BOSTON – Nobody needs the reminder of how the Bruins’ 2013 season ended. Nobody needs the rehash of how the team was poised to force a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final before 17 seconds of pain turned everything around and put the Cup in the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks.
That’s especially true of the people inside the Bruins’ locker room.
Three months and one week removed from that 17 seconds, the Bruins opened their 2013-14 season Thursday night with a decisive, if not entirely aesthetically pleasing, 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay. It wasn’t the most thorough victory, but it featured every element of what has made the Bruins one of the NHL’s best over the last few years: Opportunistic scoring, gritty defensive play, and strong goaltending.
That came as a welcome opening statement from a team that had some questions to answer after coming oh-so-close last year. Although there are a few new faces, the group that stood for the national anthem before Thursday’s game is largely the same that trudged off the ice while the Blackhawks celebrated in front of them on that June evening.
But that was last year, and this group isn’t worrying about last year anymore.
“We’re really not rattled about last year; we’ve really turned the page on that,” coach Claude Julien said. “So that’s not even an issue. I’m going to be honest with you, win or lose tonight it certainly wouldn’t have bothered us as far as, ‘Boys, we’re in trouble here.’
“I think our team is in a good place right now mentally and we’re ready for another big challenge this year. Whether we would have won last year or not, we would have had to turn the page this year and start all over again. So that’s what we’re doing, we’re starting from scratch and we have to earn a spot in the playoffs first before we can even talk about anything else and we’re willing to put the work towards that right now.”
The Bruins absolutely put in the work against the Lightning, a newly minted divisional opponent thanks to the NHL’s offseason conference realignment. Where an early-season tilt against Tampa Bay once would have been relatively inconsequential, Thursday night’s opener held the same meaning in the Atlantic Division standings as Saturday’s big clash with Detroit.
Although it took them a little time to figure it out, the Bruins ended up playing up to the importance of the game. Chris Kelly’s shorthanded penalty shot goal put the B’s on the board, and strong work from David Krejci and Milan Lucic re-established the lead after the Lightning had tied it on a tic-tac-toe play in the second period.
The most impressive aspect of the night was the Bruins’ penalty kill, which looked like it had skipped the offseason entirely and picked up where it left off in 2013. The Lightning were given nearly two full minutes of a 5-on-3 advantage toward the end of the first period, but the Boston penalty killers stood up, just as they had throughout a 2013 season in which the Bruins had the NHL’s fourth-best kill rate (87.1 percent).
The Lightning went 0-for-5 Thursday night, and Julien said it was because one of the league’s best penalty kill units last year has only gotten better.
“We’ve got some new guys in there. I think Loui Eriksson is a guy that can kill, [Jarome] Iginla can kill, David [Krejci] was killing as well,” Julien said. “I think if anything we have more penalty killers this year than we did last year. So if we run into injuries or a few of those guys in the box I’m not going to be short up front anyways.”
Although a 15-6 shot disparity in the first period showed the Bruins hadn’t quite shaken off all the rust, by the end of the game it all looked very familiar. A perfect example: Patrice Bergeron, whose gasp-worthy injuries plagued his Stanley Cup Final, played a whopping 20:02 Thursday night – more than any other Bruin forward, and more than defensemen Dougie Hamilton (19:34), Torey Krug (15:20) and Adam McQuaid (15:48). He also provided the Bruins’ insurance goal early in the third period.
It’s only the first of 82 regular season games for the Bruins, and a loss on opening night isn’t necessarily a harbinger of a bad season. But after watching their Cup hopes get snatched away on their own ice back in June, followed by an incredibly short offseason, getting the 2013-14 season started on the right foot is a good thing for a team with real designs on going back to the Cup Final.
“It’s real important, obviously you want things to start off the right way so you can start building some momentum,” Lucic said, before thinking back to the ill-fated 2011-12 season. “We’ve been through it before, where the start really wasn’t that great and we were 3-7 through the first month of the season, so it’s really good to get that first win and build off this.”