BOSTON - The Bruins resumed their schedule following the Olympic break on Feb. 26 in Buffalo, but they didn’t officially get back to business until Thursday night against the Washington Capitals.
That’s when the Black and Gold finally turned the dial back up defensively and squeezed the life out of the Capitals in a 3-0 victory that was as one-sided a hockey game as you’re likely to see in the NHL. The Bruins held Washington without a shot for more than 12 minutes in the second period, and outshot the Capitals 17-4 in the middle period that was essentially man against boys.
Part of it was clearly the Capitals coming off a spirited, draining rivalry game against the Flyers on Wednesday night and not having their freshest legs on the second night of a back-to-back.
“We jumped on them early, we had some good legs tonight, and we were first on pucks. We knew that they played last night,” said Patrice Bergeron, who was the best player on the ice with a team-high eight shots on net, an assist, three takeaways and a plus-2 rating with a bundle of scoring chances. “After the second we talked about that they were in that same situation last night, and they came back [against the Flyers]. So we had to keep pushing, keep forcing and I thought we had a great third as well.
“We played for the full 60, we played through our system, our whole back pressure was great, and we didn’t give them too many odd-man rushes. We played well, we played tight and just respected our system. When we do that, good things happen.”
One could see the Bruins deliberately creeping back into their game over the first four games out of the break, but the back pressure, defensive layers and commitment at both ends of the rink made this game a little different in the best way possible. There was no room to breathe in the neutral zone as Boston defenders took away the Caps’ players time and space and didn’t allow anything even remotely resembling a second chance around the Boston net.
It was a strict, disciplined adherence to the defensive system preached by the Bruins coaching staff and executed to perfection.
It was also an answer to those that have openly questioned whether the Bruins can play heavy, punishing defense against playoff-caliber competition without any major upgrades along the blueline.
“Today it was the best [defensive effort] in a long time to keep them to 15 shots, and not too many scoring chances,” said Tuukka Rask. “We had layers all over the ice, and defended the middle really good, and back-checked hard. It had all the elements we want. It was great to see that.”
It was also great to see Rask pick up his first career victory against the Capitals in his seventh try, a triumph that raises his record to 1-3-3 against Washington after the easiest shutout of his career.
Now, the Bruins have outscored their opponents by a 7-1 margin in the past two games after allowing 12 goals in the first three games back from the break, and outshot the Panthers and Capitals by an 82-40 margin in dominating both teams. It hasn’t been about rolling out big offensive numbers as much as it’s been about eliminating the other team’s best offensive players (Alex Ovechkin had a single shot on net, and no bearing on the game), and making certain every player out on the ice is minding their responsibilities.
The puck-possession dominance and bevy of good offensive chances have been more a byproduct of winning battles in the defensive zone and then turning the puck up the ice to do some damage.
“We want to be known as a defensive team that’s able to score some goals, and not the other way around,” said Chris Kelly, one of the defensive mainstays on the Bruins roster. “We played like that tonight.”
The other key to Boston’s perfect defensive evening: staying away from the undisciplined play. The Washington Capitals have the second-ranked power play in the NHL, and try to play to that strength. They did damage to Boston by taking advantage of bone-headed penalties from the Bruins last weekend, and then watching happily as Alex Ovechkin scored power play goals seemingly by the dozen.
This time around. the Bruins scored on the only delayed penalty call through the entire 60-minute game, and Boston stayed out of the penalty box while playing good, hard, intense, stifling defense.
The Bruins management group, the coaching staff and the players all remain keenly aware that their team is capable of achieving great things and playing with the kind of offense and defense that can dominate lesser teams.
While it’s true the B’s haven’t been the same kind of heavy, menacing defensive team without the services of injured Dennis Seidenberg, the team is still second in the NHL with 2.2 goals allowed per game.
There is still plenty of work to do for the Black and Gold with 20 regular-season games remaining, but the Bruins found their secret sauce in the stingy shutout of the Capitals. Now, it’s just a matter of rinsing and repeating the exacting defensive effort no matter which opponent sets up at the other end of the ice.