November 16, 2011

Bruins find a will and a way

By Andrew Merritt

Tim Thomas stopped 27 shots on Tuesday to earn his seventh win of the season. (Getty) BOSTON –When the Bruins were mired in their season-opening morass, this was the kind of game they’d find a way to lose.

Tuesday night at TD Garden, though, the newly surging Bruins – one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now – instead found a way to win through guile, grit, and even a little helping of luck.

Three weeks ago, the Stanley Cup champions were still stumbling through a 3-7 start that put them last in the league, the worst start to a post-Cup season since the 1994-95 Rangers went 2-5-1 to open their title defense. Three weeks ago, the Bruins were losing games like the Oct. 27 tilt against Montreal, in which Thomas Plekanec scored the game winner with 9:41 to go despite giving the B’s a goal off his own stick earlier in the game.

Three weeks later, the Bruins are making positive marks in the record book. Tuesday night, they dropped the Devils 4-3 for their sixth straight victory, improving to 9-7-0 and moving to one point behind eighth-place Ottawa in the Eastern Conference standings. The 34 goals they’ve scored in the last six games is the biggest offensive explosion by the franchise over such a stretch since the team posted 35 from Feb. 23 to March 7, 1994.

“I just see the guys committed to winning the game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “I think (Nathan) Horton hit the crossbar there at some point in the third, late in the third, and the guys were just on the edge of their seat on the bench, just ready to jump up. I think everybody was pretty excited about the opportunity to win this game, and pretty determined, and that’s why we came out a better team in the third period. We didn’t sit back on our heels trying to just salvage a point. We wanted to win, and we responded properly.”

The game had all the makings of a streak killer. After running away with the last five wins and scoring in bunches, the Bruins couldn’t get much going early on, and gave up the game’s first goal on David Clarkson’s power play strike midway through the second. Chris Kelly tied it just over four minutes later, and Brad Marchand delivered the kind of goal that has been spurring the Bruins to find a higher gear with a breakaway wrist shot off the opening faceoff of the third period.

But the Devils didn’t break like Ottawa, Toronto, the Islanders, Edmonton and Buffalo have over the last two weeks. Nick Palmieri tied it back up at 2 after a failed Bruins clearing attempt was caught by New Jersey’s Zach Parise at the blue line. Even after Jordan Caron’s nifty backwards-between-the-legs pass set up the easiest goal Shawn Thornton may ever score less than two minutes later, the Devils again had an answer. Palmieri’s second goal came off a hard net drive by Adam Henrique that took Tim Thomas out of the play.

During the days of the purported Cup hangover, the Bruins may not have been able to find their way out of the woods.

“Probably not, probably some of those bounces don’t go our way,” Thornton said. “But … hockey is a different game like that. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But of late, things have been going well for us. But give the guys credit too, because when we were going through that stretch, we weren’t getting bounces, but guys were really putting their head down and working as hard as they could to try and get out of it. Nobody sulked, everybody just worked twice as hard.”

Every punch the Bruins threw was returned in kind by the Devils to that point. And yet the hometown team didn’t fold, didn’t let its efforts diminish, and was rewarded with 3:03 to go, when Joe Corvo picked up the puck off an offensive zone faceoff, walked along the half boards and waited for a shooting lane. When he got it, he fired, and though Johan Hedberg made the stop, Benoit Pouliot was there to swipe at the rebound. He flubbed the return, but it still found a way past Hedberg to put the Bruins up for good.

Three weeks ago, maybe Pouliot’s shot wouldn’t have trickled in. Maybe Horton’s shot off the post, and the earlier setup that saw him fire from point-blank range into Hedberg’s chest rather than the gaping net, would have ended up being frustrating enough to kill the Bruins’ momentum. Three weeks ago, maybe the Bruins just wouldn’t have found a way to win this one.

“It seemed like when we were in these games earlier in the year, we didn’t have the confidence to know that we can win them,” said Marchand, who responded to a second-period benching – after his ill-advised roughing penalty led to the Devils’ first goal – by scoring his lightning strike to start the third. “Right now, we know that we can win at any point in the game, and it’s just showing, the character’s coming out, guys are stepping up and that’s why we’re able to win at this point.”

After five games in which the Bruins seemed to be having an awful lot of fun, and scoring an awful lot of goals, the Devils made them prove they can win a hard-fought 60-minute battle, too.

“I know this is one of the toughest wins that we’ve had,” said Thomas, who finished with 27 saves. “Probably the toughest win out of the six games that we’ve had. They really tested us, they really worked hard, they really played a good game. We just stayed with it, and we were the ones that had the ability to turn it on the last 10 minutes, and were able to pull out the win because of that.

“We’ve had a couple of games where everything went our way, kind of easier wins, and this was a good wake-up call without having to pay the price.”

There will be more games like this – in fact, as Thomas said after the win, the Bruins will probably be in more tight battles like Tuesday’s than the kinds of runaway victories that preceded it. The difference is, unlike Oct. 27 against Montreal, or Oct. 12 at Carolina, or Oct. 10 against Colorado, they’re finding ways to win the close ones, too.