The Bruins had to dig deep on Thursday night. They lost their captain and their top defenseman five minutes into the game, when Zdeno Chara left the game with an undisclosed upper body injury. A group of five defensemen — three of them with a combined 15 games of NHL experience to their names — had to fill the void against a Rangers team stacked with veterans.
Despite the circumstances, the Bruins overcame a two-goal deficit in the third period to trump the Rangers 4-3 in the shootout. It maybe the preseason, but on Thursday night, it didn’t matter.
A win like that always feels good.
“A lot of people take these preseason games lightly, but I think it’s a really good opportunity for us to show what we have, and how excited we are to get back and to have a really good year,” said forward Brad Marchand, who tallied the game-winner in the shootout. “It’s also a really good opportunity for guys to show that they’re ready to play and earn different spots. So right now, I think it’s a good opportunity for guys to compete for different things, and it’ll help our team get better.”
The preseason is always a time for players to prove themselves. Whether they are playing for a spot, playing for an increased role or playing to keep their place, the impetus is on those players to bring it, exhibition game or not.
Up and down the lineup, the Bruins did just that against the Rangers. They brought it. 2015 second-round draft pick Brandon Carlo scored his first goal in a Bruins uniform on a night he was forced to play increased minutes due to Chara’s injury. Joe Morrow, Colin Miller and Matt Irwin anchored the blueline, each playing more than 26 minutes.
Ryan Spooner and Tyler Randell stepped up to provide offense when the team was in desperate need. And in net, Jeremy Smith rebounded from a tough start and held strong through a hectic 3-on-3 overtime that featured two penalties — and then a shootout — to aid the win.
It was a true team effort.
“They had a lot of [veteran] guys in their lineup, and they were playing pretty quick,” Marchand said. “It was a pretty quick game, and I thought we adapted pretty well. We came out really hard and we kind of set the pace, so you’ve got to give the young guys a lot of credit. They were playing hard, and they were able to keep up, so it’s good when we can play games like this early in the preseason — get the legs under us and conditioning up, and hopefully that’ll improve as we go on.”
The Bruins got on the board first seven minutes in, when Morrow let a slapshot fly from inside the blueline and Randell, positioned between the hash marks, tipped it past Henrik Lundqvist.
“After practice,” Randell said, “Morrow and I work a lot on tips. So I saw he had the puck, and I went straight to the slot and hit, made a perfect shot.
“I got two games so far and felt good in both games. Definitely getting the legs back to getting back in game shape. Physically feel good, feel strong. Just got to keep it going.”
Then, the Rangers came on strong.
With eight minutes left in the first period, Brady Skjei tied the game on a misplay by Smith. Skjei’s initial shot went off the near post and Smith initially got a handle on it but then lost the puck and watched it deflect off his glove and into the net.
“When I looked at the first goal, it was just an unlucky goal,” Julien said. “It’s a great play. We didn’t backcheck well on that, so they make a great pass, and it hits the post, it hits his glove. So to me, he was in position. It was an unlucky goal.”
The Rangers increased their lead to 2-1 late in the second, as Mats Zuccarrello notched the first of two power play goals. Hometown kid Kevin Hayes added the other at the end of the frame.
There the Bruins were, staring down a 3-1 deficit heading into the third period. It was an exhibition game, and they were missing their most significant defensive cog. They could have given up. They could have decided it didn’t matter.
Instead, they pushed back.
Five minutes into the third, Austin Czarnik rifled a shot from the high slot, and goaltender Jeff Malcolm — who replaced Lundqvist to start the third — stopped it. It bounced into the crease, then deflected behind the net, where Brett Connolly corralled it and sent it back in front for a waiting Carlo, who put it in.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” Carlo said. “I was kind of in shock there, then as all the guys came over, I was really excited and just wanted to rush to the line and share it with everybody else. So it was a lot of fun.”
The Bruins fought into the final seconds of the game — literally. With their goaltender pulled and the extra attacker on, Spooner struck from the right circle, sneaking the puck under Malcolm’s glove with 53 seconds remaining.
For the second consecutive game, the B’s went to 3-on-3 overtime, though this one proved to be a bit more hectic than the 12-second extra period they played on Tuesday night. This one featured two overlapping penalties — one committed by each side — and two sets of 4-on-3 play to compensate.
The process of trying to figure out how many players needed to be on the ice when both teams were shorthanded, however, was a learning experience for everyone involved.
“You see even the referees — the referees at first thought it was going to be 4-on-4,” Julien said. “We thought it was going to end up 5-on-4, and then no. [The referees] came back and said it’s a 3-on-3, and back to a 4-on-3.
“So there’s some things that everybody can learn from that. For us, I thought it was a great experience when you’re talking about preseason; you might as well go through those and experience it right now.”
In the shootout, Spooner and Frank Vatrano scored in the first two rounds before Brad Marchand won it in the sixth.
Earlier this week, Julien said the preseason is the perfect time for players to do what they do best, to show the coaching staff exactly where they excel and how they can change the course of the game. Spooner did that. Randell did that. All five defensemen did that. Zac Rinaldo did that, drawing a big penalty on Tanner Glass in the waning minutes of the third period to bring a renewed energy to his bench.
“Typical hockey,” Rinaldo said. “That’s just textbook hockey — make a nice hit. I think I hit a couple guys before that shift and he came at me that shift, too. I told him, ‘I’m going to keep running around.’ That’s just my game, and I did. They took a penalty on it.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t score on it, but that’s just another part of my game that I can bring to the table.”
It is nice that the Bruins are 3-0 in preseason play thus far, but it doesn’t necessarily matter. What does matter is the way they have won those three games: by showing character, by overcoming the curveballs, by working as a team.
“It was a good team effort, too — not just individually,” Rinaldo said. “We pulled back in that third period and got that tying goal. As a team, I thought we did everything we could have to get that goal, and we did.
“We never quit.”