He was surprised that they came out strong on Wednesday, during their first practice back.
“We were sharp [Wednesday], so it was really encouraging,” Julien said. “I expected us to be rusty yesterday, but we were sharp, and this morning, again, guys were pretty sharp. It’s nice to see. I don’t think I’m surprised, but certainly it’s a great asset to have because normally teams are a little rusty in the first game back.”
There was rust, at times, for the Bruins on Thursday night, but as Torey Krug said, it was a strong 50-minute effort — and that was all they needed to take down the first-place Islanders 5-2 at Nassau Coliseum.
“We talked about that many times before the game — how we had to recapture the confidence we had before the break,” Krug said. “We were going through quite a stretch there — we were playing well, we were back to our identity.
“We were back to our style, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
Despite the fact that Thursday marked their first game in eight days, the Bruins — led by Tuukka Rask’s 43 saves on 45 shots — were simply sharp. There were lapses, but there weren’t enough lapses — and whatever lapses there were, the Bruins made up for with staunch defense and timely offense.
“There were many times last year where we’d play a game and we just wore teams down, and then all of a sudden, we were able to pop a couple of goals and win the game,” Krug said. “That was kind of the feeling tonight. They obviously scored two goals to tie the game, and finally, we were on the other side of things, scoring a late goal in the [second] period.
“For whatever reason this year, I feel like we’ve been on the wrong side of that, but we got a good bounce and a good goal there [with] a couple seconds left, and that sets the tone for the third period. So it was very important to bounce back.”
The B’s came to Long Island with the intention of perpetuating the momentum they had started to gain heading into the All-Star Break, and in the first period, they did just that. After killing off an early penalty to David Krejci, they got on the board first. Reilly Smith — who started the game with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, but was moved to Krejci’s line early in the frame — cut to the net, getting behind the defense and setting himself up perfectly to tip Milan Lucic’s pass past Jaroslav Halak.
“That was a great goal for him, driving the net the way he did, and from the entry — from Krech to Looch, and Looch finding him there with that seam pass — that was really good,” Juilen said. “So I liked his game tonight. I don’t know if it’s the break, or the line change, or anything, but it was nice to see him produce the way he did.”
The B’s would add to their lead with less than five minutes left in the period. On Boston’s first power play of the game, Patrice Bergeron held the puck in the right circle, toe-dragged and put it in off the far post to give Boston a 2-0 cushion heading into the first intermission.
Entering the second period, however, the Bruins were expecting a strong push from the Isles, and that is exactly what they got. After Rask made a series of acrobatic saves — on one in particular, he dove from the left side of the crease to the right to lay down a paddle save on a puck that the entirety of Nassau Coliseum was certain had crossed the goal line — but the Isles were eventually rewarded for their near-constant pressure.
With 11:35 left in the period, John Tavares made it a 2-1 game when he pounced on the rebound off a dump-in that had short-hopped Rask. Later in the frame, the Islanders captain victimized the Bruins again, albeit in a different way: He forced a turnover in his offensive zone, and Johnny Boychuk picked up the loose puck in the slot and put it on net. Michael Grabner tipped it past Rask to knot the score at 2.
But the Bruins weren’t willing to go into the intermission with a tie. With 3.4 seconds remaining in the frame, defenseman Kevan Miller — planted at the boards at the offensive blue line — sent the puck toward the front of the net, where it got through Halak, thanks to a screen by Gregory Campbell.
The goal gave the B’s a narrow lead heading into the second intermission.
“That late second-period goal — that’s huge,” Smith said. “You come back in the dressing room and you’re still up a goal after having a subpar period, so you’ve got to attribute a lot to that late goal.”
Much like the Islanders did to start the second, the Bruins came out firing in the third, and they were once again rewarded for bringing that all-important net-front presence to the ice. With Krejci and Lucic screening in front, Krug wristed the puck on net and it got through traffic to extend Boston’s lead to 4-2.
Lucic would cap off the scoring with an empty-netter.
“We talked about how they’re a high-scoring team, and they enjoy those high-scoring games, and they know they can score goals, so they don’t mind if they give up a couple,” Krug said. “We were able to take advantage of that and score those goals quick, and then make sure they had to battle their way back into the game — and they did that. We’ve got to give them credit for that.
“But then we were able to score some timely goals, and that’s important.”
Smith, who got the secondary assist on the goal, finished the night with three points, two of which came when he was on the ice with his new-look linemates.
“[The line tweaks] affect [you] a little bit because you have to adjust to your linemates,” Smith said. “[The changes] are definitely last minute; you’re not expecting them, but it seemed to work out tonight.
“I think we did a great job, all four lines, getting pucks in deep, and really making them work for their breakouts and their transition game.”
Just as they had before the break, the Bruins continued to feed off the energy Rask provided with a Vezina-worthy performance.
He wasn’t perfect, but he stood tall when the Bruins needed him to in a difficult second period, and both he and his Black & Gold comrades were rewarded in the win column.
“We talked about that a lot before the game, that we wanted to keep going where we left off,” Rask said. “For the most part, we did that. The good thing is that even though the second period was kind of tough at some times, we kind of battled back and we never let our guard down, especially times when we had a tough stretch for 10 or 15 minutes.”
Entering Thursday’s game, the Bruins’ sole objective was to perpetuate that momentum they had built in the 10 games leading up to the break. They even went so far as to say that they wished they hadn’t had to stop playing because they just wanted to keep going and keep improving. When Tuesday’s scheduled practice was canceled due to a snowstorm, they found themselves with even less time to get back into a rhythm and prepare for this game — but that didn’t stop them.
On Thursday, they showed that they were capable of fulfilling their objective, and capable of taking down the very best the Eastern Conference has to offer.
“I think that played a big part of it — just coming into practice knowing that we don’t have much time to be prepared,” Krug said. “And guys are also very excited about this last stretch of games. We know what we have to do in order to maintain the playoff spot, and then move up in the standings as well, and then the best time of year is right around the corner, so we want to make sure we’re in that picture.
“So that’s why guys were excited, and they were sharp.”
The road doesn’t get any easier from here on out. Next up, the Bruins face a stretch of games against the Kings, Rangers and Canadiens before taking off on a five-game road swing through Western Canada, St. Louis and Chicago.
But that doesn’t scare them. Not now.
“I’m sure we’re going to talk about it,” Rask said of the upcoming stretch of games. “But it was the first game after the break, and we just wanted to keep going where we left off.
“I think the next week and a half or so are going to be not too crazy, and then we’ve got that Western Canada road trip, which is really important. And then going into March, it seems like every year, March is no days off.
“So it’s going to be tough, but at least we’re heading in the right direction with our game.”