Bruins

Bruins respond to latest challenge, take 'good first step to getting back to who we are'

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USA TODAY Sports

Bruins respond to latest challenge, take 'good first step to getting back to who we are'

BOSTON – The Bruins players heard the words from a disapproving media, from an embarrassed fan base and from an angry management, and they responded in tangible fashion in their very next chance to get on the ice.

There may never be a frank admittance that the Bruins were way too soft in their response to Tuukka Rask getting butt-ended in the side of the head and knocked out of Tuesday night’s loss in Columbus, but they were aware that everybody around them was in almost uniform agreement that what they did in response simply wasn’t enough. The Bruins harnessed those negative feelings and whatever deep-seeded regret they may have been harboring, and they took it out on the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 4-1 win at TD Garden on Thursday night.

It’s never going to be the Pier Six brawl special that it was back with the group that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and it certainly isn’t going to be the dirty, mean and nasty stuff that the 1970’s Bruins pulled off during the wonderfully dark ages of the sport. But it was clear the Bruins wanted to get back to being a hard team to play against after really losing their way over the last few months, and evidence abounded that they were getting back to their game.

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“I thought it was a great effort by everyone. We competed hard, supported each other well and I thought Jaro [Halak] made some excellent saves. So it felt like up and down our lineup everybody contributed, and it was a great effort,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We always want to be [a hard team to play against]. We weren’t really happy with our last two efforts, and you’re facing a team that’s playing good hockey [in Pittsburgh]. I thought we responded to the challenge well, but we have to carry that momentum on.

“It’s about getting better as a team. There are going to be stretches where you need to work harder to get the result. So we keep working on it and keep getting better, but the way we competed and the mindset up and down the lineup was great to see.”

A hit from behind on Chris Wagner in the corner drew every member of the Bruins in response early in the game, and Evgeni Malkin was tossed around in the corner by Zdeno Chara after a fairly innocent poke at Jaroslav Halak early in the game as well. Later it was Torey Krug responding to a cross-check to the back of Matt Grzelcyk in front of the Bruins bench, and Krug and Patric Hornqvist throwing down for a legit hockey fight after serving matching roughing penalties for their initial fracas.

Chris Wagner was only credited with one hit, which was unintentionally humorous as he was throwing his body around with heavy physical play throughout the game, and clearly heeded the call from the Bruins coaching that some of their physical players needed to draw the team into fire a little more often than they had been doing.

Combine all that with rock solid goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, strong special teams play and secondary scoring to go along with Perfection Line excellence, and the Bruins finally again resembled the team that pushed out to such a big lead earlier in the season. Certainly they were again a difficult team to play against rather than the pushovers that showed up in Columbus a few nights ago, and that was the topic of the day from the coaching staff ahead of the game.

“We had a different meeting on some things we needed to do better as a group. It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, it was a reset on supporting one another all over the ice. You hope [that] if you do that to get pucks back, it’ll bleed into anything else that transpires — the physical play and everything else that goes with it,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I thought that part was good. We addressed the group about a little bit of our mentality. We feel we’re winners in that locker room, but you have to prepare to win, you have to compete to win and go through the process of winning. I thought today was a good first step to getting back to who we are.”

The good news for the Bruins is that throughout this identity crisis, malaise or cruise control session they have been mired in for the last couple of months, they are still eight points ahead of the Lightning and 11 points ahead of the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division. Thursday night’s win over a strong Penguins team was a reminder of how good the Bruins can be when they are playing the right way and actually inject some urgency, effort and attitude into their game.

Now the Bruins need to follow up on the win over the Penguins, finish up strong in their final two games ahead of the bye week and NHL All-Star break, and then hit the ground running with these kinds of energized efforts in the second half of the season starting at the end of January. They can’t allow last night’s formula to slip away again, or they would be in danger of embracing the same season-long malaise that ended up dooming the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore," said Torey Krug. "But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

The Bruins lost their way for a while, but it didn’t end up costing them anything to this point provided the wakeup call in Columbus continues to serve as a reminder that the Bruins can be great if they actually want to work for it, and for each other.

Haggerty: Torey Krug steps up as Bruins leader in win

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

BOSTON — Both newly traded players got into the Bruins lineup on Thursday night against the Dallas Stars, and it looked pretty darn encouraging for the Black and Gold with the new pieces fitting nicely with the rest of the lineup.

Hulking left winger Nick Ritchie scored his first goal in a Bruins uniform amidst a two-point effort and Ondrej Kase showed speed and skill along with a decent two-way game while finishing with two shots on net in 15:16 of ice time.

Both wingers showed instant chemistry with David Krejci on the second line in the 4-3 win at TD Garden, and Ritchie showed smooth hands for a big man playing the give-and-go game with David Pastrnak on the game-winner in the third period.

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There were some that believed the Bruins' moves at the trade deadline were as much about opening salary cap space as they were about actually improving the team, but Ritchie particularly showed he’s got some game in a win that pushed the B’s to a seven-point lead in the division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think Nick [Ritchie] was much better than the other night, a little more into the game,” said Bruce Cassidy on Ritchie, who was okay in his B’s debut on Tuesday after flying cross-country from California to hop into the lineup. “[The] puck was finding him. We knew that would happen. I just thought it was unfair the other night.

“You fly in, it’s a lot of newness going on. He’s had a couple of days to acclimate a little bit. Listen, I’m not going to say he’s going to get two points every night, but he’ll probably be somewhere in between there and that’s what we expect out of him. [He’s] a bigger body, especially in this type of game I thought. They’re a heavy team, they finish checks and you’ve got to work to get to the net. I thought he did a real good job with that.”

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder showed exactly what he’ll bring to the table and, perhaps more importantly, displayed the skill to hang in a top-6 role after teaming up with Pastrnak on the scoring play in the third period. There will be more opportunities for the big winger to throw his weight around and really set a physical tone once he begins getting comfortable in Boston, but there’s every reason to think he’s exactly the kind of player Boston needed going into the trade deadline.

Certainly, Ritchie was more noticeable in one win on Thursday night than Danton Heinen had been in the last few months of a season where his subtle qualities didn’t exactly amount to anything significant on the ice.

“It was good. It was nice to score. It was nice to win,” said Ritchie. “My energy levels were higher and I definitely felt better with my legs. I definitely played a better game and the team played better as well. It was just a simple shot, but whenever it goes in, it obviously feels really good.

“Early on [as a line] we played a lot together and we had some good shifts, and we really got in on the fore-check. It was good.”

As for Kase, he showed on his very first shift of the game that he’s got speed to burn on the second line and flashed some slick offensive instincts as things went along. It didn’t add to any offensive production with Krejci in his first game back from injury, but it’s also the first time Kase has played at all since early February with a suspected concussion.

So now it’s about the Bruins keeping the right winger healthy and letting him build up his game in Boston.

“[Nick] Ritchie with [David] Krejci, I think could go somewhere as long as they have some chemistry, as long as there’s some pace on the other side. That could be Ondrej [Kase], if we drop Pasta [David Pastrnak] down at times,” said Cassidy. “But as long as there’s some pace [from the right wing]. I’ll look at pairs. [Jake] DeBrusk, [Charlie] Coyle, I think, like I said, I like the way they’ve played together [on the third line]. Even Anders [Bjork] when he’s over there. I thought our fourth line was contributing again tonight. Unfortunately, Wags [Chris Wagner] got hurt there in that scuffle, but I thought they did a good job as well.”

Clearly the forward combinations are in flux as a passive Anders Bjork spent most of the second period nailed to the Bruins bench, and the fourth line may be switched around now that Wagner is banged up with an upper body injury.

But Ritchie showed he’s got the talent to fill the Bruins' need for a big, physical winger with some skill and Kase gave indications he’ll be a player who can create some 5-on-5 offense for a B’s team that doesn’t do enough of that in crunch time.

For those with questions about how much improvement the Bruins made with their deadline moves, the win over the Stars showed strong indications that Ritchie and Kase are both going to play roles in making the Bruins a tougher group to defend in the postseason.

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

First, a disclaimer: The Boston Bruins should try to win their remaining games. The better your team is playing, the better it is for everyone in the dressing room.

But if the Tampa Bay Lightning overtake the Bruins in the Atlantic Division and secure the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best record?

Well ... that wouldn't be the worst development.

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Here's the first reason: Whether you're superstitious or not, the Presidents' Trophy has been a death knell for its recipients. The last club to finish with the NHL's best regular-season record and win the Stanley Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks (at the Bruins' expense) in 2013.

Here's how the next six Presidents' Trophy winners fared:

2014 Bruins: Lost in second round
2015 New York Rangers: Lost in Eastern Conference Final
2016 Washington Capitals: Lost in second round
2017 Capitals: Lost in second round
2018 Nashville Predators: Lost in second round
2019 Lightning: Lost in first round

Since the NHL adopted its current playoff format for the 2013-14 season, only one Presidents' Trophy winner has made it out of the second round. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning clean out of the first round in 2019.

There's more than just bad karma at play here. In the current format, each division winner plays a Wild Card team in the first round, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division face off.

Guess how many division winners beat their Wild Card opponents in last year's playoffs? Zero.

That's a bit of an aberration, but it's not far from the norm in the topsy-turvy Stanley Cup Playoffs. Aside from the 2013 Blackhawks, the 2018 Capitals are the only other team in the last 12 years to win the Stanley Cup after winning their division (and they had the Eastern Conference's third-best record).

Playoff trends aside, there's a more simple reason why Boston shouldn't mind losing out on the Presidents' Trophy.

If the playoffs started now, the Bruins would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have won both of their matchups with Boston this season -- including a 3-0 shutout on Jan. 14 -- and took the B's to six games in the second round last year.

If the Bruins slip to the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic, they'll likely face the Toronto Maple Leafs -- who haven't beaten Boston in a playoff series since 1959.

Bruce Cassidy's club currently stands seven points clear of the Lightning (92 to 85) with 17 games remaining. The St. Louis Blues (86 points) and Capitals (84) points also are in the Presidents' Trophy conversation.

The B's want to be playing well entering the postseason, and finishing with the NHL's best record obviously would be proof of that. If they happen to take their foot off the gas, though, they could wind up in better position to win the Cup race.