-- Ever since the Bruins failed to defend teammate Marc Savard
when he was blindsided by Penguins forward Matt Cooke
March 7 and knocked out indefinitely with a concussion, they have been under heavy scrutiny for their lack of response that game and their loyalty to each other was immediately called into question.
Even after their rematch with the Penguins, a 3-0 Pittsburgh win, when teammate Shawn Thornton
stepped up and fought Cooke 1:58 into the game, the team was still bashed for what they themselves admitted to be a lack of emotion and toughness in the remaining 58:02.
Even Hall of Famer and team Vice-President Cam Neely
expressed his disappointment to the lack of follow-up in the emotion department after Thornton and Cooke squared off.
"One of the things that we've identified is that some of the guys that maybe we could replace on the ice, we couldn't replace in the locker room," Neely said on WEEI's The Big Show Friday afternoon. "The talent level of the replacements could be the same or a little better on the ice, but in the locker room we've lost some of that leadership and character that we really need."
On Sunday, the Bruins had another chance to prove their critics wrong. Rangers forward Vinny Prospal
hit Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart
from behind at 4:59 of the second period, igniting an onrush of the other four Bruins on the ice after Prospal to defend their teammate.
After the game, the players and coach Claude Julien
were hoping this showed they are united as a team and planned on this element of their game becoming stronger in the final 11 games.
"It was good, the guys came right in and I think we played a good intense game all night," Stuart said of his teammates rushing to his defense. "We were physical all night --or day, so I think we can be happy with that today. But we got to find some consistency in that. We got to do that every day, every game, or else. You know, we're a lot better when we play like that."
The Bruins acknowledged they have failed to always be there for each other and are hoping the reaction to the Stuart hit is a sign of things to come, that they are back to being a team that won't be pushed around.
"We need to stick up for each other as a team," Julien said. "We haven't been the best at it this year, that's a fact. I think everybody knows that including ourselves. And I think the players have made a commitment to be a team and to stick up for each other and that's what we did tonight."
That unity Sunday led to an increased physical presence, something the Bruins prided themselves on last season when they finished atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings.
"The way we played against Pittsburgh, we had some issues, but it was still unacceptable," Julien said. "We dig ourselves into a hole and we're the only ones who can dig ourselves out. If people are disappointed, they have the right to be. Because the game we saw today and the game we saw a couple days ago are two different games."
One player that trademarks his game with a physical edge but has struggled to find that due to injuries is Milan Lucic
. On Sunday, Lucic looked like the player that made life miserable for opponents the last two seasons.
"It was good, the guys came right in and I think we played a good intense game all night. We were physical all night --or day, so I think we can be happy with that today. But we got to find some consistency in that. We got to do that every day, every game, or else. You know, we're a lot better when we play like that."
-- Bruins' defenseman Mark Stuart
"I think we saw a close version of what he can be today," Julien said of Lucic, who has only played 39 games thanks to a broken index finger and most recently a high ankle sprain.
Lucic acknowledged that the injuries took their toll, especially the high ankle sprain, not just physically but mentally as well. They caused him to be a bit hesitant instead of the crash-and-bang type winger Bruins fans had grown to love.
"For me it's not always about getting goals but also really being physical as you saw with that hit there," Lucic said of a thunderous check he laid on Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy
. "The mental part has probably been the toughest part, though. I talked to a lot of guys and talked to Cam [Neely] because obviously he went through that with his injuries and the comebacks, still being able to play at his best going through what he went through. It takes a toll on you mentally, and it's about trying to get back every day to push myself harder and be more of a contributor to this hockey club."
On Sunday it seemed all the Bruins were contributing and they know that's what they need going forward.
"We gotta all step up every night," Lucic said. "You know 'Bergy' [Patrice Bergeron
] 'Sturmy' [Marco Sturm
] and [Mark] Recchi did a great job on that recent trip, but we need different guys every night stepping up and taking on big roles and it's going to take all of us doing their part."