SUNRISE, Fla. - The wins keep rolling in, almost in early-'70s fashion, as if Espo and Bobby, Cash and Cheese were brought back as their confident, swashbuckling selves here in the New NHL.
The Bruins motored along to a 4-0 win over the Panthers last night at the BankAtlantic Center, the shutout backed by Manny Fernandez's 27 stops, and the goals scored by Michael Ryder, Phil Kessel, Shane Hnidy, and Blake Wheeler. But like so many nights this season, again similar to the Bruins of old, it was difficult to pick one member of the Black and Gold as the star of the evening.
"Things are just working," said Kessel, whose goal, good for a 2-0 lead in the second period, stretched his point streak to 11 games (9-5 -14). "The shots are going in the net. For me, I think it's because our line has been together for a little while now. Savvy [Marc Savard] is great at getting people the puck, and Looch [Milan Lucic] opens up some room . . . they really help me out."
The win, against an improving Panther club (4-0-2 in the previous six games), was the fourth straight for the Bruins, who show no signs of yielding ground atop the Eastern Conference. They have 40 points and only one regulation loss since Nov. 1. They are a near-mesmerizing 16-2-1 since Oct. 25.
Florida, even though unable to score, kept the pressure up all night, but Fernandez was shot perfect in recording his 15th career shutout. He has posted seven straight wins, the first Boston goalie to do that since Jon Casey in 1994. He also has points in nine consecutive games, a feat not equaled since John Grahame went 8-0-1 in 2002.
"That's a good team stat," said Fernandez, reflecting on the shutout, only his second since joining the Bruins in a swap from Minnesota. "But for myself, I couldn't care less. It's just good to get the win, especially because [the Panthers] have been on a roll and their goalie [Craig Anderson] has been on a hot streak."
Kessel, blistering hot of late, popped in a pair of goals in the 3-1 win Thursday at Tampa. He is playing by far his best hockey since joining the Black and Gold for the 2006-07 season, the same season he had to move to the sidelines for 10 games to be treated for testicular cancer.
From the start this season, Kessel looked vastly improved, connecting for six goals in the club's first six games. But then came a three-week dry spell in which he went a meager 1-1 -2 over nine games, and it looked as though he might drift into the same maddening inconsistency that led coach Claude Julien to yank him from the lineup during the playoff series against Montreal in April.
But these days he is confident, quick, and devilishly shifty, especially when in control of the puck down low around the circles. Unlike the first two seasons, he isn't timid about skating into the dirty areas of the ice - places where he might take a wallop - and he's proving to be simply too fast, too deceptive, for defenders either to tie him or sweep the puck off of his stick.
"I don't think I am any faster . . . same as ever," he said. "But I'm looking for areas, and that's because of the way our line is working together right now."
Ryder, finally starting to show traces of his scorer's DNA, pumped in the 1-0 lead at 9:02 of the first, only 1:17 after the Bruins failed to score on their first power play of the night. With a backchecking Greg Campbell covering him like a set of Marriott lobby drapes, Ryder snapped a half-slapper through a screen set by David Krejci and Jay Bouwmeester in the slot.
After connecting for only a pair of goals in his first 17 games in Black and Gold, Ryder now has four strikes in his last nine games -a pace of someone who scores 40 goals a season.
"Maybe I was trying to be too fine with my shots," said Ryder, reflecting on his cold start. "I think now I'm shooting more at areas, rather than trying to pick a spot."
The Bruins will be back at work tomorrow night when the Lightning come to town. They are still likely to be without injured defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference. But does it really matter? They were without those two key blue liners for both games in Florida, and had to fly without Dennis Wideman in Tampa.
The result: 120 minutes and only one goal scored on them.
"They just seem to read off what's going on back there," said Fernandez, praising the defensive corps.
"Make a mistake, and they take care of it."