The Boston Bruins will try to avert a season series sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders Monday night.
That sentence indubitably has its place among those least likely to have surfaced in 2013-14, but it is a matter of fact. The NHL’s Atlantic Division leaders have already dropped a pair of two-goal decisions to the Metropolitan Division cellar-dwellers on Nov. 2 and Dec. 31 and get one more crack at them this week.
To stoke the intrigue, since their last bout with the Bruins, the Islanders have been playing far less like a team that deserves to be bunking in a basement. They can reward themselves for a belated perk-up by continuing to pile on points and receiving a little help in the form of slumping divisional cohabitants.
Boston must answer by striving to build on the momentum it has established for itself through other matchups this past week. It must keep the Nassau Coliseum crowd and its caterers, who hope to prevent a winless three-game homestand, at bay by dictating the complexion of the contest.
If any added incentive to deny the Isles a statistical, head-to-head statement helps the Bruins to defend with their defense and offense alike, then it helps.
The Islanders’ turnaround in question arguably began at or around the night they flip-flopped a two-goal differential to pilfer a 5-3 victory from TD Garden. That win fell in the early stages of a 10-4-1 stretch in the Islanders’ last 15 games, although they have most recently run into a little trouble against some of the league’s better teams.
They have cultivated many of those 10 triumphs and 21 points with the same assets they have twice used to plague the Bruins. Their celestial starting unit of Thomas Vanek, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo has saturated the scoresheet and factored into multiple multi-goal comebacks.
Okposo has charged up three points in each of his first two confrontations with Boston this season and is presently riding a five-game production streak. In the last week, he tallied a power-play equalizer en route to a 4-3 win over Philadelphia, cut into two deficits before his linemates finished off the Rangers and buried the lone goal in a vain rally against Pittsburgh.
Tavares, who tallied four points on New Year’s Eve and one on Nov. 2, has produced in six straight outings, including a playmaker hat-trick last week against the Rangers. Vanek has had a hand in four of eight goals at Boston’s expense this season and two multi-point performances in his team’s last three games.
The Bruins, though, can take conviction in the fact that their own first-line power forwards, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic, have renewed their rhythm. Iginla is coming off a four-point outing in Philadelphia on Saturday, while Lucic has three points in his last four games.
In addition, rookie defenseman Kevan Miller is asserting himself as a physical force with top minute-muncher Zdeno Chara.
If Miller can keep up his confidence to hamper the Islanders’ top troika, while Iginla and Lucic match their offensive intensity, the Bruins will have the start they need to Monday’s action. But it will take a little more than that to ensure an elusive victory on Long Island.
The Isles have only mildly slowed down, at least in the win column, with their Thursday night loss to Pittsburgh and Saturday’s shootout falter versus St. Louis. One should take caution over those recent results against certifiable bigwigs, but the Blues’ winning formula in particular could clue the Bruins in to what they need on Monday.
Much like St. Louis, as many observed when they collided in November, Boston boasts an ensemble cast of scorers and is most efficient when it makes use of its top-to-bottom, zone-to-zone grit. The Blues had plenty of that on display in a critical closing stanza at Nassau Coliseum, where they finished deleting an initial 3-1 deficit before wresting a 4-3 shootout win.
Afterward, head coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “We had a great third period, probably deserved four or five goals based on the unbelievable chances.” But one of the reasons the Blues had those chances was because of unsung prevention at the other end, especially early in the period.
Goaltender Jaroslav Halak summoned a whistle on the first two shots he faced in the third period at the 2:15 and 2:40 mark. He later handled a Tavares rebound after two quick stabs by the Islander leader for another stoppage at 7:59.
From there on in, the Blues only let the Isles pester their netminder twice more in regulation, and he forced another whistle on a Tavares slapper with 1:39 to spare. Just 74 seconds later, T.J. Oshie rewarded his club for doubling up the adversary in the third period shooting gallery, 14-7, with a last-minute equalizer.
When they serve as the de facto target in the Islanders’ search for a rebound, the Bruins skaters need to lend presumptive starter Tuukka Rask the same opportunities to grate any and all opposing onslaughts. That means clearing away prospective rebounds when it’s their turn and making other biscuits easy enough for Rask to swallow and disrupt the flow of the attack.
On the other side of the puck, they need to maximize their depth. Their top-six forwards are all entitled to confidence in the wake of their recent output: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith have all supplemented Iginla, Lucic and David Krejci with five-game point streaks.
Furthermore, even if they do not put a dent in the score, any and all Bruins forwards can fluster the Isles with repeats of their tone-setting play in their own Saturday matinee vs. Philadelphia. Fourth-line wingers Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton drew that game’s first two power plays two minutes and 25 seconds apart, the latter advantage culminating in Chara’s icebreaker.
The more they force the Islanders to sweat in the defensive zone, particularly on the penalty kill, the less the Bruins will allow their hosts to play their way. Ditto if they avert sustained stays on Boston property.
Granted, the Islanders have sculpted an overwhelming recent history of comebacks, both against Boston and otherwise. However, activating new or rediscovered weapons such as a burgeoning Miller on the back end and a top six living up to its label can make a difference for the Bruins on Monday’s clean sheet.
At this stage in the season series, Miller has copious company in his more seasoned teammates among those with something to prove. If they bring that purpose to the ice, it can be their collective fuel toward having it their way from end-board to end-board and leaving with a result similar to what the Penguins and Blues cultivated.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com