With a point taken out of Thursday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Flyers, the Bruins are the embodiment of a .500 team after nine games: four wins, four losses and now one measly shootout loss to show. Even so, there was imperfect progress made against a highly motivated Philly club in defeat.
The B’s actually took points out of two consecutive games for the first time all season and put together consistent back-to-back efforts while admitting that there are still wrinkles to iron out in the overall game.
“I think it was a pretty consistent effort out there,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said to NESN after the 4-3 loss in Philadelphia (recap).
“Giving ourselves a chance to win, we battled and stayed in there. Every time we had to come back, we did and scored, and they kept us in the game.”
While nobody would have hoped for a pedestrian .500 record prior to the start of a season that featured skyrocketing expectations, the B’s are actually doing exactly what they have to do to survive without major contributors like Milan Lucic and Marc Savard.
The best game plan for the Bruins: simplify their systems and goals while paring things down to low-scoring, slow, gummed up neutral zone battles that rely on discipline, occasional offense and mistake-free goaltending while hanging around among the top 8-10 teams in the Eastern Conference.
There’s no need to rack up 116 points like last season’s edition of the Black and Gold – something that all of the players realized before the season began – and the Bruins certainly aren’t looking to make their next big push until their two impact players are back from injuries sometime in early December. Instead they simply need to tread water, take points and wins when available for the taking and remain among the huddled cluster of teams in the East until full strength returns.
The Bruins need look no further than the path of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who sleepwalked through the first half of last season and appeared to be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. But finally the Pens regained good health and made a few pitch-perfect trades to acquire Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin along the way to help a well-rounded hockey team gather strength to take on all comers.
Certainly it’s not a completely satisfying comparison because the B’s clearly don’t have a Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin combo waiting in the wings, but they do have plenty of offensive firepower, even if it isn’t firing on all cylinders just yet.
For that reason, the B’s mantra for the next six weeks with as many as 20 games set to go by until Lucic and Savard are again healthy – and perhaps even a few games beyond that before they’re back in the flow of things – is that it’s imperative that the team fights for every last available point on nights like Thursday.
The Bruins are going to need gritty efforts, contributions up and down the lineup and elite goaltending, and Boston got all three of those against the Flyers before eventually falling when Claude Giroux potted a shootout score after dangling toward the Boston cage with puck in hand. Even then, the B’s had their final chance to match Giroux’s shootout bid and Michael Ryder just missed while ringing the left post with a shot that had already beaten Flyers goaltender Ray Emery.
But the goaltender’s best friend didn’t betray Emery on Thursday night, and there was plenty to both like and dissect in the intense shootout defeat at the hands of the Flyers. Here are the three things we learned on a night when the Bruins finally seemed to get a little bit of flow to their game.
“COOL HAND TUUKK” WAS IN THE HOUSE
Tuukka Rask has been slowly nudged along by the Bruins organization as he developed within their minor-league system over the last two plus seasons. The patience exemplified by nearly every NHL team in developing young goaltenders once again worked in Boston’s favor.
He spent all of last season – save for that one sparking shutout against the New York Rangers – backstopping the Providence Bruins through nearly every situation while getting bigger and stronger along the way.
All of that seasoning has paid off, and Thursday night’s shootout loss was Rask’s latest shining moment in a still-young NHL career. Rask finished with 36 saves on a night when the Flyers had all manner of Grade A scoring chances, and he rose to the occasion when he needed to pull a stone-job on Jeff Carter with 46 seconds to go on the clock.
Carter managed a short-handed breakaway after the Bruins earned themselves a power play at the end of regulation, and he swooped in all alone on Rask. Some might have expected the rookie to be a little tense or tentative in a tie hockey game with less than a minute before a guaranteed point in overtime, but Rask was all kinds of cool between the pipes.
“That was a big save for us. He played well. I liked his game tonight,” said Julien to NESN. “He really helped give us a chance to win and he deserves a lot of credit.”
It’s actually a nice contrast to the fiery Tim Thomas, and gives the combo something of a “Fire and Ice” duo between the pipes – but it wasn’t tough to envision Rask demanding more playing time this season if he keeps playing as he did in Thursday night’s early sneak peak at the two teams pitted against each other in the NHL Winter Classic.
STEVE BEGIN KEEPS ON CHUGGING
The fourth-line center quietly scored the game-winning goal in Wednesday night’s slim victory over the Nashville Predators and Begin was at it again with a game-tying goal in the second period.
The Bruins kept throwing pucks at an embattled Ray Emery, who’s trying to become something of a reclamation project for an otherwise loaded Flyers team, and the goalie must be a fan of Notorious B.I.G. given all of the juicy rebounds littered all over the ice.
The B’s couldn’t take advantage of the loose pucks in some instances because they weren’t in the proper position to make Philly pay, but the B’s finally did cash in on a rebound goal when Begin crashed the net following a Byron Bitz shot.
Emery kicked it right out to Begin, and the B’s scrapping center delivered his second goal of the season. He is now tied with Patrice Bergeron and Michael Ryder for second on the team in scoring (2 goals, 4 assists) with six points.
While Begin sometimes is a little less predictable and consistent than players like P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle, there’s an undeniable spark that the former Habs skater has brought to the table along with his skating speed and physical intensity.
Just don’t ask him about his prolific scoring abilities with the Bruins.
“Oh don’t talk to me about that. I don’t even want to hear it,” said Begin last week when asked about his point totals. “I just want to concentrate on playing hard and playing my game. That stuff comes and goes.”
Begin earned 16:43 of ice time on Thursday night, and that’s a lot for a fourth-line player who is obviously getting rewarded by an appreciative coach.
DEREK MORRIS LIVES!
The defenseman was brought into the Boston fold as a means of improving Boston’s mobility among its blueliners. Morris had shown flashes through the early going – particularly in a very strong game against the Carolina Hurricanes – but Morris toted a minus-5 into Thursday night’s game against the Flyers. Morris has also been a major point guy on a power play that’s struggled mightily in the early going.
But all those bad hockey vibes flipped over last night and Morris slammed home a power play goal in the first that helped breathe life into a Boston team that twice battled back from deficits. The B’s showed some backbone that wasn’t there consistently through the first seven games of the season, and Morris was key in the effort.
The blueliner added an assist on Begin’s game-tying goal in the second period, and finished with a +1 in 25:47 of solid ice time. Morris still had six of his shots blocked – just as Zdeno Chara saw six shots blocked from the other point – and the Bruins as a team only managed two shots on net during two entire power plays in the loss.
The Bruins simply need to get more shots through on the man advantage, and that starts with Morris and Chara. They improved on that Thursday night, but there’s obvious room to continue building.