When the Boston Bruins’ 18-game point streak came to an end Tuesday night versus the Anaheim Ducks, it did so with a thud. In their first period of play after the All-Star break the B’s looked like their hearts and minds were still in sunny Tampa Bay, despite the fact that their lone representative at the All-Star Game was not in uniform. The Bruins were dominated in the frame, getting outshot 15-5, chasing the play shift after shift and getting pushed around in the process.
Anders Bjork, freshly called up from Providence in the wake of Brad Marchand’s suspension, took a pretty nasty crosscheck to the arm/shoulder from Francois Beauchemin — he would not return and was spotted Thursday in a sling.
Though the Bruins picked up their play significantly in the second and third periods, they were kept to the perimeter or were forced into one-and-done chances far too frequently. John Gibson was undoubtedly marvelous, but was greatly aided by Boston’s inability to string together or capitalize upon second-chance opportunities. They either didn’t exist or, in the rare occurences wherein they did, Boston’s attackers found themselves tied up by Anaheim’s defense.
And even though the tide and momentum had swung in Boston’s favor, the B’s were physically no match for the Ducks, seemingly for the umpteenth time in a row. David Backes narrowly avoided his second concussion in as many seasons following a borderline hit from Nick Ritchie which sent him to the league’s “Quiet Room” for the duration of the contest, putting a punctuation mark on a night when virtually nothing went Boston’s way.
They were beaten and they were beaten up.
But in a manner we should come to expect at this point, these Bruins responded two nights later versus the St. Louis Blues with a performance that would best be described as unflinching. Resilient. Gutsy. Indomitable.
Led by former Blues captain David Backes, the intrepid Bruins corrected everything that went wrong just 48 hours earlier, earning two points and some good vibes in the process.
Bad Man Backes
Having spent 10 seasons as a member of the Blues (including five as captain), one would understand if David Backes eased-up on the physicality against his former mates. After all, he went to the Western Conference Finals with 14 current Blues players less than two years ago; his tearful postgame following St. Louis’ ouster a testament to the close-knit nature of the room.
But in actuality, Boston’s alternate captain seems to dial-up the truculence against his former team.
Last season, he didn’t hesitate for a moment in dropping the gloves with former teammate Joel Edmundson after seeing David Krejci in pain on the ice. In this season’s first meeting, it was once again the Blaine, Minnesota native leading the charge, registering a game-high six hits in 18 minutes of ice time.
Additionally, he was physical in a manner that doesn’t appear on a score sheet. All night, Backes was a nuisance in the St. Louis goalmouth and atop their crease. A six-foot-three, 220 pound moose parked right in Jake Allen’s line of sight.
With Boston struggling mightily during their previous tilt to generate second-chance opportunities and take away John Gibson’s ability to see the puck, Backes was on a mission to rectify that himself while creating the model and example for his teammates to follow. The Bruins were going to need to score an ugly goal or two with considerable firepower sidelined and David Krejci’s first period tally was just that.
Backes himself nearly potted two second-chance rebounds before finally notching an empty-net goal just before the final horn. But this was no gimme-goal with an unguarded cage. First, Backes walloped Brayden Schenn (0:29) while chasing-down a loose puck. Then, he forced Jaden Schwartz into a turnover at center ice before potting a goal that he absolutely, 100% earned and deserved.
It was his second goal in three career games versus his former team and hopefully a harbinger of things to come. This David Backes is a force to be reckoned with.
Relaxed Rask Rolling
For the 17th time in his last 19 starts, Rask and the Bruins earned a win. In each of his last 19 starts the Bruins have picked up at least a point. The 30-year-old has allowed two goals or fewer in a remarkable 16 of those contests, giving his team an excellent chance to win each and every time he’s between the pipes.
Before these Bruins were able to get healthy and kick-off their winning ways with a Nov. 29 home victory over division-leading Tampa Bay, Rask was a moribund 3-8-2. His save percentage was below .900 and his goals-against-average nearly 3.00.
Today, the affable-Finn sports the NHL’s third-best GAA among qualified netminders (2.12), as well as the sixth-best save percentage (.924).
Thursday’s shutdown performance against a team boasting some serious firepower was merely the latest installment of Rask looking calm, composed and virtually impenetrable. He stopped 32 of 33 shots on the night, including an instance of absolute larceny on Jaden Schwartz in the third period while clinging to a one-goal lead.
For whatever reason, there are those among us who decided long ago that questioning Rask’s “eliteness” was the hill they wished to die upon. For a couple seasons as the entire team struggled, there was an argument to be made that perhaps he was on the decline. For the last two-plus months, his 17-0-2 record has gone a long way toward silencing those critics.
At this point, continuing to criticize the man is silly. About as silly as a team trying to score on him more than twice.
DeBrusk & Heinen Bringing Energy & Consistency
Both Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen have seen their scoring totals dip a bit over the last several weeks. Heading into Thursday’s action, DeBrusk had just two points (one goal, one assist) over his seven previous outings. Heinen meanwhile had accrued just three points (one goal, two assists) in his eight games since Boston emerged from their bye week.
Though the offense has dried up a bit, neither player has looked lost or even the least bit out of sorts over this recent stretch and Thursday was no different.
On Boston’s first goal, it was DeBrusk’s dogged forecheck which forced the turnover. He then drifted into a soft-spot in coverage, delivered a low and labeled wrist shot on goal and then crashed the net with purpose and tenacity, leading to Krejci’s open-net goal.
It was precisely the kind of effort that was missing in Tuesday’s loss and seeing its infusion coming from a 21-year-old rookie is one of the most encouraging signs a coach can witness. Reading something on the bulletin board and parroting it to the media postgame is one thing. Going out the following game and doing it with success is another entirely.
Heinen didn’t crack the scoresheet Thursday, but once again looked like a swiss army knife, blending in seamlessly and doing whatever is asked of him regardless of the role or his linemates.
Heinen, Backes and Riley Nash have had a wonderful thing going this season as the team’s third line. But Brad Marchand’s five-game suspension opened a tractor-trailer sized hole on Boston’s left wing, as the “Little Ball of Hate” once again let his impetuous decision-making get the better of him.
With one-third of the NHL’s best line sidelined, Heinen has stepped into the role and not looked out of place. Not one bit.
Sure, he’s no Brad Marchand — not yet, at least — but keeping up with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak is no easy task and upholding the defensive standard set forth by Marchand is even more daunting. The fact that head coach Bruce Cassidy feels comfortable giving the assignment of top line/top pairing matchups to a 22-year-old rookie speaks volumes to Heinen’s readiness and the completeness to his game.
Plug him in anywhere and he will do his job. Bill Belichick would love him.
Though the points continued to elude him Thursday, Heinen was excellent for all of his 17 minutes of ice time. He landed three shots on goal, including one after turning top pairing defenseman Colton Parayko inside-out early in the first period.
It was one of numerous notable performances in an evening wherein the Boston Bruins got their energy, tenacity and, most importantly, winning ways back.
One down, 18 to go…