If the late-February blues (no relation to the St. Louis Blues) are getting you down, you at least got a little taste of what Bruins hockey come April is going to look like tonight.
In defeating the Calgary Flames on the road, the Bruins used the formula they’re going to rely on to get them by in the postseason.
The Flames proved the perfect test for the new-look Bruins, who suited up Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly in the same game for the first time since last week’s trio of trades swung by general manager Peter Chiarelli. Left for dead not so long ago, the Flames have been playing playoff hockey – and doing it well – for the better part of the past month. Riding an 11-1-2 stretch into tonight’s game with the Bruins, the Flames went at Boston with all the desperation you’d expect from a team in the thick of a Western Conference race that seemingly includes everyone except Edmonton.
The Flames’ occasional two-man forecheck, their determination in the corners and behind the net, and their sound positional defensive play gave the Bruins fits at times. While they may not be able to claim a spot among the league’s elite teams, the Flames played at an intensity level consistent with teams that have Stanley Cup aspirations.
But Boston didn’t panic, partially powered by the 1-0 lead it took just 59 seconds into the game. And the Bruins showed that if the roster looks after the Feb. 28 trade deadline just like it does now, they have weaknesses that can be exploited and strengths that can cover up those blemishes.
Even with Kaberle, the Bruins can still sometimes be a puck-mover or two short on their back end. Adam McQuaid and Andrew Ference, who both recorded assists in the win, had their share of rough stretches trying to handle the puck against the Flames’ pressure. But that’s where the Norris Trophy-worthy play of Zdeno Chara and All-World netminding of Tim Thomas come in to save the day.
The Bruins lack a vaunted sniper, so when they’re not getting goals from Nathan Horton and Michael Ryder – who often look like they’re trying to shatter the back glass or decimate the opposing goaltender’s pads – Boston has to muck it up around the net to score. All three goals, even Milan Lucic’s game-sealing empty-netter, were the product of hard work by the goal-scorer or those around him. Lucic fought his way to the blue paint for his first goal. Brad Marchand cashed in on a rebound after Patrice Bergeron was a one-man wrecking crew on the forecheck and then in front of the goal. Lucic won a race to tap the Bruins’ third goal into the open net after Mark Recchi and David Krejci won the war along the wall.
Nothing’s going to come easy at the offensive end for these Bruins. They’re in the top 10 in offense, but they’re not going to win any shot beauty contests. That’s the unspoken reasoning behind Chiarelli’s trades for Peverley and Kelly. Chiarelli seems resigned to the notion that he can’t land a top-six sniper via trade, so he did what he considers the next best thing and landed two guys with an unrelenting work ethic, the likes of which can at least generate offensive chances and turn momentum Boston’s way even without lighting the lamp.
Winning faceoffs (they won 56 percent tonight) and blocking shots (20 against the Flames led by four apiece from Kaberle and McQuaid) are the other pieces of the formula. The Flames were already playing playoff game when they took the ice tonight; the Bruins can now claim they’ve played at least one playoff game some two months before the start of the actual race to the Cup.
As evidenced by tonight’s victory, and maybe a couple others to this point of the season, we know Boston can muster this type of team-wide effort when necessary. You can only bury Ottawa and the New York Islanders so many times and garner meaning from those victories. It’s wins like this one over the Flames that give the fan base hope for a lengthy run and, more importantly, schools the Bruins on exactly how they need to play when the season’s on the line.
Come spring, the Bruins will be able to look back at this victory over the Flames as a source of confidence for playing winning playoff hockey. It remains to be seen, however, if they can duplicate it 16 times.