There was no reason for the Bruins to enter Saturday’s game with any shortage of emotion. It didn’t matter if they were playing the Florida Panthers, not the Montreal Canadiens. It didn’t matter if it was a 1 p.m. matinee game.
All that mattered was the standings, and the fact that the Panthers entered the game just one point behind the Bruins.
“That’s what we talked before the game about — keeping the momentum, and building from the game in Montreal, from a big win, and [carrying] that [into] today,” said Patrice Bergeron following a 3-1 win over the Panthers at TD Garden. “I thought we did that in front of our fans. The first two periods were really exactly the way we want to play. The third was a little bit more back and forth — they had a few more chances — but still, we didn’t give them too much.”
It is still early in the season, but as the Bruins learned last year, it is never too early to start considering playoff implications. And in order for the Bruins to maintain their precarious position as the first wild card team in the East — and even, perhaps, move up in the standings — they would need two points against the Panthers on Saturday to do so.
“Obviously, you want to catch up to teams in front of you, and teams below you — especially when you have games in hand — you try and push them down even more,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask. “I thought we played a great game today. Deserved the win, definitely.”
The Bruins insisted they would pick up on Saturday right where they left off three days ago in a big win over Montreal, and as promised, they had their skating legs going early. They were rewarded 11 1/2 minutes into the first, when Ryan Spooner tipped in Torey Krug’s drive from the left point to give Boston the 1-0 lead.
“When [Spooner] is playing the way he’s been playing today — moving his feet and being really hard on the puck and taking care of it and making some great plays — he’s definitely a big addition to our lineup,” Bergeron said. “He’s a guy that keeps learning, and a young guy — I can’t say enough about the way he sees the ice. He’s definitely a threat to when he’s on his game and on the ice and making plays like that.”
With 13:36 left in the second, Spooner stretched Boston’s lead to two with his second goal of the day. An Aaron Ekblad trip left the B’s with their first power play of the day, and after some sustained pressure around Florida’s net, it was Spooner’s strike from just outside the right circle that beat Roberto Luongo five-hole.
“Spoons, I thought, was involved in all the areas tonight — five-on-five, in the in corners, and then battled with the Ds to help out,” Julien said. “I thought he had a pretty solid game. Both his goals are things that we’ve talked about for him: going to the net on that first one to tip it in, and being a bit more of a shooter sometimes on the half wall to keep the penalty kill guessing, instead of being predictable. And then he was rewarded for both of those. So he had a good game for us.”
For the first two periods, the Bruins’ defense was air tight. The Panthers are a team with speed, a team that can score, and the Bruins made it their mission through the first 40 minutes of play to ensure the Panthers never even had a good opportunity.
“You always want to play that way,” Rask said. “When it clicks and everybody is pulling their load – that’s what it looks like. In the first two periods, they had nothing, and we were rolling layers after layers. That’s great to see.
“Obviously, you expect them to be pushing in the third; they did, and we turned some pucks over, but it was still a pretty good game.”
In the third, Florida had more chances. In the third, the Panthers outshot the Bruins by a 14-5 margin. They got one of those shots through, courtesy of former Bruin Reilly Smith, with just under six to play in the game.
But thanks to Rask, that was all the Panthers got. It was yet another excellent performance from the goaltender, who stopped 26 of 27 shots and has registered points in eight consecutive games.
“I’ve always said he’s a huge part of our team,” Bergeron said. “Every time he’s on his game, he gives us a chance to win, making the big saves. And tonight was, again, another big performance by him, and we feed off of him.”
The B’s put the game out of reach for Florida with 1:23 left on the clock. Almost as soon as the Panthers pulled Luongo, the B’s pounced, forcing a turnover in the defensive zone, and Brad Marchand struck for the empty-netter to make it 3-1.
“When a team is down two goals, they’re going to push hard,” Julien said. “I thought we did a good job of keeping them on the outside, even if they had a little bit more offensive zone time than we would have liked. But our guys handled it well.”
Consistency is a word used often in Boston’s dressing room. It is a crucial factor in ensuring a trip to the postseason. It is a crucial factor in ensuring that a team is even in the postseason conversation.
The playoffs are still a long ways away, but as the Bruins continue to strive to separate themselves from the teams clawing at their backs in the standings, they have slowly but surely brought consistency into their game. Much of that is a credit to the goaltending. It is also a credit to an effort up front that has afforded Julien the opportunity to roll four lines of late. It is credit to a defensive corps that has shown steady improvement.
And it is a credit to the Bruins as a whole, who all knew what was at stake on Saturday and made sure that they did not let a significant opportunity pass them by.
“We talked about it before the game, that we had some games in hand with the other teams, and they’re only a point behind,” Bergeron said. “We had to get ourselves some more breathing room and find ways to push teams back
“It’s really important if you want to move forward and keep climbing.”