MONTREAL – The Bruins still have 17 games to go in the regular season, and there is still a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to aim directly for over the season’s final month. The B’s currently sit one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins despite reeling off a season-high six game winning streak, and have pieced together an impressive 14-2-3 in their last 19 games dating back to Jan. 16.
They have consistently played elite hockey for a two month block of the season, and will be one of the heavy favorites in the East no matter what happens. That’s a byproduct of the hard the Bruins have put in both heading in and coming out of the Olympic break in February.
The Bruins players, coaches and management will wake up on Thursday morning with a 13 point lead in the Atlantic Division that’s essentially already been won. Boston’s 4-1 dismantling of the Original Six rival Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night at the Bell Centre was the most important game remaining on their regular schedule, and leaves them a big cushion to prepare for the playoffs.
“We wanted to get a win here, so if we play against them in the playoffs then we know that we can beat them,” admitted Carl Soderberg.
Making certain they were able to check the victory box at least once against Montreal before potentially heading into a playoff series against the Habs was vitally important, and the Bruins finally fully copped to it after the win. The five game losing streak to the Habs is over, and the bitter taste from a spiritless Jan. 30 loss to Montreal at TD Garden has finally faded from their mouths.
“It was really important. We talked about our mindset going into this game, and it was all about what we’ve done to play well lately,” said Milan Lucic. “We just wanted to play to our strengths, and you don’t forget the way we lost that last against them…whether it was to the Habs or anybody else.
“You don’t forget the last game you played against them, and that really gave us some motivation going into this game. It’s nice to finally get a good result against these guys. I think it was a five game losing streak before this one.”
It wasn’t even beating Montreal as much as it was the convincing way that the Bruins went about doing it. In the first period the B’s looked like it was the same old story. The Canadiens outshot the B’s by a 14-6 margin, and earned three different breakaway chances – including two prime time scoring chances from Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk that Tuukka Rask pulled a robbery job on -- against a Boston defense that still looks a bit on the slow and sluggish side.
“Despite the start I thought we played a pretty good game,” said Rask. “We took away most of their opportunities, and capitalized on the ones that we had. We’re happy with where our game is right now. After the first period the defense did a really good job of keeping everything to the outside.”
But that was it for Montreal as the third line kicked in the first goal with another Carl Soderberg scoring play, and both of Boston’s top two forward lines produced goals against a Habs defense weakened by the injury to Josh Gorges. B’s players like Soderberg and Reilly Smith looked a bit nervous, and perhaps even timid, playing at the raucous Bell Centre back in the beginning of December for the first in their careers.
But it was a whole different story the second time around with Soderberg scoring an important goal in an impressive all-around performance, and Smith finished with three shots on net and a plus-2 skating with Bergeron and Marchand.
Claude Julien said it was about getting back to time-honored Bruins hallmarks: getting pucks deep, grinding them down on the fore-check and executing a stranglehold on the neutral zone to slow down the quick Montreal attack.
Bergeron mentioned that the Habs defensemen reversing the puck on the breakout mixed them up a bit to start the game, and that little adjustment helped the Bruins take off over the game’s final 40 minutes.
“It is a nice way to answer, especially after that last game against them,” said Patrice Bergeron, who scored a goal in the second period to build a 2-0 lead that Boston simply kept adding to. “They embarrassed us in our building. I thought we responded really well, and we even stayed poised in the first period when it wasn’t our best start. We battled through it, and we got it going.”
The Bruins have heard plenty of chatter about Montreal being a problematic playoff match-up in the second round should both teams get there. But they turned that on its head on Wednesday night. Milan Lucic crushed Alexei Emelin with a hit against the end boards on his first shift of the game, and set a pounding, intimidating physical tone that eventually wore down the Habs.
Perhaps even more impressive: the Bruins were able to finish off the Canadiens while also resting Zdeno Chara a bit, and instead upping the ice time for the Johnny Boychuk/Matt Bartkowski pair that finished with over 23 minutes of ice time against the buzzing Habs.
If it seems like there was plenty to boast about after Boston’s important win in Montreal, that’s because there certainly was just that. The Bruins will play hugely important games again once the NHL calendar hits April, and still hope to clinch home ice all the way through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But Claude Julien’s crew also whisked out of Montreal on Wednesday night amid a snowstorm knowing they did exactly what they needed to in a building where so many things have gone wrong in the past.