Haggerty: Bruins get back to defensive basics in victory

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Haggerty: Bruins get back to defensive basics in victory

TORONTO The Bruins defense went from brain dead to Hockey MENSA in the course of two days, and it was the biggest factor in Bostons 1-0 gritty win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.

That the Bruins were playing their fourth game in six days and still managed to block 22 shots five by Johnny Boychuk all by himself and hold the Maple Leafs down to 21 shots in the game spoke volumes. For a Toronto team that was averaging 30 shots per game headed into the weekend divisional showdown, thats some pretty darned plucky work all things considered.

The Maple Leafs managed to match enough of the grit displayed by the Bruins to avoid the series of one-sided blowouts that characterized last year's six-game series sweep for the Black and Gold. But that kind of game is much more the domain of the Bruins than it is for a Leafs that aspires to what the Bruins have someday.

"There were battles all over the ice tonight. They gave us a really good game. We're a little more experienced, and we have a guy in Zdeno that's capable of shutting down top players when he is at his best," said Claude Juilien. Chara was at his best tonight."

It was pretty clear the emphasis was on getting back to the teams backbone, which is good, old-fashioned hard-nosed defense led by their Minster of Defense, Zdeno Chara. They all followed the game plan to perfection, and didnt give up more than a handful of scoring chances in 60 minutes of heavy hockey.

Phil Kessel ripped an open shot from the right face-off circle during the game's final power play at the end of the third period, but Tuukka Rask was more than up to making his best save of the night. Kessel also dinged a shot off the far crossbar in the first period, but those represented the only Toronto chances that were anything approaching "close to a goal."

Otherwise the Bruins defense simply swallowed them who as they've done so many times in the past -- and in doing so wiped away the bad taste of the bizarre loss to Buffalo. The fact that Boston blocked more shots (22) than Toronto finished with for shots on net (21) tells one everything they need to know about the physical commitment Boston made to clinching a victory.

Thursday night was a strange game. It was too wide open for our liking and we wanted to get back to the game that has made us successful: thats good, fundamental defensive hockey, said Gregory Campbell. You have to play that way to be able to pick up wins on the road in 1-0 games or one-goal games.

This is the standard that were held accountable for. The coaches always stress the identity of our team and play within that. Once we stray from that youre really playing with fire. Were built as a strong defensive (team) with some guys that can also score goals, and when we do that were a hard team to play against.

The only real chance the Leafs had to do some damage was in the first period on a goal that was eventually waved off. Cody Franson wound up and fired a bomb from the high point that whistled past everyone before hitting the back of the net, and Toronto thought they had tied the game at 1-1.

But Nazem Kadri had bumped Rask off his pins as he jumped out to challenge the shooter, and the refs dismissed the potential Leafs goal due to goaltender interference. Replays showed that Rask was outside the crease when the light contact took place, but he wasnt going to start asking any questions about the call.

He crossed and hit my skates and I lost my balance. Its one of those tough calls. I wasnt in the crease but I wasnt really out of it, said Rask. I was in the middle of whatever zone youd call that. Im not going to start diving there.

Instead hell take a shutout and his 21 saves to the bank behind the determined Bs defense, and improve his record to 5-1-1 on the season. The Bruins defenders in front of him eliminated the odd-man rushes and the curious decision-making in their own zone, and looked well more like themselves in the process.

It was certainly not the bungling team that had given their most goals since 2008 in their last game.

Its all great. Thats what you want them to do, said Rask. It was just a solid game. We created a lot of chances too, but we didnt go into that run and gun game like we did in the last game against Buffalo.

We just stuck with the program and grind it out. Sometimes it will be 1-0 and sometimes it will be 4-3 or whatever. Today it was a tight game and we just stuck with the game plan.

The shutout puts the Bruins back up near the top of the defensive rankings with a 2.38 goals allowed per game, and sends a message not to expect Thomas Vanek-style offensive explosions against Boston all of a sudden.

I thought we were really sloppy against Buffalo. We just cleaned up our defensive game and at the same time we had to kill a lot of penalties, said Julien. We talk about a good road win and this is one of them. You talk about the fourth game in six nights and the way we competed for most of the night from fore-check to back-check our guys really showed a lot of character.

The sterling defensive effort was what everybody was looking for after the ugliness of the loss to Buffalo, but it really doesnt register as much of a surprise.

Teams dont win Stanley Cup championships without character and steel-hearted will. The Bruins showed plenty of both categories in a victory that keeps the Black and Gold in the drivers seat of the Eastern Conference with 17 percent of the 48-game shortened season already in the history books.

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

The Bruins are going to snap their two-year drought and get into the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. 

Sure, it’s going to be a tight race. And it'll come down to the last few games, befitting a team that's lived on the Atlantic Division bubble over the last three years. But in the seven games under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins have shown they have the goods to get into the postseason. There's every reason to believe they’ll sustain their winning ways over the final two months of the regular season. 

There's a long way to go, of course, but a third-place (or higher) finish would ensure the B's a berth in the Atlantic Division playoff bracket, and they could conceivably advance a round or two based solely on the poor quality of clubs in their division. With 20 games to play, the Bruins are now third in the division and have a one-point cushion (70-69) over fourth-place Toronto, though the Leafs have a game in hand. If Toronto passes them, they currently have a two-point lead over the Islanders (70-68) for the eighth and final spot in the conference playoffs, though the Isles also have a game in hand. 

And that's not to say Boston couldn't climb higher. The B's are only four points behind the first-place but spinning-their-wheels Canadiens (20-20-7 since their 13-1-1 start), and they're even with the Habs in games played. They trail second-place Ottawa by two points, but the Senators have two games in hand.

All that, however, is another story for another day (even if it is a reason for Boston adding, rather than subtracting, at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline),

So how can we so stridently state that the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, and assure that this seven-game run isn’t just a flash in the pan?

Clearly they're playing with more urgency, higher compete levels, and a consistent focus that wasn’t there in the first 55 games under Claude Julien. They've now scored first-period goals in nine straight games and scored first in each of the four games on the highly successful Western swing through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Dallas over the last week. 

To put that in perspective, the B's had gone 1-8 in California over the previous three seasons, when those late-in-the-year road trips spelled the beginning of the end for Boston.

But even more convincing is a simple look at the numbers, the production and the reasons behind the surge forward. 

The Bruins have long needed their two franchise centers operating at a high level at both ends of the ice, and consistently playing the 200-foot game that can cause major problems against teams not blessed with frontline talent in the middle. That wasn’t the case under Julien this year, but things have changed. 

David Krejci has three goals and eight points along with an even plus/minus rating in seven games under Cassidy. Patrice Bergeron posted three goals and nine points along with a plus-7 over that same span of games. With those two big-money, big-ceiling players operating at their highest levels, the rest of the team has shown its true potential . . . and the talent level is considerably higher than many thought.

It wasn’t long ago that many Bruins fans, and some major Julien apologists in the media, would have had you believe that Claude was keeping together a substandard NHL roster with a MacGyver-like combination of duct tape, chewing gum and an offensive system that only a dump-and-chase, trappist wonk could love. Now we’re seeing there's offensive talent on a group that’s been given the green light to create and produce. 

To wit, the Bruins' third line is now winning games for them after serving as a liability for the first half of the season. Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano have combined for 6 goals, 15 points and a plus-11 in the seven games under Cassidy after never getting a chance to work together under Julien because they weren’t in his defensive circle of trust.

There's also the elevated level of production -- across the board -- from Boston’s defensemen. Not to mention Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak continuing to produce offense at elite levels. Marchand just set a career-high with his 64th point on Sunday afternoon, and still has another 20 games left in attempting to become the B's first point-per-game player since Marc Savard (88 points in 82 games in  2008-09).

All of it amounts to a Bruins offense that’s now choosing quality shots over quantity: Boston is scoring 1.5 more goals per game under Cassidy while averaging a significant 4.5 fewer shots per game. The Bruins have finally ditched the weak perimeter attack that so entralled the Corsi crowd -- it was putting up 40-plus shots per game, yet only about 2.5 goals -- and are instead honing in their offensive chances between the dots and in closer to the net .

Should people still be wondering if this current B’s run of entertaining, winning hockey is sustainable? They certainly can if they want to wait until the season is over to decide, but the jury is in for this humble hockey writer.

Bruins fans should take the cue and start lining up for their postseason tickets. 

Because there is going to be playoff hockey in Boston this spring. Remember, you heard it here first.

Haggerty's Morning Skate: NHL teams aren't just making trades for themselves ahead of deadline

Haggerty's Morning Skate: NHL teams aren't just making trades for themselves ahead of deadline

Here are all the hockey links from around the world, and what I’m reading while feeling like Warren Beatty took the sneaky way out by handing that wrong Academy Award card to Faye Dunaway last night. Clearly he knew something was amiss and he let her step into it. Kind of a weasel move if you asked me.

-- An interesting letter from FOH (Friend of Haggs) James Mirtle about the pay wall involving The Athletic sports website in Toronto.

-- Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings dealing for Ben Bishop is about more than just an insurance policy for Jonathan Quick.

-- FOH Mike Halford has the Minnesota Wild going for it with their trade for Martin Hanzal, but also keeping him from the other teams in the West.

-- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the Penguins are in great shape after winning the Cup last spring, and it’s clear they’re in good hands after Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle opted not to sell the franchise.

-- Kyle Quincey is being held out of the lineup in New Jersey because of pending trades, and the wonder is who else in New Jersey might be getting dealt.

-- Gabriel Landeskog and his Colorado Avalanche teammates know the trade deadline is coming. It would certainly be weird if they didn’t.

-- The San Jose Sharks feel fortunate for the timing of their bye week as it was clear that they needed a break.

-- For something completely different: Gronk was busy doing Gronk things at the Daytona 500 over the weekend.