BOSTON — The Bruins were stuck in neutral for much of the last six weeks while comfortably in first place in the Atlantic Division and coming off last year’s Stanley Cup Final appearance.
So Bruins management decided to act by switching things up on their NHL roster a bit, and Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights was the latest evidence of those moves bearing some fruit.
The changes and roster alterations certainly aren’t done, as an NHL roster is a living, breathing thing that changes due to needs and external factors, but for now the addition of Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Jeremy Lauzon while subtracting Brett Ritchie, David Backes and Steve Kampfer gave the Bruins a winning combination on the ice.
Now the Bruins head into the 10-day All-Star weekend and bye week break with a comfortable eight-point lead in the division and a chance to hit the reset button after some truly ghastly losses over the last six weeks.
“I’ll be very open, is we decided a couple of weeks ago or whatever it was that we needed a little more internal competition. Usually, that starts from the bottom up," said Bruce Cassidy. "We identified some guys in Providence that were playing well. [Blidh] was one of that was hurt at the start of the year that we were going to look at in training camp. I think we discussed that; we thought he was a lot closer than he was maybe a couple of years ago, so that was something that was going to be in the works when he was ready.
"We did it with [Karson] Kuhlman. [Jeremy] Lauzon, we took a veteran out in [John] Moore, so [Kuhlman] came up in place of however you want to look at it. That was a bit by design these last two weeks to see if it will give us a little extra push, so we’ll see where it leads us.”
The 9-7-7 record since Dec. 5 isn’t very impressive when compared to what they did in October and November, but it’s also the only level of play required for the Bruins to still surpass 100 points this season and protect a playoff spot that’s pretty much guaranteed at this point.
Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning will catch them with three games in hand, but it’s still very much in Boston’s control to win or lose the division based on the way the Bruins approach the final 31 games of the season over the next three months.
That was part of what factored into a very clear malaise that swept over the Bruins roster in recent weeks. It was behind a number of blown three-goal leads that had been unheard of for these recent Bruins teams, and it was at the heart of a number of disinterested, disengaged and losing performances against some of the NHL’s worst teams in Ottawa, Detroit, New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles over the course of the first half.
It hasn’t all magically disappeared as the Bruins didn’t get off to a roaring start against Vegas on Tuesday night, but Lauzon brought some added toughness around the net, physicality with four hits and he also chipped in an unexpected goal in his season debut. Kuhlman logged a pair of assists in his return to the lineup a few games ago, and now it looks like the Bruins are going to try him with David Krejci and Danton Heinen on a different-looking second line.
Kuhlman, Heinen and Krejci all ended up on the score sheet on Tuesday night with both Krejci and Kuhlman winning board battles that led to Lauzon’s goal from the point, and all three forwards were again on ice for Krejci's game-winner in the third period.
Afterward, Krejci was overflowing in his praise for his new cerebral, hustling linemates while also deserving some of his own for overcoming a cranky back with a multi-point effort after he’d missed essentially a week of action with the injury.
“They are very smart. It’s fun to play with smart guys. They make plays. It doesn’t work all the time, but the effort is there. You can always do better, overall I thought it was pretty good,” said Krejci. “All three of us are pretty smart on that line, and we’ve played together before so we all know what to expect from each other. It was working well tonight and I was happy to get the ‘W.’”
Blidh had a quiet game with three hits and a shot on net in less than 10 minutes of ice time, but he was no more or less of a factor than Ritchie had been in a half-season where he never distinguished himself in any way for the Black and Gold. And it’s clear that both Blidh and Chris Wagner have been tasked with upping the physical factor and the agitation level to get the Bruins more engaged in games where they might otherwise lean toward indifferent mode against opponents that don’t exactly get the blood boiling on their own.
That being said, the Bruins also know that the time for mental or physical fatigue in the regular-season grind is pretty much over now. The Bruins have just 31 games remaining in the season after a 10-day break, they have a trade deadline next month where they will most assuredly pick up an added player or two, and they have just a few months to prepare for a playoff run that will come with considerable expectations based on last season’s playoff run.
“People talk. [The media] talks, but we know how we want to play and we know if we’re good or if we’re bad. At the end of the day we’ve got 70 points and we’re sitting at the top of the division. So we’re happy with where we’re at,” said Krejci. “But we know the stretch [run] is going to be most important.
“Everybody will be playing their best hockey in February and March to make the playoffs, or teams that aren’t in the playoffs are playing for their jobs. So it’s going to be much harder, but it’s also much more exciting.”
The Bruins hope some of their recent adjustments have addressed the ennui that very clearly crept into the hockey club over the last couple of months, but the circumstances facing them once they get going again in a couple of weeks might just do that all by itself.