When March began, they were clinging to a playoff spot, and they weren’t clinging by much. It was reminiscent of the team’s position to start the month of January, when they knew that something had to change — something big — if they wanted the 2015 postseason to be a reality, not just a dream.
And so, just like they did in January — when it was gut-check time — the Bruins have showed their guts once again. After reeling off pivotal wins against Philadelphia, Detroit and Ottawa — and with a shootout standing in between them and a fourth straight win over Tampa Bay — the Bruins kept right on changing their fate, earning a 3-2 shootout win over the Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden.
“We’re definitely going in the right direction,” said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who finished the night with 35 saves on 37 shots. “It’s been going like that [for] three weeks maybe, playing good hockey. Obviously, you can’t play great all the time, but when we have bad periods and stuff like that, we seem to bounce back and find our game during the intermissions.
“So it’s been good. We’ve been getting wins and points, so we’re headed in the right direction — but still, we can’t afford to take any games off.”
There is gut-check time, and then there was Thursday night’s game. After a strong first frame, the Bruins were outshot 26-12 in the second and third periods. In total, they watched two leads disappear. They stayed alive, courtesy of a highlight reel save by Tuukka Rask in the final minute of the final frame. They killed off a 4-on-3 penalty in overtime.
And in the end, in the shootout — which has saddled this team with so much grief in 2014-15 — the B’s got the job done, courtesy of goals from Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and a perfect performance by Rask.
“It’s been a full team effort,” said forward Chris Kelly. “On any given night, someone’s coming up big for us and playing well and contributing. Everyone’s pulling their weight, and we try to have 20 leaders out there, and I think we’re doing that right now.
“Everyone’s not wanting to be that weak link, and every line is playing well and doing what they need to do.”
Boston got on the board first when, just under eight minutes into the contest, they found themselves with an odd-man rush led by Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak. Spooner brought the puck down the middle and, when he was just past the goal line, dished to Pastrnak on the right side of the crease, who tapped it past Ben Bishop, blocker-side.
The goal marked Pastrnak’s ninth of the season, and the assist gave Spooner points in seven straight games.
But the Lightning would notch the equalizer before the end of the period, courtesy of the lethal Steven Stamkos. With under five minutes remaining in the frame, Stamkos forced a Bruins turnover inside the blue line, went in alone on Rask and beat him glove-side for his 37th tally of the season.
Then, the tides seemed to turn. In a second period that was somewhat reminiscent of the one the Bruins played against Ottawa on Tuesday night, the Bruins — Rask excepted — struggled.
“Both teams had their moments,” Rask said. “The first period was ours, definitely. Then the second period, they were the better team, but mostly probably because we kind of gave it to them, giving chances and turnovers.
“We know that we can play against everybody in this league, and we’ve shown that in the past. Maybe we just haven’t gotten the wins, necessarily, but we’ve played some good hockey games against some good teams. Today was a good example of that.”
The B’s were outshot 16-4 in the frame, despite the fact that they had their third power play of the game, and because they weren’t able to put the buck in the back of the net like they did against the Senators two nights earlier, they needed another big effort from Rask to keep the score tied at 1.
“We held our composure against a skilled team that can score, obviously,” said forward Gregory Campbell, who left the bench briefly in the first period after taking a puck to the face. “So I think we weathered the storm pretty well. In a perfect world, we probably would have liked to have a little bit more time in the offensive zone, but we’re finding ways to win, and I think that you’ve just got to ride the wave.
“We’re showing character, so I think that’s a positive sign.”
Boston wasted no time getting the offense going in the third period. Just 2 1/2 minutes into the frame, Patrice Bergeron put the Bruins back on top when he struck from the high slot, eluding Bishop glove-side.
“I think we went back to playing on our heels [in the second],” Bergeron said. “They’re a good team, and they’re going to make you pay if you do that. [We were] giving them way too much space, but we weren’t taking care of the puck, and they were sitting right on us. Our forwards were too far ahead of our D’s and couldn’t make that easy pass, and we were back in our zone.
“I thought we regrouped in the third.”
The Lightning, however, were once again quick to knot the score. After a Rask stop, Vladislav Namestnikov pounced on a loose puck in the crease and jammed it home to tie it at 2.
Tampa Bay pushed till the end. They forced the Bruins — particularly Rask — to work, and he did, miraculously keeping the score tied with a minute remaining when Ryan Callahan carried the puck around the back of the net and got a shot off. The puck came loose in front, and Rask dove to seal off the right post and help to force overtime.
“He’s been huge,” Bergeron said of Rask. “He gave us a chance to get that extra point, for sure. Especially in overtime, down a man, he made some huge saves there to keep us in it.
“He’s definitely stepped up to the plate, and he keeps getting better, and he’s definitely a big part of our team.”
The Bruins had chances, and they didn’t convert on all of them, but they converted on enough of them. They remained poised, even after two penalties left them shorthanded in overtime. And in the end, they had two more points — these, against a Stanley Cup contender — to show for it.
“We were able to regain our game in the third period and made it an exciting third, and then the rest —obviously, you know what happened afterward,” said Claude Julien. “But it was one of those games where you have to play against teams that have had a lot of success, that have a lot of confidence in themselves, and tonight, we came out there and showed that we had a lot of confidence in our group.
“And we played like it.”