The focus had to be there. The urgency had to be there. And the defense had to be there.
The Bruins needed a better effort — a much better effort — in those facets of the game in order to get a win in the penultimate game of this homestand. So they simply made sure they were better in those three regards. And as expected, it got them a win.
“I think all the things we talked about were better,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien following Thursday’s 4-2 win over Minnesota. “We know we can score goals; I think it’s about keeping them out of our own net. Our penalty kill was good tonight, and our defensive play was good as well. We did a good job of collapsing and taking away some of those opportunities, and our D’s did a great job of blocking shots when they had to.”
For this team, a solid defensive effort had to include an improved penalty kill. Right out of the gates, the B’s got a chance to prove themselves in that regard, as Brad Marchand went off for roughing 57 seconds in. Boston’s PK barely gave Minnesota a chance to ever get set, and by the end of the PK, Boston was the team that got the best opportunity, with David Krejci creating more than a couple shorthanded chances.
Then, the Bruins capitalized on the momentum generated from the PK.
Patrice Bergeron caused a turnover in the neutral zone and fed to Marchand along the left boards. Marchand threw the puck to a waiting Brett Connolly in the slot, and after Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk turned it away, Marchand was there by the left post to retrieve the puck.
He wrapped it around the opposite post and eluded Dubnyk for his sixth goal of the season.
Early in the second period, the Bruins had a prime opportunity to seize the momentum for good when they earned 1:16 of 5-on-3 power play time. But when they failed to capitalize, the Wild surged. Following a turnover by the Bruins in their own end, Mikko Koivu put the puck on net, and after Jonas Gustavsson stopped the first attempt, Jason Zucker buried the rebound to make it a 1-1 game.
That, however, was the critical juncture of the game.
Once the Wild pushed back and tied the game, the Bruins didn’t deflate — not at all. They refused to deflate. Instead, just two minutes and 25 seconds later, they responded.
“The last game [on Tuesday] in the third period, we came on strong — we had some good push and played with confidence,” said forward Matt Beleskey. “I think today, that’s what we were trying to do. You can’t take a backwards step if they get a goal.”
Loui Eriksson corralled the puck in the neutral zone and passed to Krejci, then took off down the left wing. Krejci went back to him, and a streaking Eriksson threw the puck at the front of the net, beating Dubnyk.
Four minutes later, Eriksson tallied his second of the game, this time ensuring that the Bruins didn’t waste another power play opportunity. With Thomas Vanek in the box for hooking, Torey Krug wound up from the left circle and fired on net. The rebound popped out in front, and Eriksson got his stick on it and jammed it past Dubnyk for the 3-1 lead.
“He’s playing some great hockey for us, and tonight is another one of those games where he was doing the little details right and he got rewarded,” Bergeron said. “He’s been playing well all year, and he’s definitely a big part of our offense.”
Minnesota got one back before the period ended, as a Ryan Suter wrister from the point deflected off Jordan Schroeder and past Gustavsson — but that was all Gustavsson would allow the Wild all night.
For the fifth time in five starts for the Bruins, Gustavsson was strong, composed and just plain good in net. He made the big saves when he needed to, particularly during the three power play opportunities afforded to the Wild.
“No matter how good we play,” Gustavsson said, “there’s always going to be times when me or Tuukka [Rask], whoever’s in net, needs to make that save. Some games, we need to make more saves than others. There’s always those times when we need to step up, too, and that’s part of our job.”
The Bruins know they are going to need that kind of effort from Gustavsson now and all the way until April if they want this season to be a success. The fact that Gustavsson has been so reliable thus far has certainly been encouraging.
“You can’t be riding one goalie, or relying on one goalie,” said defenseman Zdeno Chara. “We did that last year, and as hard as it is in this league to be playing that many games, you need to obviously have contributions from your other goalies.
“I don’t want to say [Gustavsson] is No. 2; he’s helping us a lot, and that’s what we need. That’s what Tuukka needs. He needs, obviously, a bit of rest at times to be playing at the top of his game, and that’s what he needs right now. I think Tuukka is playing on top of his game, and Gus is obviously making the best out of his chances.”
And in the third period, Gustavsson’s countryman made sure to send his goaltender home happy, striking for his third goal of the game just under five minutes into the third period.
Beleskey, filling in on Eriksson’s line in the wake of a second-period injury to Frank Vatrano, picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone and started the odd-man rush up the ice. He dished to Eriksson coming down the right side, and Eriksson passed to Krejci up the middle.
Krejci went back to Eriksson in the right circle, and Eriksson chipped it in as the hats rained down from the stands.
“It’s definitely nice to get that,” Eriksson said. “It’s been a while since I had one, so it was definitely nice to get the hat trick and, of course, to win the game. That’s the most important thing, so it was definitely nice.”
Julien has long been appreciative of Eriksson’s strong play in both ends, and he has always been vocal about it. Now that Eriksson has earned his first hat trick since 2009 and the third of his career, Julien indicated that it’s nice to see him getting the kind of accolades he believes the winger has deserved for a while now.
“What he does bring to our team — I think people are starting to realize that he may not score 40, 50 goals, but he did score three tonight, and he is a great player in all situations,” Julien said. “When a coach has players that he trusts, that he can put on [the ice] at the end of the game, he’s always one of those guys that’s on the list, so that says a lot about his game.”
The Bruins’ work is far from over. They have one game remaining on this season-long, five-game homestand. They have played well for spurts of that homestand, and with one game left, it is up to them to end it on the right note.
That means they will have to duplicate tonight’s effort on Saturday. This season, it has been difficult for the Bruins to bring that crucial 60-minute effort in consecutive games. They will simply have to do that on Saturday, just like they simply had to do it against the Wild.
Thursday’s win was nice, but in its aftermath, the Bruins were all business. Thursday’s win was an item to check off their to-do list. Now, it’s on to the next one.
“Again, we are at square one,” Chara said. “We know that we’ve been in these kinds of situations a number of times. I know it’s close to Game No. 20, but we can’t be obviously playing good games like we did tonight and then going backwards again.
“I think that we’re all thinking about the next game. That’s going to be a big challenge again for us: Are we going to be able to respond after good games we had before? Right now, my mind is already past tonight. I’m already thinking about the next game.”