The 2016-17 Boston Bruins have been a streaky team, much like the 2015-16 and 2014-15 editions. Often, this has led to stretches where the team goes from looking dominant, to dropping contests to teams that this roster really has no business losing to. Last night’s 2-0 win against the visiting Dallas Stars was the third win in a row against a team that the Bruins should be able to beat—the New York Islanders are a better team than the Stars this year, and the Nashville Predators are a playoff team, but both were on the second half of back-to-backs against a rested Bruins squad—felt somewhat odd, then, only because the Bruins latest winning streak has represented a reversal of early/mid-season trends. There’s little doubt that the inability to put away certain less opponents was part of Claude Julien’s undoing, so it’s encouraging to see that the Bruins seem to have figured out a good level of play to put away opponents who should represent W’s for Boston the schedule...even if it is a bit late in the season to have found this ability.
In the preview, I characterized the Dallas Stars are a wounded animal team, and thus dangerous. That characterization, in retrospect, was wrong. When the Stars, trailing 2-0, took almost eight minutes to register a shot on goal in the second period, it became clear that the remnants of the 2015-16 Central Division winners weren’t so much a wounded animal backed into a corner—rather Underboss #2 who our hero defeats on his journey. Dallas was assistant assistant villain who used to really be something, but age has taken it’s toll, and he was pretty clearly always going to lose to the hero of the story; he’s completely game for the fight, and he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, but he’s definitely more stepping stone than actual obstacle.
Indeed, the Stars did end up showing flashes of the 2015-16 team, which is largely just not there, given the injuries they’ve suffered this season, and, perhaps more importantly, losing both Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski to free agency in the off-season. Neither is who you think of when you think of top-tier defenseman, but both could make a breakout pass—watching the Stars on Thursday night, it’s readily apparently that any of their blue-liners not named John Klingberg struggle with this task, resulting in a sort of like-the-Bruins-at-their-worst-but-even-worse situation where getting the puck to their forwards over the course of the night was a chore.
Plus, the Stars had Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin split up, and that didn’t exactly pay off. Jamie Benn, skating with Jason Spezza and Cody Eakin, managed 4 SOG, and his poured eight of the Stars total of 23 shots on Tuukka Rask. Perhaps needless to say, they didn’t find a way to beat Rask. Seguin buzzed around looking dangerous for much of the game, but was on a line with Devin Shore, who was a complete non-factor, and Remi Elie, who looked equally like he might be a promising young player and also overmatched on an NHL second line. Seguin summed up the night for the Stars stars when, about midway through the third, he had an opportunity from the slot and, trying to be too fine with his placement of a shot (probably because Tuukka Rask was on point) he missed the net high and wide. Rask ultimately was that good, too—Tuukka was sharp when needed en route to his 7th Shutout of the season (only the Capitals Braden Holtby has more, with 8). And Benn’s line was constantly frustrated in matching up against Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo.
If Dallas’s flashbacks to better seasons were few and limited to when they had already conceded two goals, Boston’s performance was, itself, a flashback to better times. This was more the 2013-14 Bruins than the 2016-17 ones, where stifling defense, two goals, and Tuukka Rask utterly defeated an opponent. The Bruins dominated two different stretches of this game—the beginning, and the first eight minutes of the second period, and they played a clog-the-middle style for the rest of the night that Lindy Ruff’s team simply couldn’t penetrate in any meaningful way. The Riley Nash line once again logged third-line minutes rather than fourth, and it has to be said that that unit getting the lion’s share of the Bottom 6 minutes makes a lot of sense until Ryan Spooner’s line gets its possession act together. And since Spooner was flanked by Jimmy Hayes (nearly invisible in 6:16 TOI) and Matt Beleskey (who was fine), that wasn’t tonight.
We’d be remiss in not mentioning that, once again, the big names on offense were the ones who cashed in on both goals. The Bruins opened the scoring at 15:14 into the first period, when Dallas DMan Stephen Johns flubbed the puck into his own skates as he crossed his own blueline. David Backes happily snatched the puck, and carried in on Antti Niemi’s right side, and had both a shot on goal, a rebound, and a-maybe-shot-attempt-maybe-centering-attempt before Dallas managed to react. Even then, though, the Backes touch off his rebound skittered past Dam Hamhuis’s skates and landed on Brad Marchand’s backhand. Marchand had an open half of the net, but also a terrible angle. However, since he’s Brad Marchand, he wisely steered the puck into the crease as Niemi tried to recover, and the Dallas goalie couldn’t keep the puck from bouncing off his equipment and in. It was Marchand’s 38th of the season, a new career high, and the B’s led 1-0. It was the only even-strength goal the Bruins would manage against Niemi, who, despite his generally awful season, kept Dallas in it with a number of sharp left-pad saves over the course of the evening.
The only other time that the Bruins broke through was on the Power Play at the beginning of the second. After a penalty to Jason Spezza for hooking Patrice Bergeron, Marchand drew the top part of the Dallas penalty-killing unit slightly out of position and dished to David Pastrnak at the right-hand boards. Pastrnak fired a surgical-precision-level laser of a pass to Torey Krug, who’d snuck in from the left point. Krug tapped the puck into the open half of the net for his 8th of the season, giving the Bruins a 2-0 lead. Moments later, he was the first to register a SOG on another man-advantage when Brett Ritchie interfered with Matt Beleskey—Krug was all over the ice last night, and it was probably one of his best two-way games of the year.
Dallas would come alive a bit when Beleskey was nailed for interference against Radek Faksa halfway through the second, and they upped their game just enough that the Bruins couldn’t afford to (and didn’t) take the Stars lightly. Adam McQuaid left the game in the early third, leaving the Bruins with only five DMen for about ten minutes before he returned, and Dallas got a bit of a push off that (including ringing the post one). But when Kevan Miller’s high-sticking of a rather-terrifying-bloodied Curtis McKenzie yielded very little on both halves of a double-minor, it was pretty clear that the game was over (seriously, hope McKenzie’s stitches went okay - he left a trail from the Bruins’ faceoff dot to the Dallas bench).
Holding serve at home against Dallas was needed, as elsewhere the only teams in the Atlantic/Wild Card part of the East playoff picture who lost were the quickly-sinking New York Islanders, and the probably-uncatchable-for-the-Bruins second-place Ottawa Senators; the Isles were blitzed by five first-period goals against the Flyers, dropping the game 6-3, and the Sens, without Erik Karlsson for the game, were easily handled 5-1 by the Minnesota Wild.
Toronto, however, continued winning by blanking Nashville 2-0. Tampa Bay, perhaps the true “wounded animal that you don’t want to mess with” team in this story, prevailed 5-3 over Detroit. The Habs won as well. The Carolina Hurricanes, who are now 8-0-3 in their last 11, tied the game on a Jeff Skinner goal with less than four minutes remaining and beat Columbus 2-1 in OT. The Canes are now, improbably, only a point back of 9th-place Tampa, which is, in turn, three points back of Boston with a game in hand. The Bolts-Bruins match-up on next Tuesday night continues to look like a collision course for a showdown over the eighth seed.
The Bruins will have to get something out of Saturday/Sunday before then, though, as they’ll next host the Florida Panthers before going on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks. While Boston’s handled Florida well this year, the Bruins will have less than 24 hours rest against a Chicago team that’s idle on Saturday. Thus, continuing to take care of business at home is a must. A key thing to watch will be how Bruce Cassidy handles the goalie situation, as Anton Khudobin should make his last start of the regular season in one of these weekend games, and, for all the positives of the Bruins returning to their winning ways over the past week, we’re not that far removed from overplaying Rask by putting him out there for all of a three games in four days stretch.
If nothing else, it’ll be an exciting last five games of the season. Here’s hoping for more Bruiny goodness.