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Steadfast Irwin, Poised Goalies Lead B's to 2-0 Shutout of Devils

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

PROVIDENCE — The night couldn’t have gone more perfectly for defenseman Matt Irwin.

For that matter, it couldn’t have gone more perfectly for the Bruins as a whole.

Boston kicked off its preseason slate on Sunday night with a decisive 2-0 win over New Jersey at the Dunkin Donuts Center, and all of the Bruins’ offense came courtesy of one NHL veteran fighting for a roster spot.

Irwin spent last season in San Jose, tallying 19 points in 51 games. He signed with Boston as a free agent over the summer intent on proving during training camp that he deserves a spot on what is expected to be a young, up-and-coming blueline.

If his performance on Sunday night is any indication, he did just that.

“That’s one of my strengths, is to jump in on the offense and create some opportunities, whether it’s for myself or for my teammates,” Irwin said. “Those shots — if I don’t score them, at least maybe we get an opportunity on the second or third try. So I was fortunate enough that they went in, but my job is to take care of our own end, move the puck up to the forwards and then join the rush when the attack presents itself.”

Both of Irwin’s goals were scored on the man advantage. The first came in the second period as a result of a perfect setup by Ryan Spooner, who walked into the right circle and held the puck before throwing it into the slot, where Irwin picked it up and put it past Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid.

“You’ve got to use your hockey sense and play,” Irwin said. “We didn’t get a lot of time to work on our power play — we worked on it a bit [Sunday] morning — but you’ve just got to read the plays and play hockey sometimes. I got a nice bounce, it ended up on my stick and it went in.”

With about 15 minutes left in the game and the Bruins clinging to a tenuous 1-0 lead, Irwin struck again, winding up for a slapshot at the point that eluded Scott Wedgewood.

“He’s been known for that,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “I think last year when he scored goals — it’s not about the power of his shot. I think he’s really good at finding the lanes by the net. When there’s a good screen there, he finds the places to put the puck, and that second goal was a good example of that.”

Irwin’s offense rewarded strong performances by goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith, who split time between the pipes on Sunday. Gustavsson — attending Boston’s camp on a PTO — provided poise and control during a disjointed first period in which the B’s took three penalties.

“You’re trying to help the team when they need it, and you’re trying not to make it too difficult,” Gustavsson said. “You try to stay with what you’re practicing and try to be calm and collected, and sometimes, that’s easier said than done, especially the third day of the season. But like I said, that’s part of being a goalie.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to be there for your team, and sometimes, they’re going to be there for you. But I think, again, after that [first] 10, 12 minutes, I think we settled down, and we killed some big minutes there in PK — they did a really good job there, helping me a lot. So I think the effort was really good all around.”

Like Irwin, Gustavsson had plenty to prove in his first opportunity to suit up in Black & Gold. Following a season in Detroit in which he was limited to just seven games due to injuries and a logjam in net, he knows he has to re-earn a spot in this league. He knows that nothing is guaranteed, even for a six-year veteran.

He knows that if he wants to be on Boston’s Opening Day roster, he has to earn it over the six other players with whom he is competing.

“It’s a big competition, obviously, but that’s no news for me, either,” he said. “It’s a new situation, but you know, you’ve got to just go to yourself and try to improve every day because there’s so many good goalies around. So it doesn’t really matter where you are; you’ve always got to try to take your game to the next level. Otherwise, some young kid’s going to take your spot.

“So in that way, it’s not a new situation, but obviously it’s a competition and I think that’s just going to help all of us to get better.”

Perhaps Gustavsson’s performance during the first 30-plus minutes of the game inspired Smith, who replaced him with just under 10 minutes remaining in the second period. Smith was equally as solid, completing the shutout and sending Boston home with its first exhibition victory of the 2015-16 season.

“Gustavsson came in in the first period and saw a lot of rubber and made some big saves to keep the game 0-0, then Smitty comes in and does the same thing,” said forward Jimmy Hayes. “It just creates a lot of confidence on the bench when you know the goalies are playing well like that.”

Neither goalie’s job was easy on Sunday night. Between a whopping eight penalties and a handful of skirmishes after the whistle, there was a lot of emotion to contend with, a lot of passion and, most importantly, a lot of commotion around the net.

That is where their poise came up big. It set the tone for the game. It spread throughout the lineup — a lineup filled with a couple of 2015 draft picks and plenty of players with little to no NHL experience — and produced a victory.

It was a prime example, Julien said, of a group of players working together and competing for one another. That, more than anything else, is the lesson he wanted to impart to this group: When you play as a team, good things happen.

“We really wanted a group of guys who are going to play for each other, not just for themselves,” Julien said. “They want to do well as individuals, but they want to play not just for the guy next to them, but [for] the whole group of guys. I wanted to see part of that tonight. You saw that — guys stuck together and did a pretty good job of that.

“It was nice. Like I said, you’ve got a lot of young players here that are in their first NHL game, and it can be pretty intimidating, but I thought they handled themselves well.”

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