Monday night, there were nothing but superlatives coming out of TD Garden.
Sitting in coach Claude Julien’s Game 3 press conference after the Bruins had just beaten Sabres 2-1 (click here for the complete recap) to go up 2-1 in their quarterfinal playoff match was like listening to a principle read of the virtues of all the students on the honor roll.
Granted, you have to do something good to make the honor roll. And on Monday evening, a lot of Boston players did something good. Patrice Bergeron scored the game-winner on a heads-up one-timer from the circle. Mark Recchi fed him after battling Buffalo forward Tim Kennedy in the corner. Tuukka Rask let in a soft goal to Michael Grier in the first — then shut the Sabres down for final 53 minutes. Johnny Boychuk made a big hit. Dennis Wideman scored a goal and assisted with Recchi on the game-winner.
“That’s just Dennis [Wideman]. When he decides to put him mind to it and determined, that is what you get out of him,” Julien said of the much-maligned defenseman who has turned it around late in the season. “Again, repeating myself, but no better time to do it than now. That goal was a hard shot that I didn’t even see it go in from the bench.”
The list goes on.
Let’s try not to get too high on the Bruins. Yes, they won Game 3 in gritty fashion and they may be playing some of their best hockey of the year in terms of effort and execution. But Ryan Miller is perfectly able to turn the Bruins chances to dust. Boston has only one player from the Canadian national team, not the whole squad, after all.
Yet, a big playoff win for a team that many expected to be hitting the links at this time of year is something noteworthy.
“The biggest thing is to stick with it, and I think that is what we did,” Julien said. “We stuck through it through thick and thin, and I guess I have been around long enough to know that you are going to go through some tough times.
“But if you grab some momentum at the right time of the year a lot of things can happen. We believed in ourselves and believed in our group and we stuck through and things started turning around and when things started to turn around we got more confident and played better.”
Here are the three things we learned Monday night.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT?
For the second time in the series, a scrum in front of the net turned into a bout of face-washes and fisticuffs. The Sabres’ first offensive series after Bergeron scored the go-ahead goal had Andrew Ference and Buffalo captain Craig Rivet get into a pushing match that led to Rivet putting Ference on the ice, and escalated to the point that Vladimir Sobotka got into his first official NHL fight with Andrej Sekera. Ference, for some reason he could not figure out, ending up taking a misconduct penalty because of it … even though it was Rivet who sent him flying.
“No, but they were mad at me,” Ference said about if he got an explanation from the officials as to his misconduct. “I thought I was drawing a penalty, not taking one.”
Patrick Kaleta got a misconduct penalty in Game 1 after a similar series, even though it was Milan Lucic who took on both Toni Lydman and Steve Montador at once with fists a flailing.
Sobotka and Boychuk had been firecrackers in this series
“It was OK. I didn’t want to fight, but he punched me first and I said, ‘OK, let’s go,’” Sobotka said. “It is just both teams they play hard. It is war, you know, on the ice and we just have to battle and play like we play the last two games.”
The Bruins and Sabres have now played nine games this year, which is the maximum that any teams could play this time of year. Each roster has gotten to know the other’s quirks and tendencies and what will work on the ice and what may make somebody mad or draw a penalty.
“I have some guys that I don’t like, you know, but I don’t want to tell who but we turn around and I think it is going to be a great next game,” Sobotka said.
SPINNING WHEELS AND LEARNING PATIENCE
Bruins hockey in 2009-10 definitely hasn’t been about highlight-reel material. Milan Lucic did not put anybody through a wall, Phil Kessel did not score any pretty goals (at least not for Boston) and Marc Savard was way short of his quota of nifty passes.
It is reminiscent of NFC Central football, where every team is built on defense and the running game. It may not look great, but it can be effective.
Neither team in this series is going to go crazy for any significant portion of time. Both teams are too well-coached to let the other one get to far off the leash. Each squad has significant missing players (Jochen Hecht and Thomas Vanek for the Sabres, Savard, Mark Stuart and Dennis Seidenberg for the Bruins) and the styles are similar enough that each game is going to look basically the same. Game 3 was a reverse clone of Game 1.
“Not a lot of changes,” Miller said on the style of the series. “A couple of miscues on our part led to goals. That is the difference.”
The first miscue was a mutual penalty really that led to open ice for the Bruins. Paul Gaustad and Ference took matching roughing penalties in the first period at 13:18 that led to two minutes of 4-on-4 hockey. Towards the tail end of the set, Sobotka rushed down the right wing with Matt Hunwick drawing the defense in deep, then centered the puck to the slot that Hunwick had just cleared out to the one-timing stick of Wideman who screamed it around forward Michael Grier passed Miller’s stick.
“Even if I did see it, it was probably one you have to be standing up and anticipating it. You have to tip your hat and move forward,” Miller said. “Then the last one, it was a big shot. I was trying to step out and get some kind of position and it just hits me and goes in.”
The “last one” refers to Bergeron’s game-winning bullet that was set up by Recchi winning a battle by putting Tim Kennedy on the ice in the corner and zipping the puck back to Bergeron — who would have hit it a country mile if it had not been stopped by the net.
“It was kind of a broken play, because they almost stopped me at the redline before I dumped it so we got lucky on that one,” Bergeron said. “And [Recchi], like I said, won his battle and I think he surprised the other team by winning it so clean like that and it made me open.”
Recchi has been the epitome of spinning wheels and patience for the Bruins. He always keeps his feet moving on the ice because he knows that if he is always there for the battle or in the right spot then patience will be rewarded. Hockey is a very cyclical, fluid game augmented by jarring hits and sudden goals, and watching the Bruins when they are playing well like they have been for the last few weeks is a matter of knowing that the play will come as long as the effort is behind it.
PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1: JOHNNY BOYCHUK
Boychuk has become the villain of this series, and the B's 26-year-old rookie seems to be enjoying it. He is an often-sarcastic individual who has developed a certain swagger and confidence especially as he has been picking up big minutes down the stretch for Julien. He hits hard on the ice and throws his body at the puck with significant fervor, perhaps the type of desperation only developed by a guy who at times thought he would end up as a career minor-leaguer.
Whether purposefully or not, Boychuk is responsible for taking out Thomas Vanek, and he just about took Matt Ellis’ head off at around the 5:45 mark of the second period when the forward was trying to clear the puck after a particularly effective Bruins shift in the Sabres zone. Boychuk stepped up and took Ellis down, separating him from the puck — and his wits — as Ellis was visible wobbly when skating back to the bench.
“Our forwards were coming back, so I knew that even if I missed him, our forwards would have been there to cover me up, so it makes it a lot easier when our forwards are back-checking like they were tonight,” Boychuk said.
The hit lit up TD Garden and provided the momentum that the Bruins would use to keep the game close into the third and win it on Bergeron’s goal. Boychuk was happy enough to contribute to the energy in the building.
“Well, yeah, you know, any way possible,” Boychuk said. “If you are not going to be [Bergeron] and score all of these goals, you have to do something else, I guess.”
If Vanek comes back, he certainly will remember Boychuk. So will Ellis, if he remembers the train that hit him. Does that make Boychuk a Buffalo villain?
“I guess so,” Boychuk said. “I’m no villain.”