December 24, 2011

Bruins live up to top billing

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON – That really was a battle of first-place teams that took place on the TD Garden ice Friday night, it’s just that only one of them played up to its status as a front runner.

Bruins center Greg Campbell celebrates his goal during the B's 8-0 win over Florida. (Getty)

Bruins center Greg Campbell celebrates his goal during the B's 8-0 win over Florida. (Getty)

The Bruins’ 8-0 whitewash of Florida may not be the biggest victory of the season so far. The Panthers came to town very early Friday morning after losing an overtime decision to Ottawa, and played every bit like a team on short sleep after a long night. They had also lost five players to injury in the previous four games, including alternate captain Stephen Weiss, who went down early in Thursday’s loss to the Senators.

Long story short, the Panthers were an easy target for the surging B’s, now winners of six straight after Florida handed them their last loss on Dec. 8.

Still, Friday’s win was impressive, and until the Bruins had posted six goals after two periods, was not necessarily a sure thing.

“We talked about it, they’re coming from a back-to-back … on the road,” said Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, who had a goal and two assists. “We were rested, no reason in the world to not go at them, to not be skating, because we were the fresher team tonight.”

They certainly looked like it. The Bruins pumped 14 shots on the Florida net in the first period, forcing starter Jose Theodore out with four goals, and only allowed six Panther shots in the opening frame. Whatever energy the Panthers may have had left was clearly gone, and sapping the visitors early was part of the Bruins’ gameplan.

“Very important, it was up to us to be focused and really go out there and put pressure on them and … not let them hang around and get a lucky first goal,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who also scored his first goal of the year. “So for us to come out the way we did dictated the whole game.”

On the other end, Tuukka Rask posted his second shutout of the year, handling all 30 shots the tired Panthers gave him. The Bruins’ goal output was more than twice the 2.9 goals per game they’d been averaging in support of Rask, which helps, but it was also an overall outstanding defensive effort, and well deserved for the netminder who picked up his seventh win.

“He’s been solid all around,” Seidenberg said. “The first few games we didn’t really support him the way we should have and didn’t give him the wins. But he’s been, just like last year, giving us really solid efforts. But as I said we just haven’t given him the effort in front of him to be able to get those wins for him.”

The shootout raised Rask’s save percentage to an NHL-leading .944 – bypassing teammate Tim Thomas. He’s also second in the league with a 1.66 goals against average.

The game got out of hand early, with the four-goal first period putting the Bruins in the driver’s seat, but the funny thing about blowouts is that losing teams often find a way to get on the board late, once the victors have taken their foots off the gas pedal with the win all but sealed. That the Panthers never got that opportunity is a credit to Rask as well as his teammates, who had very few lapses down the stretch.

“It gets tough” at the end of a blowout, Seidenberg said. “Guys try to get cute and make risky plays, but today we were really cautious not to play too cute and not make too many passes. We saw guys on their team taking off when we had full possession in their zone, but we were taking care of that and we played smart.”

Road work ahead

The dominating victory provided the Bruins with a fine send-off before the holiday and a two-game road trip that takes them to the Southwest for a week. The Eastern Conference leaders have four days off, then go to Phoenix to play the Coyotes Wednesday, and finish out 2011 in Dallas on New Year’s Eve.

Those four days surrounding Christmas are the longest break the team has had since the end of October, and there won’t be another respite that long until the end of January, when they go a whole week between playing in Washington and at home against Ottawa.

“When you have a few days off, it’s nicer obviously to end on a win and have a good feeling going into a two-game road trip, we have a lot of games coming up,” said forward Gregory Campbell, who scored his third of the year early in the second.

“I think it’s important for us to kind of unwind, and give ourselves a break here, but to kind of rejuvenate ourselves on the road, it’ll be good for our team. Going on the road always makes you come together a little bit more, and I think the guys are looking forward to it.”

It would have been understandable, even forgivable if the Bruins didn’t have their best effort in the last game of the homestand before the rest – but that wasn’t the pervading attitude inside the locker room.

“It’s huge, we talked about it, that the break was starting tomorrow, not tonight, and we wanted to finish on a good note, so we’re very happy,” Bergeron said.

For the traveling B’s, owners of a six-game win streak and first place in the East (thanks to Philadelphia’s loss to the Rangers Friday night), it should indeed be a merry Christmas.