BostonBruins.com — As the Bruins filtered back to TD Garden following the Olympic break, they all repeated a familiar refrain: Winning during the month of March would be crucial, and it would be imperative for them to be at their very best.
In March, Boston would play a whopping 17 games in 31 days during the most critical stretch of the season. They were jostling for playoff positioning and would need to have a strong month in order to affix themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference, and they would need to do it knowing that their five Olympians — particularly goaltender Tuukka Rask — would require sufficient rest down the stretch.
March didn’t get off to the desired start. Boston lost its first two games coming out of the Olympic break — first, a 5-4 overtime contest at Buffalo to end February, and then a 4-2 home matinee versus Washington.
But then, the Bruins turned on the jets.
Nobody could have predicted the dominance the Bruins displayed over the next few weeks. The Bruins reeled off 12 straight wins, starting with a 6-3 victory over New York on March 2. It was clear that things had started clicking for Boston: In that win over the Rangers, the Bruins got scoring from three different lines, including the first (Jarome Iginla), third (Carl Soderberg) and fourth (Gregory Campbell scored twice).
That’s one of the biggest reasons the Bruins were able to have so much success during that month: When one line wasn’t going, the other three were. Or, in some cases, one line was going so strong that it could take care of business all by itself. In the next win — a 4-1 triumph over Florida — David Krejci tallied a hat trick.
The Bruins kept rolling right on through the trade deadline, during which they made two depth acquisitions to bolster the blue line: Andrej Meszaros came over from Philadelphia, and they claimed Corey Potter off waivers from Edmonton. Most importantly, Boston made both acquisitions without subtracting any key players from the roster.
“I feel pretty good about our team,” Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said after the deadline had passed. “We’re first in the division. We can certainly get better. This group has been through it before, so they know what to expect going forward. It’s about getting them ready, getting the proper mentality in place, getting the proper schemes in place and peaking at the right times.”
With the deadline behind them, the Bruins continued to focus on building consistency, and they did so with eight different defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup night after night. They won their fourth straight game in dramatic fashion, prevailing 4-3 in a shootout against Tampa Bay to kick off a three-game road trip. The next afternoon, they took down Florida to leapfrog Pittsburgh for first place in the Eastern Conference before moving on to Montreal, where they posted their only win of the regular season against the rival Canadiens to extend the streak to six games.
There was no time to revel in their glory, however, as they had another back-to-back on their hands: Phoenix was waiting for them in Boston, but the B’s took care of business at the Garden, starting Rask for the second straight night and posting a 2-1 win.
“We are just playing Bruins hockey, I think, day in and day out, and not trying [to do] too much,” Rask said after the game. “Obviously, the schedule is tough and we try to keep things simple and just put pucks in deep and try to grind it out and get some traffic in front of the net. It’s been working well.”
Next on tap would be the biggest challenge of the month thus far: A three-game tour through New Jersey, Colorado and Phoenix. First, though, Boston tacked on two more home wins against Carolina and Minnesota to stretch the streak to nine games, outscoring those two opponents by a combined score of 9-2.
The Bruins would return from that road trip in the same position as they left: as winners. But it wasn’t easy. After taking down the Devils 4-2, the B’s set off for Denver to face a team that had finally established some consistency of its own — and a team that had shut out the B’s on their home ice back in the third game of the season.
This time, though, it was Boston’s turn to post a shutout, courtesy of a stellar performance from backup goaltender Chad Johnson. Down 2-0 with five minutes left, the Avs elected to pull their own goaltender, forcing Johnson two withstand a five-minute shorthanded barrage. With that win, Boston became the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth.
Johnson’s success during that month was a crucial component of Boston’s success. He started six games in March, going 6-0 with a 1.33 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage with one shutout. He gave the Bruins a chance to win every game he started — and they did — but he also allowed Rask to get the rest he needed after he took Finland to the bronze medal match in Sochi.
“To be in front of these guys with such good systems, and a good D corps, and offensive players that want to play defense, too -- you know, it helps me out a lot,” Johnson said after the win over Colorado. “It helps the goalies out, and our whole team. So it's fun to play in front of our team when we're so committed defensively and we're out there to win and we expect to win.”
With 11 straight victories under their belt, it was on to Phoenix the next night, where the Bruins would post one of their most impressive wins of the streak.
That night, for the first time in seven games, Boston fell behind. After taking a 1-0 lead, the B’s allowed two unanswered goals, and it looked the Coyotes were well on their way to ending Boston’s streak at 11.
But the Bruins refused to give up. They refused to accept anything but success. Jarome Iginla — who passed B’s legend Johnny Bucyk for 25th place on the all-time goals list during that game — tied it at 2 during a 4-on-4. Fourth-liner Shawn Thornton notched the game-winner with less than four minutes left in regulation.
Boston would leave Phoenix with a hard-fought, come-from-behind win and a 12-game winning streak, the third longest in club history.
“I think we all look for [these] kind of games right now — we don't want any easy games,” Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said afterward. “We want to get better as a team, and those kind of games allow you to do that, because tonight, in my mind, it showed a lot of our character.
"We needed to show a lot of character there in the third to come back and win that, and we did. We just did all of the right things, and we were determined to win, and it showed.”
Though the winning streak would end with a 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal two days later, Boston continued its points streak through the final day of March. In fact, after the loss to the Canadiens, Boston would reel off three more wins to close out the month against three tough teams fighting for playoff positioning: Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia.
When all was said and done in March, Boston had posted a 16-game point streak, its longest since 1983. The B’s set a club record with a nine-game road winning streak. They outscored opponents 47-17 during the 12-game win streak.
And most importantly, they solidified themselves as the top team in the Eastern Conference heading into the final two weeks of the season.
“It’s been a real good month for us,” Julien said after the final game of March. “If you check our schedule, we've had a lot of back-to-back games, so that's where I give our guys a lot of credit.
“Again, for us, it's game by game. We're not looking at [historical] records; those things are taking care of themselves just by our play. The thing that I have to say is outstanding is when you play 17 games in 31 days and you lose one shootout game -- that's pretty impressive for this group. They've stayed focused, they've stayed humble, they've stayed determined, so I'm pretty proud of the way we handled this month.”