Anton Khudobin

Overtime heroics a reminder of what Bruins gave up in Seguin

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Overtime heroics a reminder of what Bruins gave up in Seguin

BOSTON – The Tyler Seguin trade from the Bruins is pretty much ancient history at this point.

It was almost five years ago, all of the good-but-not-great players Boston received in the deal from Dallas are long gone. The Bruins general manager that engineered the big trade is now dealing with totally different brush fires while running a star-crossed Edmonton Oilers group.

But the one Stars visit per season to Boston usually serves as a reminder of what the B’s dealt away in the Fourth of July trade, and for perhaps the first time ever Seguin looked like a legit, all-around No. 1 center in the Stars 3-2 overtime win over the B’s at TD Garden. Seguin made the highlight reel with an overtime game-winner after dangling through the entire Bruins group on the ice, and watching bemusement as Bruins kept diving at him trying to stop him.

The gassed trio of Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak and Matt Grzelcyk were on the ice hemmed into the D-zone for a long time, and simply couldn’t get the puck away from the Stars once a delayed penalty was called on Grzelcyk.

“I felt like everyone was just sliding at me, and the whole time I wanted to pass, so I was just kind of looking for the right play and just kept holding it,” said Seguin, who is on pace for 39 goals and 75 points this season with the Stars. “I just kind of shot it and luckily it went in.”

It was more than luck as Anton Khudobin had already dropped into a crazed double-pad stacked save attempt while Seguin was still holding patiently onto the puck.

“That’s really tough, to be honest. He has the puck there, and all the way, all the way, going, going, going, going and I mean, guys were laying down and trying to block the shot,” said Khudobin. “He had a lot of patience and I think it went between my legs or something like that and it’s just tough. Good goal by him.'

“Nothing is impossible. You know, [Seguin] is a good player and he scored a pretty good goal. But at the same time I can stop that. But I didn’t this time and overtime is not really easy because it’s 3-on-3.”

But all the overtime heroics aside, Seguin was solid throughout the game. It was almost enough to make Bruins fans go through the entire gamut of emotions again at one of a number of trades where the organization cut bait on a talented player at a very young juncture of their career.

“I think he’s through testing. I think he has made himself to be a very good player, and he’s accountable in every situation. He’s really matured. I think he’s a guy that we don’t even worry about anymore,” said Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock. “Everyone talked about, ‘Can you make him a one?’ Well, quite frankly, he’s a [No. 1 center], and he’s playing like a one. He’s played six games in a row like this, and this is what you want in a number one center. He’s doing the job.

“He’s killing penalties, he’s out there taking key face-offs, he’s quarterbacking the power play, and he’s playing against the other team’s best player. To me, that’s what a [No. 1 center] does, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Mostly matched up against the Perfection Line that he used to be a part of, Seguin managed a 12-for-21 performance in the face-off circle while holding Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak off the board offensively. Even better for Seguin and Dallas, he was on the ice for the second Stars goal against the Bergeron trio for only the second even strength goal they’ve given up all season.

Seguin killed penalties, he finished with four shot attempts, had a couple of takeaways and played the kind of mature, 200-foot game that most wondered if he’d ever be capable of in his NHL career.

So credit where it’s due for Seguin showing all of that while clearly still in a headspace where coming to Boston is special for him.

“It’s special and it’s weird playing here still. You know, I enjoy the anthem, and looking up and seeing the banner for the team that I was a part of. It’s always going to be special, you know, playing here and having old teammates on the team,” said Seguin. “I’ve been thinking a lot more of defense, a lot more of face-offs, and a lot more of, you know, the little things. I’ve been judging my performances based on those things more than goals and assists. That’s been the biggest change for me, trying to put the work in, and [against the Bruins] it worked out for me.”

The Bruins have long since chalked up dealing a horse (Seguin) for ponies (Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow) as a big fat loss considering it never got them any closer to another Stanley Cup, and it didn’t give them any players still of use to the organization less than five years later.

But Monday afternoon’s overtime loss to Seguin and the Stars was a different kind of frustrating while watching a more mature, seemingly changed Seguin that would have fit in very nicely with the direction that the Bruins are headed these days.

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After Rask's rough start, goalie tandem fuels Bruins' run

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After Rask's rough start, goalie tandem fuels Bruins' run

With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston’s 17-3-3 surge from Atlantic Division bottom-dweller to a legit playoff contender. Today, in Part Four, we look at the Bruins goalie tandem and its role in the B’s hitting their stride the past few months.

BOSTON - The argument can be made rather easily that the Bruins season turned for the better once their goaltending situation straightened out.

Tuukka Rask infamously struggled out of the gate this season and Bruce Cassidy finally benched the B’s No. 1 goalie in mid-November while riding the hot hand of backup Anton Khudobin. That sparked the 17-3-3 run the Bruins are riding after Khudobin ripped off four wins in a row and it also somehow sparked Rask to snap back into peak form, along with the defense playing in front of him.

BEHIND THE B's SURGE

Suddenly, it all came together in December for Rask and the Bruins and he finished as that month’s No. 1 NHL Star after going 9-0-1 and .955 save percentage while playing behind a group of defenders finally protecting the slot area. That was part of the confounding nature of Rask’s struggles early in the season.

It seemed early on the Bruins weren't really wasn’t playing all that hard in front of Rask, weren't blocking as many shots as they were for Khudobin and they certainly deserved some of the blame for their goalie’s struggles. Clearly, it all changed once Operation Bench Tuukka took place and since then, they've been powered by robust goalie tandem play.

The Bruins No. 1 goalie was so good over the final six weeks leading into the bye that Rask was given serious consideration for the NHL All-Star Game. His stats (third in the NHL with a 2.23 goals-against average, 15th with a .920 save percentage) were better than the Canadiens' Carey Price, who did end up earning an Atlantic Division All-Star nod.

“[Rask] thought he was playing fairly consistent hockey, just wasn’t getting a lot of breaks. I think we played well in front of him in stretches when he wasn’t winning. I still think we have played well in front of him, but now, the times we’re not, he has stepped up his game for us. That is what needs to happen,” said B's coach Bruce Cassidy. “The nights someone doesn’t have it, someone has to step up in another area. That is one of the things I have liked about our team.

“If the older guys are lacking a little juice, the younger guys seem to produce. If the younger guys are not managing the puck and understanding situations, our older guys pull them along. I think it is the same in net. When Tuukka wasn’t going, Anton was there. I just see a lot of good in there, and a lot of healthy competition.”

Khudobin likewise has continued his season-long hot streak with a 9-2-3 record, a 2.37 GAA and a .925 save percentage that would be NHL career-best numbers if it continues.

Together, the Bruins goaltenders rank seventh in the NHL with an aggregate .916 save percentage and rank third in with a 2.50 GAA. Given the B’s youth on the back end and the injuries that smacked them hard the first two months of the season, it’s clear the Black and Gold require top-tier goaltending in order to have success.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the defense and the goaltending have both been fortified the past 23 games and Rask has eliminated the one soft goal allowed per game that was killing the team, and him, most of October and November.

“The guys that have been here for years, they have won that way. All we’re trying to do is merge some of the youth, and skill, and speed of the game – the transition part of it – with the hard to play against identity,” said Cassidy. “They are learning on the fly here the details of the game in these close games. They just happen to be low-scoring. Clearly, with Tuukka, his play speaks for itself and

"Anton, the way he finished last year, we knew we were going to get good goaltending...at least we assumed we were going to get good goaltending."

“We’ve got some heavy defensemen that can play that way, we’ve got bottom of the lineup that can kill penalties well. That is usually one of the ingredients of being a good defensive team is you keep the other team off the score sheet on the power play.”

Some of it is about confidence and simply getting hot between the pipes, but for Rask, it also seemed as if he needed to be pushed by his backup before it snapped him out of his funk. Whether it’s a competent backup competing with him or extra considerations for rest to keep him fresh, it’s clear Rask needs a little more assistance than your run-of-the-mill, $7 million-a-year, franchise goalie.   

“Tuukka clearly, however you want to summarize it, has benefitted from being pushed or not playing, or finding his game. Whatever you want to call it, he’s dead-on,” said Cassidy. “You could see after a few games [on the bench] that the passion was there and [Rask] wanted the net back.

“It just felt like the right thing to do. As a coach, you go with your gut at times, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked out.”

That is part of the challenge with Rask, who looked more like the bad version of himself leading into the bye week after allowing three soft goals in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last weekend. Saturday, it will be a date against the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a big game for both teams. The Bruins get a chance to really bury the Habs in the standings. The Canadiens get a chance to earn themselves some hope and Rask gets a chance to again change the narrative that he always struggles against Montreal in big games.

The 7-15-3 record, the 2.51 GAA and .915 save percentage in his career vs. Montreal say there is still plenty for Rask to answer to, and subpar performances vs. Montreal this month would perpetuate all of the bad stuff. It would also embolden those that see a hot December as more of the same from a Bruins No. 1 goalie who seems to come up short when it matters most.

That’s a story for another day, however.

The bottom line with Rask and Khudobin is they’ve formed exactly the kind of bulletproof duo Don Sweeney envisioned when he signed Khudobin to a two-year deal. They’ve been almost flawless in Boston’s 23-game push toward the top of the Atlantic Division. Even better, Khudobin’s play has allowed the Bruins to rest Rask liberally, so the lithe No. 1 goalie should be at his freshest physically in a busy second half.

In essence, Rask should be in the most advantageous position to play his best down the stretch and into the playoffs when the Bruins need him most. The question becomes whether that will ever actually happen with Rask at crunch time. There have been some very good moments, such as the sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, and his overall playoff numbers seem to back that up.

Still, there have also been some memorable meltdowns (the 2010 collapse to the Flyers, the Game 6 crumble vs. the Blackhawks) while getting outplayed in as many series (2014 vs. Carey Price).

That will be Rask’s challenge moving forward after teasing again the past six weeks that he’s got some greatness in there when things are all lined up for him. 

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Red-hot Bruins have something to prove in one-sided history vs. Caps

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Red-hot Bruins have something to prove in one-sided history vs. Caps

The Bruins have shown the past six weeks that there is something to be excited about this season.

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If the B’s really want to show they’ve truly scaled up another rung on the Eastern Conference ladder, however, they need to do so by finally vanquishing the Washington Capitals for the first time in almost four years. The Bruins have lost 11 games in a row to the big, strong, skilled and deep Caps the past four seasons. They’ve looked pretty overmatched in nearly all of those matchups dating to March 9, 2014 - the B’s last win over the Capitals.  

Some of that has clearly been the play of Braden Holtby, who has been dominant against the Bruins over his career at 13-2-0 with a 1.90 goals-against average, a .942 save percentage and three shutouts against the Black and Gold, including his first NHL win against Boston seven years ago. Some of that one-sided history has featured recent versions of the Caps bullying the Bruins all over the ice with Tom Wilson stirring up trouble nearly every time the teams meet.

Some of it is players such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom overwhelming the B’s with their offensive skill and consistently getting the Bruins down early.

Whatever the circumstances, the Bruins enter the proceedings tonight at Capital One Arena in Washington winners of a season-high five in a row with a 14-3-1 record in their past 18 games. The B’s are healthy and near the top of their game and will put Anton Khudobin between the pipes hoping to get a stand-on-his-head performance.

“We have a lot of confidence right now, and there’s nothing that will slow us down,” said Bruins winger Tim Schaller. “Even if we lose a game here and there, we still know we have a good team, and we can beat the best teams out there. So, it’s all about playing our game, sticking to the system and trusting the system, and we’ll win games.”

The Black and Gold are hoping that finally holds true against the Washington Capitals for the first time in 12 tries. 

If the Bruins can finally change their recent dreadful history against the Caps, perhaps there will be even more believers in what the B’s are doing as they continue to climb up the Atlantic Division with some very strong, well-rounded play the past two months.