SUNRISE, Fla. - Frank Vatrano had gone more than eight months without playing an NHL game.
When the winger made his return to Boston's lineup on Thursday night in Florida, it marked a tremendous step.
When he scored the game's first goal, it was a huge relief - both for Vatrano, and for the Bruins, who went on to win 3-1 over the Panthers.
"It's obviously good to get your confidence right away, especially getting a goal pretty early," Vatrano said from the visitors' locker room at the BB&T Center. "So for me, it's just about keeping it simple and working hard and bringing energy."
Hours and hours of work made Vatrano prepared for his return to game action after such a lengthy time on the sidelines. He had missed the Bruins' first 34 games after tearing ligaments in his left foot just before training camp opened. It was a long recovery post-surgery.
"I think the training staff has done a great job with me, ever since I've been injured - they put me through a pretty good conditioning program and some good rehab too to get me back, so I credit everything to them," said Vatrano.
"And I had to put the work in - obviously it's very frustrating when you're out, but you can't get down on yourself, so I just tried to work as hard as I can, knowing that I was going to be back on the ice at some point."
That work paid off on Thursday, when Vatrano quickly fired the puck past Florida netminder James Reimer at 2:09 into the second period to put Boston up 1-0. Ryan Spooner sped into the zone, and sent a pass to Torey Krug, who set up Vatrano in the center slot.
"It's something I always work on, getting pucks off quick, and I was fortunate to beat the goalie," said Vatrano.
"I think he's just deceptive, how fast he can get it off, you know, he can just release it," said his centerman, Austin Czarnik, who spent plenty of time in Providence last season centering Vatrano. "He beats so many goalies five-hole, it's just, it's crazy to think about it. It's something that everyone wants in their game, and he just finds a way to score."
"Frankie's…Frankie," Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said postgame. "He's got a quick release, he got it on the stick, and it doesn't stay on his blade too long, and it was a great way to start, by giving us the lead there with that big goal."
Video: BOS@FLA: Krug, Vatrano combine for nifty goal
"And then we followed up with the power play [after Vatrano's goal], so definitely, he's one of those guys that can score some goals for you and [Thursday night], he played on the line that I thought was good for us as well."
Patrice Bergeron next converted for the Bruins, at 5:13 into the second period, to give them their second power play goal in their past 22 chances. The tally marked Bergeron's fifth goal of the season, as he posted his first goal since Dec. 3 in Buffalo.
"You know, we've talked about being better on the power play and improving in that area and I thought [Thursday night] we had some good looks for both units," said Bergeron. "And it's one thing to get those looks, but you definitely need results and it was nice to get that goal."
Along with setting up Vatrano's tally, Krug set up Bergeron's eventual game-winner.
"Things haven't been going great personally with numbers and things, so it's good to get back and get some confidence with that creativity and play with the puck," said Krug, who is now second behind Brad Marchand with 15 assists.
Video: BOS@FLA: Bergeron's wrister beats Reimer for PPG
As a result, the Bruins earned a two-goal cushion.
When the Panthers pushed, especially in the final ten minutes, Tuukka Rask was ready for the challenge. He stayed steady throughout the entire game, most notably making a side-to-side stop on Aleksander Barkov, and then a sequence of saves on Jaromir Jagr.
Rask finished with 29 saves on the night.
"He's just so consistent in his game," Czarnik said of Rask. "He works so hard every single day and he's just a special goalie, he's one of the best in the league, if not the best in a lot of our eyes and just the things he does every single day to get better is really remarkable."
Video: BOS@FLA: Rask robs Barkov with amazing sliding save
With a 2-0 lead, Rask didn't have to feel quite as much pressure.
"You know, we had a lot of chances - it could have easily been 4-0, we had a couple empty net chances, but we don't like to make it too easy," Rask smiled. "But that two goal cushion was absolutely more comfortable than one goal."
At 13:20 into the third period, the Bruins were caught in their own zone, and Barkov fired in his ninth of the season.
Jagr assisted on the goal, marking his 1,888th career NHL point, which passed Mark Messier for sole possession of second place all-time behind Wayne Gretzky.
"He's a great player. It's amazing, what he's done his whole career, and especially still doing it as his age," said Bergeron. "He's still an elite player in this league, so all the credit goes to him."
The game briefly paused to commemorate the moment for Jagr and the fans, and present him with a golden stick.
"I would have been just as happy dropping the puck, but you know, we agreed to it and I think it's a milestone for him that he deserves that attention. I was good with that," said Julien.
The Bruins next jet to Raleigh, N.C. to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night to finish off the back-to-back before heading into a three-day holiday break from Dec. 24 - 26.
"[Jagr] played for us, so it was nice to be part of [that moment]," said Julien. "Although I wish it would have been against another team, but the most important part was the win, and that's what we focused on."
Video: Bruins react to 3-1 win over Florida