Following a three-day holiday hiatus, the Bruins were back at it for Saturday’s morning skate in preparation for their first matchup of the season against the Sabres.
“I think [the break] helps, for the most part — you get some rest and all that kind of stuff,” said forward Ryan Spooner. “So I think the important part is that we come out tonight and play well.”
The Bruins had some momentum heading into the layoff. Though they snapped a six-game point streak with a 2-0 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday night, they headed into the holidays with a 11-2-3 record in their last 16 games. They worked themselves into second place in the Atlantic Division, just one point behind Montreal.
On Saturday, they will attempt to perpetuate that momentum against a Sabres team that is on the upswing.
“I don’t really think the game we played [against St. Louis] was bad; I thought that we had some chances,” Spooner said. “I think they played a pretty solid game. Their goaltender played well. As long as the chances are there, then that’s good.
“I think for us tonight, it’s just going to be getting pucks to the net and getting in front of the goalie’s eyes and see if that works.”
This Sabres team isn’t the same as the one the Bruins faced four times last year. For one, leading the charge in Buffalo is a rookie by the name of Jack Eichel. For another, the Sabres added quite a few pieces in the offseason, headlined by Ryan O’Reilly, who has tallied 13 points in his last 13 games.
In addition, Evander Kane — who came to Buffalo in a trade last February but did not play in a game for the Sabres due to shoulder surgery — is back and healthy.
“They’re a good team,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “I think their team is getting healthier; they were missing some guys, and I think they’re getting some bodies back. When you look at their lineup and their depth, it’s certainly not a bad one. They’ve got lots of depth up front. Even on the back end, they may have one really young defenseman, I think, and they’ve got some experience back there as well. [Rasmus] Ristolainen is having an unbelievable year; you could see that coming.
“So they’re a pretty good team. When you see their record from the start of their season to now — just getting better all the time. They’re a team that’s improving, so we expect a tough game tonight.”
The Bruins know they must be aware of the potential the Sabres bring to the table, particularly up front.
“They have elite players, and every team has them,” said forward Landon Ferraro. “You have to be ready to play against them, whether it’s your line that’s matched up, or you end up out against them for a shift or two. You just have to play your game, but at the same time, you’ve got to recognize who’s on the ice and make sure that you try and take as much space away as you can.”
The Bruins had a three-day holiday break, but the Sabres’ break was double that. Buffalo last played on Dec. 19 in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks. Reflective of that long layoff was a longer-than-usual morning skate for the Sabres at the Garden on Saturday morning.
Despite the break, though, neither of these teams can afford a slow start on Saturday night. With just three points separating the first place team from the fifth place team in the Atlantic, Boston does not need a reminder that the points at stake on Saturday are big ones.
“We all got some rest, and it’s always a little different when you come back and you’re right into a game on your first day back,” Ferraro said. “But you still have to make sure you get your feet moving early and keep it simple, and just try and get back into it as quick as you can.”
Homecoming for Johnson
Chad Johnson didn’t try to hide it: He’s happy to be back in Boston.
“It’s a lot of good memories and a lot of good people,” said the Sabres goaltender, who played for the Bruins in 2013-14. “The city, the organization, everybody…coaching staff — they were all really great to me. So just a lot of good memories.
“I always love playing in this arena — the fans are awesome, so it should be another exciting game tonight.”
Johnson has certainly made the most of the opportunity he has been given in Buffalo. An early-season injury to Robin Lehner has forced him into a starting role with the Sabres, and of late, he has excelled, posting a 6-3-2 record over his last 13 starts.
Boston got a glimpse of what he could do a couple of years ago, when he was stellar down the stretch for the B’s, allowing starter Tuukka Rask the rest he needed as the team seized the Presidents’ Trophy.
Now, Johnson is back at it again, this time in Buffalo.
“Coming into the league full-time for the first time with the Bruins, I wanted to get in the door and prove I could be a backup and build on that, and hopefully become a starter somewhere and play a lot of games,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve definitely improved from a goaltending standpoint, and maturity. Wherever I am now is where I am. I feel better, and it was a great experience with the Bruins and definitely learned a lot.”
Of course, a couple of years ago, Johnson got a first-hand look at what makes the Bruins a threat, and the thing that impressed him most was the accountability. Everyone in Boston’s locker room held himself to the highest of standards, and even in the event of a win, players were always nitpicking for ways to improve, ways to be better, even in the midst of a season when the Bruins were the best team in the league.
“The thing for me that I always remember is when the team is playing well, they won games, and even when the team wasn’t playing well, they still found a way to win hockey games,” Johnson said. “Julien knows how to give the team a system to play, and even if things aren’t going well, somehow, they still find a way to win. They’re always in hockey games, and they’re experienced with the guys that are there that have won. So for myself, it was definitely an experience to be able to be around that — an atmosphere where even if you’re not playing well as a group, you’re still coming out of there winning games, and guys are upset because you didn’t play well, even if you still won hockey games.
“It came down to good team defense and just working together and realizing what it takes to win hockey games, and that’s something I’ll always keep with me.”
Saturday morning was a bit different for Sabres rookie Jack Eichel.
For one thing, he didn’t have to board a plane with the rest of his team. When he woke up, he simply made the short drive from his hometown of North Chelmsford, Mass., where he had been spending Christmas with his family, to TD Garden for morning skate.
“I think it’s a little bit relaxing,” Eichel said. “I’ve seen a lot of people already. It’s another hockey game, so I’m obviously excited about it, but it’s another game for us. The Bruins have been playing really well lately, so we need this one.”
Eichel did his best to downplay Saturday’s game, but for him — a kid who played in this building a few times last year, albeit with the Boston University Terriers — it is doubtlessly exciting to be back.
“There are going to be so many family and friends here, and growing up, going to the Bruins games, you always dream of playing in the Garden,” he said. “Now, I’m going to get to do it for the first time against the Bruins, so I’m excited about it.”
Julien is plenty familiar with the Sabres rookie. Though he has not yet seen Eichel suit up with the Sabres, he has seen Eichel play in World Juniors, and at the Prospects Challenge this past September in Buffalo.
“We get to see him, I guess, first-hand against the Boston Bruins, but I don’t think we have to think too much about how good this guy is and the impact that he will have, and has had, on this team already, and will have even more down the road,” Julien said. “He’s a gifted player. I think he sees the ice well. I love his hockey sense. He’s one of those guys that’s strong on the puck. For his age, I think, his maturity level — not just intellectually, but also physically — is pretty good for a guy his age.”
It is just another game, but still, Eichel said he might have to battle some nerves once the puck drops just after 7 p.m.
“I imagine there will be some nerves, but I usually get some nerves before every game, so there’s nothing different in terms of what’s going on on the ice,” he said. “There’s just going to be a lot more people supporting me in the stands, I think.”
Projected Lineup Saturday vs. Buffalo
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Brett Connolly
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — Loui Eriksson
Frank Vatrano — Ryan Spooner — Jimmy Hayes
Zac Rinaldo — Landon Ferraro — Tyler Randell
Zdeno Chara — Adam McQuaid
Dennis Seidenberg — Colin Miller
Torey Krug — Kevan Miller
Starting Goalie: Jonas Gustavsson // Backup: Tuukka Rask