The Bruins were expecting a tough one in Carolina on Tuesday night, and though it didn't always look promising, they found a way to grab two points in regulation with a 3-2 victory (recap).
Though the B's established some momentum over first 12 minutes of the game, the Hurricanes grabbed it from there and held onto it until the third period. They put 19 shots on Tim Thomas in both the first and second periods, and Thomas had to stand on his head to keep it a tie game. The Bruins weren't helped in the hectic second period by the fact that they were assessed three minor penalties in the first 10:11 of the period.
Yet the Bruins, almost entirely thanks to Thomas (who made a season-high 43 saves), were able to weather the amount of the time they had to spend in there own zone and make it a 20-minute game in the third period.
"He had to bail us out many times," Claude Julien told NESN's Naoko Funayama in his post-game interview. "… Tim stood tall for us tonight. He really kept us in the game and deserves a lot of credit for this win."
After exchanging goals in the first 10 minutes of the third, Milan Lucic delivered the game-winner at 11:49 on the power play, and a late penalty on Tuomo Ruutu wiped out Carolina's chance at a late comeback.
Very silently emerging in a win like Tuesday's is Mark Recchi, who had his fourth multi-point game in the last 12 contests, but there's no bigger story than Thomas. Here's the Hat Trick:
Thomas admitted after Monday's 7-0 win that, given how much the defense limited the Hurricanes' access to him and how few second chances Carolina players had, it was one of his "easier" shutouts. The Hurricanes tried to make up for Thomas' relaxing Monday by making the second period a hellish occasion. Thomas handled it, stopping all 19 shots he faced, in the latest reminder that the Bruins can be outworked, spent too much time shorthanded, and face a ton of pressure but still come away with a win thanks to their goaltending.
The 36-year-old has been considered the early Vezina favorite since emergin as the season's best goaltender in October. Checking the goaltending stats hasn't really been necessary throughout the year, as it's been common knowledge that Thomas has led in goals against average, save percentage, and shutouts, the three most important statistical categories for goaltenders.
At no point this season has Thomas had a goals against average of 2.00 or higher. With his 1.83 GAA, he has allowed 0.30 goals less per game than Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Chicago's Corey Crawford, who are tied for second in the league. For a frame of reference, the six goaltenders behind Thomas have goals against averages between 2.13 and 2.27, which is a difference of 0.14 goals per game. If you take what separates their GAA's and double it, the number is less than the lead Thomas has on the Rinne and Crawford.
Then there are the shutouts. In 33 games, Thomas has picked up his league-leading seven blankings despite playing less than the guys who trail him in Henrik Lunqvist (six in 36 ganmes), Jonas Hiller (four in 43 games), and Carey Price (four in 42 games). Unless style points are awarded for their masks (Hiller would be helped in that area), there just hasn't been anyone to compete with Thomas all year.
Maybe it's good for him to get challenges like he did on Tuesday night, because, at least at this point, it doesn't look like he'll face one when the awards are handed out.
LUCIC ENDS SCORING DROUGHT IN A BIG WAY
Considering the guy missed three games, it's hard to immediately slap the "slumping" back on Lucic, but at face value, the Bruins' leading goal-scorer had gone 12 games without a goal. The Bruins had been riding the offensive successes of Patrice Bergeron and even Steven Kampfer while they waited for their top scorer to pick it back up, but at the end of the day, it's rather obvious that this team needs Lucic going like he was earlier in the season to be as good as many were hoping.
Lucic took a big step toward putting his lack of scoring in the rear-view mirror with his game-winning goal on Tuesday, and though it came as the result of him being left all alone in the slot on a power play, the 22-year-old should certainly use the tally -- regardless of a defensive lapse on the part Brandon Sutter -- to build towards his form of the season's first 30 games (16 goals).
While nobody can still say for sure what was ailing Lucic over his three games out of the lineup (it seems to have been upper-body but the team kept it disclosed), having something concrete -- even if it's seven days off -- to separate his up-and-down first half from where he's been the last two games may be good for his psyche and confidence.
Lucic looked strong on Monday when he beat Cam Ward with a wrist shot from just inside the blue line, a goal that didn't stand due to a delayed penalty. After Tuesday's game-winner, he's gotten a couple of positive points to focus on, and there isn't much better of a way to get back into a groove than with a game-winner.
BRUINS NOW FACE THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Prior to the Bruins' two games with the Hurricanes this week, the Bruins had a difficult five-game stretch, facing the Canadiens, Penguins (twice) and Flyers, with the lone softie coming in the form of the lowly Senators. The B's handled it by going 3-1-1 and following it with a pair of wins over Carolina.
Yet fast-approaching is another challenging chunk of the schedule, though the B's have the chance to keep building momentum as they prepare for it. Early next month, the Bruins will have a five-game span with games against the Stars, Sharks, Canadiens, and two against the Red Wings. It's a group that includes some of the best the Western Conference has to offer, as well as a Habs team that the Bruins still have yet to beat in three games this season (0-2-1)
First, they have five games against teams who aren't in such good standing, and that's where the B's can turn the momentum of their home-and-home victory into them being one of the league's hottest teams before Dallas comes to town on Feb. 3. Over their next five, the Bruins will face the Sabres, Avalanche, Kings, Panthers, and Hurricanes. Of those teams, only Colorado (seventh in the Western Conference) is currently in line for a postseason existence. The Kings, who beat the B's in a shootout back on Nov. 20, have been dreadful of late, losing nine of their last 11 games.
At the moment, the Bruins are a No. 2 seed. They'll need to grab every point they can from those beneath them in anticipation of one of their schedule's toughest stretches of the season.