Entering Wednesday night’s matchup against Pittsburgh, they had won eight of their last 12 while taking points from 11 of those games. Still, they remained rooted to that No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
By the time the final horn sounded on Wednesday, though, they had finally made some headway.
“It’s going to be a tight race all year here,” said forward Jimmy Hayes. “We can continue to get points wherever we can and continue to stay at the top of the standings and put ourselves in a good spot.”
With Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Pittsburgh at TD Garden, the Bruins leapfrogged Ottawa and are tied with Detroit for second place in the Atlantic Division. Of course, it is only mid-December. Of course, there is plenty of time for the standings to rearrange themselves — and doubtlessly, they will over the next 4 1/2 months.
But for the moment, they said, it is nice to see the hard work pay off.
“We’re not trying to win 4-3 or 5-4,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask. “We’re just kind of being patient and getting our chances and capitalizing on those, but defensively, we’re getting so much better. We take pride in that, and we finally understood that that’s what our bread and butter is, and [it] has given us success a lot.”
In the first game of a home-and-home against the Penguins, the Bruins knew they couldn’t let Pittsburgh come into their building and steal two points before heading home for the second leg. Max Talbot gave his team all the offense it would need 10 minutes into the first with a wrister from the right circle that beat Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff up high.
The goal marked Talbot’s first since he was acquired by the Bruins at the 2015 trade deadline.
“I scored maybe 10 days ago, but it was in Providence,” Talbot said with a grin. “I know it’s my first as a Bruin, so I’m pretty proud of that. Hopefully, I can be a little light on my feet and keep doing some good things out there.”
It was a big goal for Talbot — not only because it gave the Bruins some much-needed secondary scoring, and not only because it was his first in a Bruins uniform. For an NHL veteran who has been up and down from Providence for the first two months of this season, it certainly provided some validation.
“I’m the type of guy to take the glass always half full,” Talbot said. “I’ve kept a good attitude. When I was with the younger guys in Providence, I worked on my offensive game, and when I get called back up, I’m doing what I can to help the team. That’s been my role here — I’ll keep on doing that the best I can.”
Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien was happy to get some scoring out of his fourth line. But he was even more satisfied to see Talbot rewarded.
“He’s competing hard, and [it’s] nice to see guys like that score some goals because they work so hard,” Julien said. “You like to see different guys score on your team once in a while and give your team a boost. That’s what he did — led us with that first goal, and [I] thought played a pretty strong game from start to finish, on penalty kill, five-on-five… Really reliable.”
Jimmy Hayes doubled Boston’s lead four minutes into the second period, after Ryan Spooner picked up the puck just inside the offensive blueline, drove to the net then dished left to right to Hayes, waiting at the far post.
Hayes deflected the puck in, marking his first goal since Nov. 5.
“You want to find a way out of [the slump], and that’s what you’ve got to do,” Hayes said. “You have to go to the net and get a greasy one and make sure you can keep going and just find a way out of it. You don’t want to lose sleep; like I said, you’ve got to be professional and find a way.”
Hayes, like Talbot, was glad to get the monkey off his back, but it was even better to do so by scoring the way he did — by driving to the net, by getting the kind of dirty goal that hopefully will serve as a harbinger for better things to come.
“Jimmy’s going to have success by going to the net like he did tonight,” Julien said. “He’s really good at either tipping pucks or finding loose pucks. He’s a big man; he has to play that game. We don’t expect him to be carrying the puck up and down the ice, but in those tight areas, he can be a good player. Tonight, that’s what he tried to do, and had some success doing it.”
Spooner capped off the scoring with 2:43 left in the game on an empty-net power play tally, sending the Penguins back to Pittsburgh empty-handed and anticipating another shot at the Bruins on Friday night.
Rask, who finished the night with 34 saves on 34 shots, earned the 30th shutout of his career. As Julien said, Rask has been in the zone over his last 10 games. He has allowed just three goals in his last three starts, and he has taken points from his last nine.
He is feeling it, and that has certainly served the Bruins well over their strongest, most consistent stretch of the season thus far.
“He’s a guy that, when he’s on his game, he’s one of the best,” Julien said. “He’s feeling it in the last little while — last month, maybe even more. But he’s been the goalie that we all know he can be. And that’s how we felt about him at the beginning: Even though he struggled, we knew he’d find his game, and he has.”
The Bruins know they got two big points on Wednesday night at TD Garden, and in doing so, they brought their home record to .500 for the first time this season. But more importantly, Wednesday’s game was a microcosm of what this team has become: a team that knows how to win. A team that can win in a number of ways. A team that has finally gotten timely goaltending and timely scoring simultaneously.
Now, as the Bruins finally start to see some movement in the standings, their only task is to make sure it continues.
“You always want to get off to a good start when you’re playing those back-to-backs,” Julien said. “You hope that you can build some momentum, and now, you’ve got to go back [to Pittsburgh] understanding that they’re going to be hungry, and that they’re going to be ready for us.
“Again, as you often hear coaches say, ‘Let’s park this one, and let’s move on to the next.’ Well, that’s what we’ve got to do right now.”