On Thursday, the Boston Bruins proved that they can hang with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But only hang.
It wasn’t an overwhelmingly convincing victory, but in a game that included two players being hit in the face with a puck, some weird bounces on the ice, 3-on-3 hockey in extra time, a 10-minute misconduct for Steven Stamkos in the final minute of overtime, and the Bruins snapping their seven-game losing streak in the shootout, they’ll take the 3-2 win.
“It was one of those games where you have to play against teams that have had a lot of success, have a lot of confidence in themselves,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “Tonight we came out there and showed that we had a lot of confidence in our group and played like it.”
Winners of four straight and nabbing points in their last six games, the Bruins have been alternating between a team that is chasing and being chased. In those four wins, the Bruins fended off the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers, two teams nipping at their heels for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference, and the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning, two divisional rivals ahead of the Boston. The games haven’t been decisively swinging in the direction of the Bruins, but they’ve weathered the storm quite well. Thursday was further proof of that.
“We know that we can play against everybody in this league, and we’ve shown that in the past,” said Tuukka Rask, who stopped 37 of Tampa Bay’s 39 shots. “Maybe we just haven’t gotten the wins necessarily, but we’ve played some good hockey games against some good teams. Today was a good example of that.”
There have been some noticeable lapses, however. As of late, the Bruins have been playing bend-don’t-break defense – giving up a ton of shots to opposing teams only to have Rask bail them out. In the second period alone, the Lightning outshot Bruins by a 16-4 margin. This is nothing new. In Tuesday’s win against the Senators, the Bruins were outshot 21-10 in the second period and 11-4 in the third. The Bruins have been outshot in their last three games and have hit some rough patches after the first period.
“Both teams had their moments,” said Rask. “The first period was ours, definitely. Then the second period, they were the better team, but mostly because we kind of gave it to them, giving chances and turnovers. Then the third period was kind of even. Both teams had their moments”
So is this a problem? Sort of, yes.
With the exception of the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, every game in March can be consider “big ones” for the Bruins. After an erratic season, the hope is that the team is able to finish strong and enter the playoffs with some momentum. They’ll have the opportunity, if they continue to play well. But playing well enough to win is far away from the best formula.
The Bruins will likely enter the playoffs as a bottom seed, not getting home-ice advantage in the postseason for the first time since the 2009-10 season. They’ll be playing better teams and can’t be expected to just hang on in a seven-game series against teams like Tampa Bay, Montreal, or the New York Rangers. There’s still plenty of time to fix the minor things in their game that need attention. And they’re on the right track, maybe for the first time this season.
The Bruins have gotten better as of late and are starting to improve, even without David Krejci and whatever they’ll get out of Brett Connolly this season. Matt Bartkowski has stabilized the second defensive pairing, while Ryan Spooner, whose seven-game point streak is the longest of any Bruins rookie since Brad Boyes, and David Pastrnak have brought a new life into an otherwise stale offense.
The pieces are coming together for the Bruins at the right time and when they do, the team has a real opportunity to be a well-oiled machine just in time for the playoffs. They’ll hang on for now, but will need to reach that ever-elusive second gear that has been missing since last season.
Follow Mike on Twitter for more Bruins news, updates, and commentary.