Hard work works wonders for Bruins
Before yesterday's one-against-two showdown, there was zero talk of clinching the Northeast Division title. Hardly anything, in fact, about even winning the game.
Yesterday's tilt against the hard-charging Devils, one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, was about only one thing for the staggering Bruins: finding their game, which meant putting out a 60-minute, black-and-blue effort.
It just so happened that by placing less emphasis on the outcome, the Bruins got what they ultimately wanted: a convincing 4-1 division-clinching win (their first Northeast title since 2003-04) before 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden, proving that when their heart is in it, they can play with anyone.
The Bruins are five points ahead of second-place New Jersey with nine games remaining on their schedule. The Devils have 10 remaining.
"Mentally, we were more prepared for this game than other games," said defenseman Dennis Wideman. "We've had a lot of good starts lately where we've come out in the first period and done really well, but we've kind of sat back a little bit. [Yesterday], we kept our focus throughout our whole game. That's a big difference. We know we can play like that for 60 minutes. It was just mentally keeping ourselves in it."
The game could have led to further ruin for the stumbling first-place club. The Bruins were coming off a punch-to-the-gut 3-2 overtime loss to Los Angeles in which they gave up three straight goals. The Bruins were facing a Martin Brodeur-backed force that had rolled to an 8-2-0 record in its last 10 games. The Devils could have kept on their winning ways yesterday and closed to within a point of Boston's lead in the East.
But after two productive offdays (a scrimmage Friday and a harder practice Saturday emphasizing races and battles), the Bruins decided that a turnaround was a better option than implosion.
So instead of wilting against a nasty New Jersey team, the Bruins completed just about every item on their action list that had given them such a healthy cushion over the Devils. They won battles. They moved the puck crisply. They cycled in the offensive zone and forced the Devils to make mistakes. They got in the faces of New Jersey's skilled players, namely the top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner.
"They're waterbugs," said Aaron Ward, matched with Zdeno Chara against the top line. "They've got physical strength, skating abilities, and playmaking capabilities. But we made a concentrated effort to get bodies on them, move them out of their lanes, and move them out of position."
Most important, the Bruins competed for the entire game.
"It was focus," said coach Claude Julien. "Guys were determined. The one thing I wanted to make sure guys did before the game was to focus on how we wanted to play and really, really not place any emphasis on the outcome.
"I think lately, we've been wasting a lot of energy just thinking about getting the win and forgetting how to get the win. I just wanted our guys to go out there and play. If they played well enough, the outcome would take care of itself."
Fittingly, it was blue-collar work by a revamped fourth line (Milan Lucic skating with Stephane Yelle and Shawn Thornton) that led to a critical New Jersey breakdown. In the first period, the thump-first widebodies hemmed the puck deep in the New Jersey zone and kept a cycle going for more than a minute. At 15:46, the tired Devils had a bad line change and were caught with too many men, setting the stage for a power-play goal - Mark Recchi's feed skimmed off Michael Ryder's stick, then deflected past Brodeur off the right skate of defenseman Paul Martin - at 16:22.
"Lot of credit to those guys," Chara said of the fourth-liners. "They really hung on to the puck. They didn't get rid of it by doing some fancy play or some blind pass. They really stayed patient and worked really, really hard.
"That's why we got that first goal because of their work ethic, especially down low. When you force a team for a minute a half, maybe two minutes, then guys aren't coming off as quick as they should be because they're so tired. Also guys who are on the bench want to get on the ice really quick because they want to get some fresh guys on the ice. I think that's what probably happened."
At 1:52 of the second, Chuck Kobasew took a pass from Patrice Bergeron and tucked a backhand wraparound behind Brodeur (26 saves). The Bruins scored their third straight goal when Marc Savard netted a power-play strike, scooping up the rebound of a deflected Matt Hunwick point shot and whipping the puck past Brodeur at 6:19.
New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene got the Devils on the board at 12:44 of the second when he joined the rush and beat Tim Thomas (41 saves) from the slot. But the Bruins answered when Lucic carried the puck down the left wing and threw a shot out front. Yelle, providing the middle drive, engaged Parise, and Lucic's shot banked in off the New Jersey forward.
Ugly, just like the Bruins wanted.