Splicing wins together as if stringing popcorn and cranberries into Christmas garland, the Bruins put together another win last night, 4-2 over the Atlanta Thrashers, for their 11th consecutive victory on Causeway Street.
"As long as we have the fans on our side," said goalie Manny Fernandez, after making 20 stops before a sellout crowd of 17,565, "we won't allow ourselves to be pushed around in our house."
Michael Ryder scored twice (Nos. 9 and 10), and Phil Kessel (league-high 15-game scoring streak) and Dennis Wideman connected for one apiece, improving Boston's mesmerizing hot streak to 19-3-1. The Bruins have outscored the opposition, 106-67, as they continue to stockpile goals and points atop the Eastern Conference.
At this rate, they'll have a postseason spot locked down by St. Valentine's Day, giving them extra time to send "We Want It As Bad As You" playoff invites to their growing legion of fans, some of whom haven't felt this good since the days when Cam Neely and Adam Oates were dancing the tango around the West End.
"We should expect to win every game," said coach Claude Julien, his club scoring three or more goals in 11 of the last 13 games. "Whether it happens or not is another thing . . . but where we're at right now, wherever we play, we think we are going to beat [the other] team."
The best of the night's drama unfolded late in the second period with the Bruins trying to add to their 2-1 lead. Things were on the quiet side when Phil Kessel found himself behind the Atlanta net, sniffing hound-like for points, when he got in a brief staredown with 6-foot-7-inch Slovak defenseman Boris Valabik. Talk about a revoltin' development. The 6-0 Kessel suddenly looked like he just wandered off the set of "Munchkinland Redux." Rather than just stand there, Kessel used his stick to trade a slash at the front of Valabik's shinpads, who appeared to mutter, "Boy, I say, boy, get away, you bother me."
As it appeared Kessel and Valabik were about to boil over (oh, the humanity), in came 6-9 Zdeno Chara, from a different patch of Slovakia. Big brother to the rescue. Chara grabbed Valabik, the 22-year-old rookie, and the two wandered out to the right circle to exchange a protracted session of tugging and punching. Neither of the big men went down - a credit to their strength, determination, and balance - and the tug-o-titans finally was broken up by linesmen Greg Devorski and Dan Schachte.
The sellout crowd loved it, especially as Chara, tagged with 17 minutes in penalties, lifted both arms high (P.J. Stock-style), imploring the crowd to cheer.
"Part of the game," said a shrugging Chara. "He did his job, trying to play hard against Phil . . . We both did what was necessary."
Atlanta's demise began with only 6:00 gone in the first period when Kessel nailed No. 19. Parked off the left post with the Bruins on a power play, Kessel unloaded a doorstep one-timer off of David Krejci's velvety feed from the right wing. Johan Hedberg stopped the shot, but got no help from Jim Slater in clearing the puck. Kessel held ground, pulled the rebound from backhand to forehand, and snapped in his ninth goal in nine games.
Ryder was back with his first for the 2-0 lead at 13:43, connecting on a cream-puff backhander from the slot.
Blake Wheeler carried across the blue line, left a drop for Ryder, and the ex-Habs winger managed to squeeze off a backhander that appeared to be just an attempt to keep the play moving forward. Instead, it slipped by the slipshod Hedberg.
Unlike the night before, when they succumbed to the crush of a 4-0 lead in the first period, the Thrashers at least managed to hang tough to the first intermission.
With 38 seconds to go before the break, Nathan Oystrick ripped a slapper by Fernandez after Todd White picked off a pass from Matt Hunwick behind the net and alertly dished a centering pass from behind the right post.
A period later, and only 10 seconds into a power play, the Bruins moved out one giant step, 3-1, when Dennis Wideman hammered home a 55-foot, one-time slapper.
Kessel helped to set it up, sending a cross-slot laser to Hunwick above the right circle. Hunwick sent over a velvety feed and Wideman teed up, his slapper ripping into the net with Milan Lucic on the doorstep at 18:16.
Kessel finished with a goal and assist, increasing his take to 12-10 -22 in that 15-game streak. The sublime Krejci contributed three assists for the second time in five games. But most of the focus goes to Kessel, who in the last month has turned into Boston's version of the Pocket Rocket (Google: Canadiens, Henri Richard).
It has taken this long, noted Kessel, to work through the "growing pains" of getting his career on track.
"Obviously, the guys are bigger and stronger out there," he said. "You have to adjust to them . . . I guess it took some time."