BOSTON -- Any questions about the legitimacy of the Bruins most recent stretch of good hockey appear to now be answered.
Boston once again mixed together its powerful cocktail of timely goaltending, stifling defense and opportunistic, diversified offense into a winning formula against the desperate Tampa Bay Lightning, and the B's 5-2 victory gives them three wins in row for the first time in 2012.
The Bruins hadnt won three games in a row since winning seven straight from Dec. 10-28, and have won five of their last six while finally regaining their hockey equilibrium.
The win was way more important than my three assists," said Zdeno Chara, who led the Bruins with a plus-3."We just want to play really well going into the playoffs. In the postseason you have to get your game established and play the right way and for the most part, I thought we did. But there are still areas that can be better. We can improve and just have to be ready for the next one.
The Bruins have opened up a five-point lead over the Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division with a game in hand, and it appears any danger of losing home-ice advantage through the first couple of rounds has been averted. They could still fall behind the Panthers, who are just behind them in the Eastern Conference standings, but thoughts are starting to wander toward potential playoff opponents. Ottawa, Buffalo and Washington are all potential candidates if the Bruins stay in their current No. 2 position.
But for the Bruins, its become about finishing out the season as strongly as possible. Fine-tuning in all areas is both recommended and crucial to postseason success.
The win over Tampa Bay was solid in many areas:
The fourth line had one of its best games in recent memory and Shawn Thornton ended a 35-game goal-scoring drought that seemed to last an eternity.
Dennis Seidenberg erased his own goal-scoring drought, which had lasted more than 25 games.
Both goals were set up by Bs defensemen hopping up into the offensive zone and activating at exactly the right times, and thats the kind of timing and feel that the Bruins will need offensively in the postseason.Its huge, its huge if you can get the defensemen helping out on offense especially against a team like that that collapses down all the time, said Brian Rolston. Its difficult to get anything going down low so its great to have defensemen contributing offensively.
But most importantly their two most important cogs are once again playing at an elite level: Chara and Tim Thomas.
Chara and the Bruins defense so dominated the Lightning in five-on-five play that they outshot the Bolts by a 38-18 margin, and only faltered when Steven Stamkos started winging one-timers on the power play. Electrified by the heartfelt, appreciative ceremony recognizing his 1,000 games in the NHL, Chara also carried the puck to the net and created the Thornton goal after dangling through Marty St. Louis on the defensive perimeter.
For the second straight game at home the Bruins defense gave their 37-year-old goaltender a rocking-chair outing; they only allowed an average of 15.5 shots per game in the two wins. But Thomas came up large when it was required of him, and thats what his Vezina and Conn Smythe reputation has always been based on. With the Lightning on a power play and the game tied midway through the third period, Thomas flashed a glove to knock down a sizzling Stamkos one-timer, and then the Bs goaltender somehow knocked a Teddy Purcell follow shot to safety by butting the puck with his goalie mask.
It was the classic stop the puck by any means necessary philosophy favored by Thomas, and it showed he's once again brimming with confidence. Only a goaltender feeling it would attempt to fling a puck all the way down the ice with the goalie pulled in the final minute as Thomas did while looking for his career NHL goal and thats exactly what Thomas did once Dwayne Roloson had been pulled from the game.
And that's not all. Patrice Bergeron finished with 20 wins in 25 faceoff tries while dominating Stamkos, Trevor Smith and Tom Pyatt, and actually won more draws than the entire Tampa team (17). The players on the third line now have 29 points in their last seven games, and once again provided the game-winner on Benoit Pouliots third-period strike.If not for Stamkos magnificent goal-scoring ability and a solid effort from Roloson between the pipes, it would have been a much greater one-sided result in favor of the Bs.
But the victory itself was most important.
We seemed to have turned it around at the right time, said Brad Marchand. You want to play your best hockey going into the playoffs, you just cant flip a switch and turn it on and start to play well. Were doing a good job at responding right now.
Its going to be a rough ride for the Bruins in the postseason, and of that there is no doubt.
Seven of the last eight Stanley Cup champs never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and six of those teams were first-round casualties. The only team to make it past the second round was a stacked Detroit Red Wings outfit that lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 finals, and the Bruins arent that Red Wings team.
But theyre pretty darn good, and theyre once again serving notice theyll be a handful for anybody in whats shaping up to be a competitive group of Eastern Conference teams in the tournament.