The Bruins seemed to be trending in the wrong direction on Sunday night against the Sabres. They had an early lead that they lost. Twice, they managed to tie the game, only to see the Sabres come thundering back again.
But when Head Coach Claude Julien pulled Tuukka Rask late in the third period with his squad down 3-2, that is when the dialogue changed. That is when the Bruins seemed to find the determination and the character that has only been there in spurts for much of the last month.
Dougie Hamilton struck with the equalizer with 1:31 remaining in the game, and Loui Eriksson netted the game-winner 2:14 into the extra frame to give the Bruins a 4-3 overtime win, and two crucial points.
“I think it was a gut check,” Julien said. “I credit the guys for battling. We just kept plugging away, and took a long time to get the goal, but we did, and you win in overtime. Wins are tough to come by these days, so when you get them, you take them and you try to build on the positives.”
Over the last couple of weeks, the Bruins have reiterated countless times that the sense of urgency is at its peak. On Sunday morning, they took that a step further, insisting that they have to turn this season around right here, right now. There is no more time to waste, and though it’s only December, every point is critical.
With two minutes remaining in Sunday’s game, the Bruins were on track to gain zero points. By the time the final horn sounded, though, they had muscled their way into two.
“We should be feeling good [about] having to grind one out to get those two points because night in, night out, it’s the NHL,” said forward Milan Lucic. “Getting two points doesn’t come easy, and it was evident here tonight, so we’ve got to find a way to roll with it and get some momentum and not take anymore steps backwards.
“We’ve done that too many times this season, and we need to start pushing and moving forward.”
The start was there for the Bruins on Sunday night. In fact, it was there for them twice. Reilly Smith seemed to have given the Bruins a 1-0 lead on a power play just over five minutes into the period, but the tally was waived off due to Loui Eriksson’s incidental contact with Sabres netminder Jhonas Enroth.
“First of all, [Eriksson] doesn’t hit him — he barely touches his glove,” Julien said. “It’s kind of a flash screen, is what we call it, and he’s in position. I guess it’s another non-goal that I’m sure we’ll hear should’ve been a good goal later on. But it’s what we keep going through.”
The no-goal call could have been deflating, but it wasn’t. The Bruins got right back to work on the man advantage, and seconds later, Dougie Hamilton had given his squad the 1-0 lead. From the right side, Eriksson dished to Carl Soderberg on the right side of the net, and he tossed the puck in front for Hamilton, who beat Enroth with a one-timer.
The goal marked Boston’s first on the power play in their last 29 attempts.
Though Boston took a 1-0 lead into the intermission, the tone of the game changed with about six minutes remaining in the frame. Matt Bartkowski caught Sabres captain Brian Gionta up high, and after Gionta pinwheeled to the ice, Bartkowski and Foligno dropped the gloves.
Bartkowski was ejected after receiving a game misconduct. After the game, Julien chose not to comment on the play.
After the hit, though, the game’s momentum seemed to have changed, and Buffalo got a stranglehold on it six minutes into the second period. Former Bruin Andrej Meszaros jumped up into an odd-man rush and took a feed from Chris Stewart before tucking it behind Tuukka Rask to even the score.
The Sabres took a 2-1 lead with 5 1/2 minutes remaining in the frame, capitalizing on a penalty to Hamilton. Rasmus Ristolainen victimized the B’s on a power play, as his one-timer deflected off a skate and into the net.
That’s when Boston’s resilience first kicked in. Exactly one minute after the Sabres had taken the lead, Chris Kelly planted himself in front of the net and got into perfect position to tip a Zdeno Chara drive from the blue line past Enroth.
The goal came after a line juggle that reunited Kelly and Soderberg with Eriksson, who started the game alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
“The last couple games, we’ve been creating a lot of chances,” Eriksson said. “When me, Kells and Carl play together, we always seem to get some chances. I thought we had some chances with Looch and Krech today, too, when I played with them, but that first shift with Kells and Carl — we scored, so it was good in that way.”
But the Sabres weren’t done fighting yet. Once again, they would attempt to deflate the Bruins, this time on a wraparound by Tim Schaller that beat Rask less than two minutes into the third period.
It wasn’t unfamiliar territory for the Bruins. They have spent much of the last few weeks fighting, scratching and clawing for goals. They have spent much of the last few weeks digging themselves out of holes.
They found the resolve to do it again on Sunday night.
Hamilton started by willing the Bruins into overtime with 1:31 left in regulation. With Rask on the bench and the extra attacker on, Hamilton found himself wide open at the top of the right circle. He called for the puck and wristed it into the net before Enroth even saw it coming.
Then, it was a new game.
“For most of the third, I think it was the same desperation and just trying to score a goal,” Hamilton said. “I thought we could have had a lot more, so I was just trying to score a goal, and then finally getting some bounces. I think it felt like we were winning most of the game, and it was just one of those games, and then getting the bounces makes it right, I guess.”
In overtime, Krejci got a stick on the puck in the neutral zone to propel a Boston push. Chara corralled the puck and sent it up the ice to Lucic, and Lucic’s quick pass found Eriksson streaking across the ice. With Josh Gorges advancing on him, Eriksson shielded the puck and snapped it past Enroth for his second overtime winner in less than a week.
“It’s always fun to score those important goals,” Eriksson said with a grin. “I don’t know why it’s been that way, but hopefully it continues like that.”
No one in Black & Gold could overstate the importance of a win on Sunday night. The Bruins had just two wins in their past nine games. They were coming off a disappointing outing in Winnipeg in which they just couldn’t close.
“It’s been close a few times — we’ve battled from behind and not [gotten] rewarded,” Rask said. “Tonight, we got that prize there, and sealed it in the overtime. So it’s really good to see that the work pays off, and now we just have to make sure we keep doing things the right way.”
With two games on the docket before the Christmas break, their sole focus was on getting four points and righting the ship here and now.
The first step toward doing that came on Sunday night.
“I think it’s starting to turn around a little bit,” Lucic said. “The last four games have been one-goal games, and when you’re in one-goal games, it’s because you’re doing things right, but on the other hand we’re still fighting it a little bit.
“I think tonight, getting a lift from that goal to tie the game — and obviously the OT goal — there’s a lot to build off heading into Tuesday night.
“It’s up to us to try to build some momentum after what we did, grinding it out here tonight.”