The weather outside in Boston and Buffalo certainly doesn’t feel like late-April, but the Bruins are hoping that when they visit the Sabres tonight they can continue to play the brand of hockey they’ve carried over from last spring’s playoff series into this season.
We’ll find out if the 6-2-0 Bruins can keep their early-season momentum going, and if they can avoid a letdown against a Sabres team that will not have Vezina Trophy-winner Ryan Miller in net, after the puck drops at 7 p.m.
Last season’s Bruins were inconsistent all winter and even down the stretch. They earned points in six of their final seven regular-season games and won their final three contests to earn the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. But after losing 2-1 in Game 1 in Buffalo, Boston was down 2-0 in Game 2 and looked headed to an early summer vacation. The fan base that had been jerked around all season was souring big time on a club that had inspired such hope during a two-round run as the top seed a spring earlier.
Alas, we all know what happened. Despite the historic collapse in the next round against Philadelphia, the Bruins reinvigorated their fan based by rallying past Buffalo in that first-round series and then winning three in a row to start their series with the Flyers. Even in defeat against Philadelphia, the Bruins were victimized by injuries and some fluky bounces more than a major drop-off in their play.
In rolling past the Sabres, the Bruins finally figured out the way they needed to play — which historically has been the only way successful Bruins clubs have played. The right combination of timely scoring, all-world goaltending and sound defense usually complements the No. 1 factor in Boston’s triumphs: hard work. Players that were inconsistent all season — namely Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler and Vladimir Sobotka — took their games to a different level, with focus and grit. Getting to the front of the net became the norm for Boston’s forwards and the crew of blueliners started to make opponents pay the price for trying to get at goaltender Tuukka Rask.
“I think that that series was the way we needed to play,” said center Patrice Bergeron before leaving for Buffalo Tuesday. “I thought we played real hard the whole time. We didn’t get discouraged sometimes, losing games, but I thought it was a good series.”
There was no way to know how the Bruins would respond to their collapse last spring once the new season dawned. The returning Bruins could’ve easily started this season while still licking their wounds. Adding Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell could’ve made things seem fresh or taken the team in a whole new direction.
Well, the Bruins’ hot start looks a lot like the six-game win over Buffalo — with better scoring, stingier defense and, unimaginably, better goaltending. This year’s Bruins team is different than last year’s and the year before’s, but really “Bruins hockey” can be carried over season to season, era to era. It’s just a matter of putting together the right mix of talent and toughness and then getting everyone on the same page. Winger Mark Recchi, who decided to come back for the ride with Boston at 42 years old rather than retire, agreed that a line can be drawn between last year’s Buffalo series and this season’s fast start.
“We felt pretty good about ourselves going into that series last year,” Recchi said. “We felt that with what we’d been through throughout the year, we were ready for the challenge and ready to carry on and be a good team in the playoffs. And the guys just believed in ourselves. We were able to do it, and play the right way … it was good. It was a fun playoff series.
“Now we have to grow this identity this year again and keep growing it. We just want to be a much tougher team to play against period throughout the whole year. The guys are really buying in and really taking pride in it.”
There might be no better place for the Bruins to continue their growth into the team Recchi wants them to be than the place where that growing began last spring.