|Blake Wheeler (left), Zdeno Chara, and Manny Fernandez celebrate the victory. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
Suddenly, and a bit surprisingly, the scoring looks a little easier. For the second time in as many games, the Bruins last night rattled off five goals, including rookie winger Blake Wheeler's first career hat trick, on their way to pinning a 5-2 loss on the Maple Leafs and shimmying in a little tighter among the top dogs in the Eastern Conference.
Two games. Ten goals. Unheard of, no? In fact, the Bruins (7-3-3) put together a pair of five-spots late last season, with back-to-back wins over twin tomato cans Florida and Tampa Bay.
But with Saturday's 5-1 win over a reputable Dallas squad, followed by last night's squashing of the plucky Leafs with the estimable Vesa Toskala in net, the Bruins have shown the kind of offense rarely seen in the Hub of Hockey in recent years.
Consider: Wheeler's three-goal effort, which he completed with an empty-netter with 53 seconds to go, gave the Bruins a second hat trick in the same season for the first time since 2002-03. Once was the time when hats rained down almost on demand in the old Garden, celebrating the routine offensive heroics of Messrs. Rick Middleton and Cam Neely. But the good ol' days gave way to the trap-happy hockey of the '90s, and as offense dried up around the NHL, the Boston output grew parched.
"I think so; it's a different feeling," said Bruins goalie Tim Thomas when asked if he could see the Boston offense growing more confident. "At times the last two years . . . even if a guy had a clear shot, or a clear lane, the feeling was kind of that he wouldn't score. I think we've raised the overall talent level of the team's offense . . . with guys like [Michael Ryder] and Wheeler and [Patrice Bergeron] being back, we are more of a consistent offensive threat.
"So, a rising tide lifts all boats, I think."
Not to mention how good goaltending also can float a team's boat. Thomas continued his miserly ways last night, turning away 34 shots, backed by a 3-0 lead early in the second period that no doubt lightened his load. The win, in front of 15,391 on Causeway Street, was Boston's fourth in five outings, all with Thomas in the net. In those four wins, the hard-working backstop allowed a total of only three goals.
Dennis Wideman opened the scoring at 5:56 of the first, connecting on a slapper off the left point with Alexei Ponikarovsky in the penalty box for interference. Only 1:50 later, six seconds after Nik Antropov was whistled off for hooking, Wheeler scored his first of the night, providing a deflection to another Wideman shot, this one a long-range wrister. Two power plays. Two goals. Challenged last season just to get opportunities to go on the power play, the Bruins were hitting 1.000 on the PP right off the bat.
Wheeler was back at 5:18 of the second, flashing his best stickwork of the night after collecting a pass from Marco Sturm as he cut across the crease. Wheeler has figured out what so many Boston forwards have struggled to comprehend in recent years. Want to score? Going to the front of the net, and daring to stick around long enough to count as high as "Two Mississippi," often will help the cause. As Wheeler collected the pass, Toskala quickly dropped in anticipation of a shot, then was hopelessly out of luck when Wheeler patiently scooted ahead another 2-3 feet and brushed in a backhand softy.
"I knew he was coming to me," said Wheeler. "I knew he was sliding hard to the right side. I would have liked to put a little more power into it, but . . ."
The Leafs, who have fallen behind, 2-0, in each of their last five games, chipped back with Alex Steen's goal with 2:13 gone in the third. Later in the period, it got messy, particularly when Marc Savard and team captain Zdeno Chara were whistled off for minor penalties, resulting in a five-on-three power play for 1:13. The Leafs pressured the net, passed a lot, and landed one big shot by Ian White that could have cut the lead to 3-2. But Thomas held on, with help from his PK'ers.
"I don't know if they'll say it, but that was the turning point right there," said coach Claude Julien. "They could have gotten themselves back in the game."
Instead, the threat snuffed, Chara stuck in the 4-1 lead with 2:45 to go. Rookie Mikhail Grabovski sliced it to 4-2 with 1:54 left, but Wheeler erased all Blue-and-White hopes with his free pot into the empty net at 19:07. Amid the hail of hats fell a moment of intimacy - a lone brassiere.
"Never saw that before," said a slightly sheepish Wheeler. "I signed it, and it's up on the wall somewhere, I guess."