy. “They had a push that we had to respond to, and we did eventually.”
The Bruins have now won five of their last six games and bull-rushed their way back into a playoff position, having climbed over the Detroit Red Wings into third place in the Atlantic Division. It’s still early yet, obviously, and Boston is still missing some significant core players due to injury, but the B’s should be proud of the way they’ve withstood massive adversity in the season’s first two months.
“I think there’s a lot of character in this room and I think that just speaks for where we are,” said Riley Nash, who scored an important goal in the first period to extend Boston’s lead. “Our leaders have done a fantastic job, they’ve played great, and I think a lot of the guys that have been getting called up and filling in have done a phenomenal job . . .
“You want to know that when a guy comes up he’s ready to go and a lot of those guys have really stepped in and played well. [Danton] Heinen, for example, he’s been down for a little bit but came up and he’s been one of our better forwards for the last two, three weeks.”
It’s a credit to the Bruins players, both young and older, for stepping up when the opportunity presented itself, and it’s also an impressive balancing act from coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff. They’ve tinkered and experimented with combinations and players, and Cassidy has even gone with seven defensemen to get a pair of wins against contenders Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay over the last week.
Whether it’s changing around the game-to-game lineup, tightening up the systems when the personnel changed radically due to injury, or coaching up AHL players like Jordan Szwarz when they’ve been summoned to help, Cassidy has handled it all with optimistic determination and an unwillingness to use any of it as a self-pitying excuse for losing efforts. That’s a great deal of challenge for Cassidy in his first full year guiding the Bruins, but he’s been up to the task.
“It’s a big [win],” said Brad Marchand, who topped 22 minutes of ice time with a pair of assists in a strong performance after missing 8 of the last 10 games with injury. “I don’t think we saw their best game, but we definitely were ready and excited to play them. We want to continue to get better and I think we’ve done it, the last little bit. You’re really seeing guys come into their own and really step up. And we need that going forward. When we get more guys back, it’s going to help us even more. We’re going to be playing good hockey. It’s fun to watch.”
Those traits have filtered down into the Bruins dressing room and allowed young players like Heinen, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy to step up and support the remaining veteran players. Those traits have also allowed Cassidy and his coaches to navigate through a bit of a goaltending controversy, and start to come out on the other side of it with Tuukka Rask building up his confidence level and effectiveness.
None of this is all that exotic over the course of an 82-game regular season, of course, but the sheer volume of injuries could have been the kind of thing to break a team’s spirit early in the season. Instead the Bruins have built character and mental toughness while fighting to stay relevant in a city currently dominated by the Celtics and Patriots, and those qualities will serve them well down the stretch.
Those are exactly the kind of traits that are needed when things tighten up in the second half, and those are exactly the kind of things that separate playoff contenders from playoff pretenders at crunch time. The Bruins have shown in the first few months of the season that they have the moxie and the makeup to be in that playoff conversation.
Now it’s a matter of them healing up, finally icing the lineup that they hoped to have on Opening Night but never actually have this season, and following through on the promise they’ve shown in the last six games.