Injured, offensively inept, and in danger of losing hold on a playoff spot they have coveted all season, the Boston Bruins traveled to Toronto Tuesday night with one objective: get some points.
Six much-needed goals later, and the B’s were celebrating a four-goal win on the road against divisional foe- and playoff hopeful- Toronto.
For anyone watching the Bruins of late, these were two huge points.
After winning six straight and looking like one of the more healthy and hot squads in the East about a month ago, the Bruins haven’t been able to buy a solid effort, let alone a win, since the beginning of March.
It started off with a 10-2 debacle against the Capitals, a definite harbinger of things to come. That embarrassment started off a string of 11 games in which the Bruins gained just six points and saw their cushion as the East’s sixth-seeded team vanish before their eyes.
The biggest reason for this sharp decline in productivity was the sudden mediocrity of the team’s rock: Tim Thomas. The goaltender who has helped this overachieving bunch stay in the race all year had a rough go of it, getting pummeled in multiple starts and actually getting yanked from two games and eventually given some rest while Alex Auld patrolled the pipes.
Auld served admirably in Thomas’ absence, but this Bruins team is only truly effective when Thomas is locked in and focused in net. Without superb goaltending, Boston’s somewhat mediocre defense can be exposed by the leagues better offenses.
This is not to say Auld didn’t perform up to his ability as the team’s backup, but the fact of the matter is this Bruins team is just better with a productive Tim Thomas in net. His style fits the defensive schemes Julien relies on and his ability to get better as the game goes on is a definite strength the Bruins play to.
Coupled with the downturn of Thomas were injuries to the Bruins two best players, captain Zdeno Chara and sniper Marc Savard. With Patrice Bergeron out for the year, the Bruins simply do not have the talent to lose two of their most consistent contributors this late in the season. The loss of Chara particularly hurt, as it coincided simultaneously with Thomas’ slumping ways and made the collective defensive stature of the Bruins altogether disappear.
This B’s team has thrived all year by being opportunistic in their opponents zone, sticking to the defensive system of Claude Julien, and relying on Thomas to bail them out two or three times a game. Without Chara and Thomas healthy and productive, two of those three elements of success crumbled.
And without the pure scoring punch needed to sometimes lift a sub-par defensive effort, the Bruins found themselves struggling to score goals. They went through a stretch of six games where they scored just six goals, losing 1-0 twice in that span.
And this is why the Bruins 6-2 win in Toronto on Tuesday was such a huge turn for this team trying to hang on to one of the East’s final playoff spots.
Not only did the win give the Bruins two absolutely massive points, it also prevented the Maple Leafs from moving within two points of the Bruins as the eighth seed. What’s more, the game saw Tim Tomas turn in his first solid performance in nearly a month, something that Julien and the boys hope is a sign of things to come.
It was a game the Bruins simply had to have, much like the upcoming six games the black and gold have against Ottawa (2), Buffalo (2), New Jersey, and Buffalo.
The road doesn’t get any easier, but that is what the Bruins should want at this juncture of the regular season. The previous two seasons have seen the Bruins flail about at the bottom of the East, the playoffs a mere afterthought.
Now, despite their recent struggles, the Bruins are still in good shape to make the playoffs and bring post-season hockey back to an Original Six hockey town. They have a game in hand against the team right above them (Philly, 88 points, No. 7 seed), and right below them (Washington, 84 points, No. 9 seed).
They simply need to continue to grind offensively and stay within their system defensively, the latter being something that should come easier with Big Z returning to the lineup soon.
With the Ovechkin-led Capitals charging fast behind them and the Flyers threatening to pull away in front of them, the Bruins must rally the troops and give one last hard-fought effort in order to secure that playoff spot they have occupied- and earned- for most of the season.