TAMPA - Running out of bodies on defense at about the same rate America's Big Three automakers are running out of cash, the Bruins last night were forced to hurry two more models through development - Matt Lashoff and Johnny Boychuk - and still chugged along to a 3-1 victory over the Lightning before a crowd of 15,598 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Troubles? What troubles? Nothing but smooth roads for the Black and Gold in 2008-09. At least thus far.
The Bruins logged their 15th win in 18 outings (15-2-1) when it looked as if the injury jinx finally would catch up and run them over, like some runaway gas-guzzlin' Escalade. Forward Marco Sturm (whiplash-like symptoms) couldn't suit up. Aaron Ward was back in Boston with a bad leg. And with only minutes to go before the opening faceoff, blue liner Dennis Wideman beckoned a tow truck be cause he was hurt in warm-ups, according to coach Claude Julien.
"Does it have to be upper body or lower body?" asked Julien, skirting around what part of the anatomy Wideman injured while shooting the puck. "Let's go with middle body."
It's likely Wideman aggravated the groin injury that hindered him for a large chunk of last season. He made it through warm-ups, then disappeared (unavailable for comment after the game), giving way to Lashoff and Boychuk, each of whom blended in almost seamlessly on the moth-eaten back line. Boychuk logged 14:48, Lashoff 10:33, and neither was on the ice when the goals were scored.
Meanwhile, Tim Thomas was outstanding again in the Boston net, blocking 30 shots after Tampa's first attempt, off the stick of Martin St. Louis, beat him for a 1-0 Tampa Bay lead at 1:21 of the first period. Phil Kessel potted the equalizer at 12:21 of the second, and David Krejci won it with a shorthander at 8:17 of the third.
Krejci's strike was set up by rookie Blake Wheeler, who cut off a D-to-D pass in the Boston end, then dished to Krejci as he stumbled with his breakout step.
"Yeah, I tripped over the blue line," said a self-deprecating Wheeler. "I anticipated what [Tampa's two defensemen] were doing with it, they were sort of congested without an outlet. I got it, and I really should have had my own breakaway, like I say, but . . . down I went and I got it to Krejci."
The poised Krejci barreled his way into the offensive end and avoided a sliding breakup attempt by Tampa defenseman Paul Ranger. Krejci kept control of the puck and snapped a short-range shot by defenseless goalie Mike Smith.
"Nice heads-up play by Wheeler in the middle," said Krejci. "I thought I was a little bit late getting started with my breakout. But in my head [when Ranger approached], I knew what I wanted to do to get by him. He swept by, and I took my shot."
Meanwhile, Julien's makeshift crew of blue liners somehow kept it together long enough and well enough for the Bruins to pull into a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference with the Rangers (6-2 losers at Montreal). Both squads have 38 points. The Bruins face the Panthers tomorrow night in Sunrise, Fla., perhaps with a chance to take sole possession of the conference lead. The Bruins have played four fewer games than the Rangers.
Thomas, who got better as the night played out, was impressed by the work of the defensemen, but especially Lashoff and Boychuk, the latter of whom played his first game with the Spoked-B.
"[The Lightning] shoot a lot, and the puck gets bouncing around like that, the tendency for young defensemen is to panic," said Thomas. "But they didn't do that."
Helping to keep it together was captain Zdeno Chara, who logged a game-high 28:47 on 34 shifts. Early in the night, he had one protracted shift on the right side while Julien rotated not one, not two, but three partners on his left side. As impressive as their play was, Julien's night of improvisation was equally impressive.
Kessel, with a 10-game scoring streak (7-5 -12) was set up for the first of his two goals by Marc Savard. He dished off the rear board and Kessel, with a step on St. Louis, potted Savard's silky pass with a doorstep sweep. Kessel popped in No. 15 with a half-second left, depositing a Savard feed with Smith out of net for an extra attacker.
Wideman is due back tomorrow night. And if he's not, it probably doesn't matter. The names change, but the results remain the same.