“Guys were excited about seeing the [Patriots] players out there, and shaking their hands and everything else, and they came out strong,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “[The Islanders] scored [the first] goal, and we got that goal back, but then the game just seemed to — once it got even again — die down from our end a bit.
“I liked the way we handled the third. We came out there with a little bit more determination, and it showed on the shot clock.”
For the second time in just over a week, the Bruins trumped the New York Islanders — this time, with a grind-it-out, down-to-the-wire 2-1 victory in the first game of a critical back-to-back that demonstrated their character, and their resilience, as much as any victory this season.
“I had a coach once say, ‘I’d rather my team play bad and win than play good and lose’ — and I’m kind of that way,” said forward Chris Kelly. “Points speak for themselves. It’s easy to come to the rink and regroup and refocus when you’ve gone out the night before and gotten two points.
“You guys all saw, tonight wasn’t our best game, but that’s going to happen in 82 games. I think tonight is one of those games that you build character from, and you realize that you’re not always going to be at your best, but as long as you stay focused and continue to push, you can win games.”
Saturday’s game had the makings of one to remember from the moment the puck was ceremoniously dropped — or, in the case of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, spiked — to kick things off. The ceremony did more than get the Garden faithfuls’ engines revving; it got the players going, too, but the excitement was cut short with about 11 minutes remaining in the first period.
With Brad Marchand in the box for tripping, Islanders captain John Tavares struck on the power play, putting Frans Nielsen’s rebound past Tuukka Rask to put New York up 1-0. The goal ended a streak of 16 straight penalty kills for the Bruins.
But the Bruins didn’t take long to respond. On a power play of their own, courtesy of a hook by Ryan Strome, Patrice Bergeron took a centering feed from Loui Eriksson and snapped the puck past Chad Johnson to knot the score at 1 with 7:13 left in the frame.
From there, Boston’s offense stalled. They had trouble generating any chances at all, and Rask had to stand on his head at times to keep his teammates in the game. Something needed to change.
“We came into the locker room after two [periods] not very happy with our play, and they were kind of taking it to us,” said defenseman Torey Krug. “We just got back to simple hockey. When our team’s playing simple, we have a chance at success. The winning goal is an example of that.”
At the end of the second, Julien once again proved unafraid to alter his lines — and once again, those changes would prove fortuitous. Reunited with Kelly and Carl Soderberg, Eriksson came through with the game-winner with 7:34 left in the game.
After Kelly forced a turnover following a faceoff loss, he went to Soderberberg, who tried to tip the puck past Johnson, but it was Eriksson who pounced on the rebound and put it in the back of the net.
“I’m used to playing with them, and it seems like anytime they put us together, we find a way to score a goal,” Eriksson said. “So that was a big play, and a big goal to get the lead and win the game.”
Eriksson has been successful with other centers this season, but his chemistry with Soderberg has been undeniable, and that was the case on Saturday. As soon as they were reunited, it seemed inevitable that their line would score.
“I’m going to move parts around when I feel that I need to, and there’s some chemistry there for at least a year and a half — almost two years,” Julien said. “I didn’t feel that we were getting a lot of offense, so I had to move some parts around. Putting [Eriksson, Soderberg and Kelly] together, I felt confident that they would be able to generate some offense, and they did.”
When pressed on whether he has asked Julien stop moving him off Soderberg’s line, Eriksson just grinned.
“No, I haven’t,” he said. “We’ll see what happens next game.”
Kelly, too, played a critical role in the outcome of Saturday’s game — not only because of his defensive prowess that led to the game-winning goal. He did everything against the Islanders. He blocked shots, particularly a rocket off the stick of Johnny Boychuk in the waning seconds of the game. He kept his emotions in check after taking questionable hits. He played a team-first game, down to the final whistle.
And in true team-first fashion, he was quick to shrug off any praise once the final horn had sounded and instead heaped it upon his teammates.
“You look down our lineup, and everyone [sacrifices],” Kelly said. “[Dennis Seidenberg] made a huge block on one of the [penalty] kills in the third, and [Zdeno Chara] and Adam [McQuaid] — they deal with so many. You look at, at the end of the night, the blocked shots category, and they’re always up there — and that kind of goes unnoticed by a lot of people, but it’s part of us having success, that they’re willing to do that.”
Rask, once again, was stellar on Saturday night, which marked his 10th consecutive start. He made the highlight-reel saves — one in particular came with 6 1/2 minutes left in the second period, when he dove to the right side of the crease and hit the ice to prevent Casey Cizikas from putting a rebound past him that would have given the Isles the lead. He was Boston’s best penalty killer, helping to stymie New York on three of four opportunities. He, as Julien said after the game, is in the zone, which is exactly where he was for the entire month of January.
“He’s just been really good for us — focused, and even intense,” Julien said. “He’s not afraid to yell at the players around him if they aren’t doing their jobs, and he’s just been a determined athlete in this last little while. It’s made a big difference for our hockey team.”
The Bruins entered this weekend well aware that it was critical to gain maximum points. Facing two teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, many of them deemed these games to be must-wins, particularly after dropping two points to the Rangers a few nights ago.
With the teams on top of them in the standings continuing to win, the Bruins have had no choice but to keep pace with them — or, better, keep them from winning. They did just that on Saturday.
“I know we’re not where we want to be in the standings, but I don’t think we’re trying to hang with the big dogs; I like to think we’re up there,” Kelly said. “Every game is big for us. Every point is big, and we put ourselves in this hole early on. We’re playing well, but those top teams are playing well, too. They’re finding ways to win, so we’ve got to dig ourselves out of the situation we put ourselves in early in the year.”
And now, with a big win and two critical points in their pockets, the Bruins can turn their attention to the next order of business: It’s on to Montreal.
“It’s another game that’s worth two points, and the way that we’ve been talking is just coming to the rink every day, making sure that we’re given our chance to win those two points and to move up in the standings,” Krug said. “They’re a team we’ve been chasing, and whether it’s Montreal, or Detroit, or any other team that’s ahead of us, we’ll treat them the same.”
Notes: Krug dropped the gloves with Ryan Strome 1:53 into the game. … He also left the ice and went to the dressing room briefly in the second period after taking a hard hit along the boards from Cal Clutterbuck. After the game, he told reporters he had simply gotten the wind knocked out of him. … Former Bruin Chad Johnson started in net for the Islanders and made 34 saves on 36 shots.