Entering Wednesday night’s engagement at the Prudential Center, the New Jersey Devils were startlingly closer to the Boston Bruins than one might believe. A slim five-point differential separated New Jersey and its seventh-place cohabitant, the Washington Capitals, from the second-place Bruins.
Granted, Boston still has three games in hand on the schedule. But ironically, it was Tim Army, the former college coach of two current Devils’ defensemen, Mark Fayne and Matt Taormina, who once fluently assessed, “Games in hand are only effective if you win them.”
After half-botching an opportunity to repress one Western Conference postseason aspirant and thoroughly squandering another chance last week, the Bruins faced a similar foe from their own coast on Wednesday.
But comparatively speaking, Phoenix and Dallas posed a pair of quizzes while New Jersey was the first of what should be a tidal flow of tests for the second half of Boston’s 2011-12 schedule. The gap between the Bruins and the opposing Devils could have been anywhere between three and seven points by the time the Prudential Center crew cleaned the ice and closed up shop for the night.
Based on the current look of the landscape, a little less than half of the Bruins’ 46 remaining games figure to be against playoff “maybes” from their conference. That includes all four installments of their season series with Washington, two more meetings with these Devils and 12 Northeast Division games.
For their own purposes, if they regularly submit an effort and an upshot vaguely comparable to Wednesday night’s 6-1 triumph, the Bruins should have the moorings fastened on their third divisional title in four years.
The entire unfolding of Wednesday’s result signaled Boston’s appreciation for its role as at least most, if not all of the NHL’s go-to barometer. The fact that the Bruins originally trailed the shooting gallery, 4-0, and conceded an early 1-0 deficit was the product of two blatant factors working in tandem.
New Jersey’s poise to embolden its improving persona at the expense of the defending Stanley Cup champions was stimulated by a borderline delay of game penalty on defenseman Johnny Boychuk with 2:38 off the clock. Each of the game’s first four shots on net were recorded on the Devils’ subsequent power play, culminating in an opportunistic, highlight-reel hustle that had captain Zach Parise setting up David Clarkson for a homeward-bound roofer.
But after Boston’s fourth-line center Gregory Campbell drew a quick 1-1 knot, with the help of defenseman Andrew Ference’s Happy Gilmore-like precision from the point, nearly everything pertaining to the Devils was steadily stifled.
A mere 18 seconds before Campbell’s equalizer, goaltender Tim Thomas had repelled Clarkson’s second registered stab of the night. Over the 52 minutes and three seconds of game time that followed, the Bruins went on a slim 26-24 run in the shooting gallery.
More critically, in that span, they went on a 6-0 run on the scoreboard. That was at least partially interrelated with the 15 more times the Devils gave the puck away while Boston only relinquished it on six occasions. The visitors also raised a high upper hand in the possession department by winning 30 of the night’s 42 total faceoffs.
David Krejci, who set up Nathan Horton’s eventual clincher on Boston’s first power play, almost single-handedly made the difference at the dot, claiming 13 of 17 draws. His final winning percentage of 76.5 percent made for his most proficient evening in that category to date this season.
On top of that, a third-period goal of his own gave Krejci his second consecutive two-point game and a six-game production streak with a cumulative three goals and five helpers.
Before that streak began in a Dec. 17 visit to Philadelphia, he had chipped in on the scoresheet in only eight of his first 27 appearances and no more than three games in a row. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he has suddenly contributed in 14 out of 33 ventures.
As it happens, the Bruins are 13-1-0 when Krejci contributes, the only loss being last Saturday’s 4-2 falter in Dallas. Although much of the team had its own early problems with post-championship hangover in October, it is worth mentioning that of his seven appearances that month, his only point came in the form of a goal as part of a 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay.
Conversely, when Krejci has suited up and gone barren for the night, Boston is 11-7-1.
As tempting as it is to dismiss that as trivial data, there is no time like the present for Krejci and fellow first-liners Horton and Milan Lucic to prove they have permanently rekindled their touch. The difference their output or lack thereof makes will likely prove more meaningful going forward.
Between the increasing frequency of games and the constant influx of desperate opponents like the Devils, the remainder of the schedule promises to be extra taxing on the Bruins as a whole. Their best means of bracing themselves for such a tempest is to simply have everyone pressing and plugging as a whole.
If Krejci makes like his teammates and puts in enough to live up to his label, nature should take its course and take the Bruins to a favorable finish.