One season ago, the Bruins looked to shake off a sluggish start to their campaign with a road trip through the Great White North of Western Canada.
Tim Thomas got the starting nod in all three games, and Boston’s masked man made 59 saves in back-to-back shutout wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks that sent Thomas on his merry Vezina way.
The victories stabilized an in-flux Bruins team and reacquainted them with their defense-first mentality and structure firmly established under head coach Claude Julien over two seasons working for the Jack Adams Award winner. The two games got Boston moving in proper direction and introduced B's to a team identity that perhaps drifted a way a bit through the first handful of games.
While NHL road stops in Dallas and Phoenix aren’t going to be easily confused with the traditional Canadian stops to the distant north, they might just as well have served as Boston’s hockey alarm clock again this season.
The B’s forwards were pitching in and doling out an annoying level of back pressure, forecheckers were aggressively punishing Dallas defenseman foolishly working to retrieve pucks in the corners and Boston’s skaters bravely stepped in front of 24 shots along the way to a gritty, well-deserved win.
In short, the Bruins simply put in an honest night’s work and got their just desserts. The Bruins played smart, steady hockey in all three zones and did it – wait for it – for a full 60 minutes.
With the solid, fortified defense in front of him, Thomas made all the required saves in Boston’s 3-0 shutdown win over the Stars and even turned in a few eye-catching numbers that had also been woefully missing during his first three games.
“We looked a lot more like the team that we have been in the past,” said B’s coach Claude Julien to NESN. “It was nice to see the effort we had from everybody. We had everybody going tonight, we worked hard in every direction and we got rewarded for it.
“When you play well defensively, our motto has always been that you get some offensive opportunities off of that. Hopefully we can build off of that.”
The underwhelming stats for Thomas were well-documented heading into Friday night’s road game in the Lone Star State: a 4.04 goals against average and an .868 save percentage. Not Thomas-like, and definitely not Vezina-like.
Thomas sat and watched for Boston’s last two games against the Islanders and Avalanche, and waited for another opportunity to find a groove between the pipes with his disjointed B’s defensemen looking to find their groove. As expected, the two-time All-Star hunkered down with his defense and made 27 saves en route to Boston’s first shutout of the season. It was also the 13th career shutout of Thomas’ rags-to-riches career.
The 35-year-old didn’t have to be superhuman on a night that it was a true team shutout in every sense, but the B’s goaltender did execute prime time stops on shots by Dallas forward James Neal in each of the three periods.
In the first, Neal swooped in all alone with Andrew Ference riding on his back and fired a strong forearm shot that Thomas managed to get a chunk of with his left pad. The rebound dropped dangerously into the slot, but Mark Stuart swept the puck away before Dallas could do any damage.
Thomas smothered an equally dangerous Neal bid in the second frame, and then somehow kicked a left pad out while moving side-to-side to kill a third period power play and stoned the point blank rebound bid by Neal.
There are shutouts earned solely through the dynamic work of the goaltender between the pipes, and there are team shutouts awarded to defense-minded skaters working in concert with each other. Saturday night’s win over the Stars was clearly one of those group achievements, and there were plenty of encouraging signs to go around for a hockey club in need of a foothold to clamp down in.
The B’s will obviously try to turn the exact same trick as last year when they host the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday night in the desert, but Thomas and the Boston defense have already lived up to the first half of the southern swing billing.
Here are three things we learned in Boston’s best win of the season:
THE B’S SPECIAL TEAMS ARE SUDDENLY PACKED WITH POTENCY
The Bruins man advantage had been slightly boom and almost exclusively bust through the first five games, and headed into Friday night 0-for-17 on their power play -- and only 4-for-29 on the season, good for a paltry 13.8 percent success rate on the man advantage.
Prior to the roasd trip, several of the Bruins noted an alarmingly severe shortage of tips, rebounds and good old-fashioned ditch-digging work by the forwards down low during the power play. All three were apparent and used to great effect during both 5-on-5 play and during Boston’s only brief power play chance of the night.
In fact, it took only 29 seconds for the Bruins to do what they hadn’t been able to accomplish in three prior hockey games.
They scored, and they did it both quickly and without any complicated scheme or formation.
The B’s special teams made good usage of their only opportunity with good, solid puck movement and a quick entry into the zone. Marc Savard took advantage of a Dallas penalty kill still attempting to set up, and quickly sprinted into action. The crafty center collected a loose puck just behind the Dallas net and simply fired a puck toward the Stars cage from a low percentage angle on Marty Turco's right side. Savard then watched as the puck bounced off a Dallas defenseman waiting in front of the net, and snuck by Turco. The goal gave Boston the quick 1-0 lead in the first period and finally ended the B’s scoreless streak on the power play at 17 fruitless chances.
SO MUCH FOR ALL OF THE TALK OF NO RYDER/SAVARD CHEMISTRY
While many assumed that Julien wouldn’t switch lines and install Michael Ryder at the right wing beside Savard due to a lack of prior chemistry, that’s exactly what the head coach did last week. And, as usual, the tweaking brought immediate dividends and allowed Julien’s hunch to spill over into a Black and Gold success on the ice.
Ryder doled out three hits and played with strength and ferocity on the puck all evening. The right winger also did something he very rarely does on Boston’s third goal of the evening: he helped create a scoring opportunity by passing the puck back to Savard. Ryder carried possession into the Dallas zone with speed and authority in the waning moments of the second period, and then wisely shoved it off to Savard waiting with stick raised for a one-timer inside the outer edge of the right faceoff circle.
Savard laid the hammer to the puck and fired a top-shelf missile that Turco had no shot at seeing or stopping. Suddenly it was a three-goal lead for the B’s, and the game was essentially over with a final 20 minutes to play. The two scores give Savard four goals on the season, and make the normally pass-first center Boston’s biggest marked man in the goal-scoring category this season.
With so many defensive players expecting Ryder and Savard to play the typical center-to-forward passing game, perhaps coaxing Ryder into a few more passing plays is the counter-strike attack that defenses simply won’t be expecting. Savard has a searing slap shot and plenty of nifty goal-scoring moves when he’s motivated to shoot a bit more. All of the tools in the box needed to potentially become a bit more of a goal-scorer are there for Savard if defenses are sagging off him.
“When you’re struggling you’re just trying to put pucks on net, and that’s exactly what I did tonight,” said Marc Savard to NESN following the game. [Ryder] skated well and played great, and he did a good job of getting back some of those times I get caught back. Tonight it was me scoring, but hopefully next time it’s me getting him or Sturmy a couple [of goals].”
That may just be what’s required of the smooth pivot now that Boston’s only bona fide sniper, Phil Kessel, has moved on and leaves the B’s bereft of their one natural born goal-scorer. Look for Savard to take much more of a shoot-first mentality until a few more of Boston’s scorers begin to catch fire, and begin producing on both the top line and the power play. A little further motivation for Savard to keep firing the puck for a Bruins team looking to put together a little consistency: Savard’s next goal will be the 200th of his career.
MARK STUART HAS BEEN VERY, VERY GOOD
Most nights he doesn’t call much attention to himself with a defenseman game that isn't exactly built for glory, but Stuart was easily noticeable in Friday night’s win over Dallas. The rugged blueliner’s biggest play of the night was also a moment underscored by the two undeniable strengths of his game: his combination of awareness and defensive presence. Stuart gave great support to Thomas when he reacted quickly and calmly swept a loose puck out of the crease following a sizzling shot leveled at the Boston cage by James Neal.
The Stars forward slipped in behind Andrew Ference and managed a quick, hard shot against Thomas from the left faceoff circle during the first period. The B’s goaltender made one of his best save of the night to kick the shot off his left pad, but he couldn’t absorb the rebound. The puck dropped right in the middle of the crease area, and Stuart was able to clear the shot from the danger area just as a Dallas contingent was about to converge on the golden goal-scoring opportunity.
Stuart also provided a pounding, unrelenting physical presence in Boston’s defensive end, and played textbook positional defense while racking up three registered hits, a plus-2 and a big assist on Patrice Bergeron’s tip-in goal. It was Stuart's big, booming shot from the point area that set up Bergeron's redirection of the puck, and that's a big part of his potential evolvement as a defenseman. That’s the kind of game that Stuart is capable of giving every single night, and he did it while ranking fourth among Boston’s defenseman with 28 shifts on the night.
Stuart is the ultimate meat-and-potatoes defenseman, but he’s racked up a pair of assists on the young season and currently leads the Bruins with a plus-6 on the season through six games.
Who would have possibly guessed that Stuart would be Boston’s undisputed plus/minus leader after the first handful of games this season? It says a lot about the steadiness he’s achieved in his third full season taking shifts with the B’s at a time when they need him most.