Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

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Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

WILMINGTON, MA The Bruins went into this season hearing all kinds of idle hockey talk about the overall weakness that was expected of their Northeast Division this year.

The Bs romped their way to the division title last year and the Northeast Division only produced two playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with the Ottawa Senators just squeaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed. So the expectation was that a similar scenario would play out again this season with the Bruins going wire-to-wire in the Northeast Division.

The Black and Gold bunch that won the Cup two years were expected to be the only legit team to come out of the Northeast, but it appears as though that is not the case.

Its pretty competitive. I think it surprised a lot of people, but just think where Ottawa would be if they had Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Thats been a big blow to that hockey team, said Claude Julien. Montreal has a whole new look and theyre doing well while having played a lot of home games. The Northeast has surprised a lot of people because the predictions were that it was going to be the weak division.

The Bruins even cooperated with the preseason prognosticators by jumping out to an 8-1-1 start that made them look like the class of the division. But the Bruins organization also realized pretty quickly that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were for real after playing each of them in their own barn. Now the Canadiens have jumped out to a solid start this season and actually lead the Bruins in the Northeast Division with Boston holding two games in hand.

Instead the Southeast Division looks like the dregs of the conference with only the Carolina Hurricanes in playoff position after the seasons first month, and Winnipeg, Florida and Washington all in various states of disarray.

Obviously the Bruins would choose to be leading the division if all things were equal, but theyre actually not unhappy about another team like the hated Habs or the truculent Leafs pushing them to be the best Bs they can be.

The Bruins had the run of the Northeast Division roost for the first month, but now theyre looking up at a hot Habs team thats riding a five-game winning streak. Following their first game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the vibe around the Bruins dressing room was a grudging respect for Montreal, which that looks like it's built for success this year.

I know we have games in hand, but when you get passed in the standings it definitely motivates you to get back to where you were . . . thats on top of the Northeast Division," Milan Lucic said. "Montreal has definitely done better than expected and theyve exceeded expectations. It always seems like every other year were going to battle with them for that top spot in the Northeast and it wouldnt surprise me if we get them in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto is good this year and Ottawa had a big win the other night. Weve done a good job in the first 13 games putting ourselves in the position were at with a 9-2-2 record. But were only fifth in the conference.

Personally I wish we had played a few more games in the first two months rather than piling all of them up at the end. Its something you cant control, but we just have to do the best we can to stay in the pack so when we get hit with a lot of games were not playing catch-up hockey.

To Lucics point, the Bruins have played the fewest games of any NHL team with only 13 games played roughly a month into the abbreviated campaign.

The Buffalo Sabres are looking more and more like theyre headed for a house-cleaning as they continue to linger in the Northeast Division basement, and perhaps the time has come for head coach Lindy Ruff to move on. The Senators pushed the Bruins right at the very end of last season, but theyre looking dead in the water with both Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson out with major injuries that should prove lethal in a 48-game shortened NHL season.

The Habs and the Maple Leafs were looked at as Eastern Conference punch lines to start the season based on last year. But Julien has learned to respect his opponents in the division, and there is something to be said for goalies Carey Price, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all residing in the Northeast Division. They give their teams a chance to win on any given night, and they have probably helped contribute to Bostons offensive slow-going in the early portion of this season.

Its probably not a bad thing now that weve got to climb back up there, Julien said. The games become important for us. We knew that was going to happen to us and the main thing is that we stay in the pack.

Were still in the pack with some games in hand, and its up to us to win those games in hand and get to the top where we feel we belong.

The schedule picks up this week for the Bruins with a three-game road swing and then they delve into a grind that will last upwards of two months where they basically play every other day. That will afford them the chance to catch all those teams that are zooming by them with more games played in the early going, and that includes the dreaded Canadiens.

Win vs. Islanders 'a nice building block' for Bruins

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Win vs. Islanders 'a nice building block' for Bruins

BROOKLYN, NY – It wasn’t particularly entertaining and it won’t be all that memorable down the ride aside from the timing and importance of the meeting between the Bruins and Islanders. But it was a solid 2-1 team win for the Bruins over the Islanders at the Barclays Center on Saturday night with the B’s grinding all the way down to the end while protecting a one-goal lead through much of the third period.

Nearly everybody across Boston’s roster contributed in the major victory over the team trying to bypass them in the wild card standings, and it was a beautiful thing. Anton Khudobin stepped up when Tuukka Rask couldn’t start Saturday night’s showdown with a lower body issue, and Riley Nash supplied both Boston goals from a fourth line that’s played some of their best hockey lately.

It was unlikely heroes all around for the Black and Gold in the tightly-wound contest, but that diversity of talent and production can be a very good thing for a team looking to make that playoff push.

“You have to stay with it. You have to stay in the moment and stay with the game no matter what’s happening during the game. That’s how you get results, and that’s how you find ways to persevere through adversity,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We just got back to playing stingy, especially in the neutral zone. We got away from it the last few games, and it was nice tonight to be back playing a low-scoring game like what we’re used to playing.”

When it was all said and done the Bruins only allowed 19 shots on net and also killed off six penalties in the kind of grinding defensive showdown that you haven’t seen all that much out of the Black and Gold lately. It was exactly what Cassidy was looking for to snap the four-game losing streak, and once again start pushing the Bruins upward into the playoff chase.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard and fighting that hard to see pucks and find pucks and your D are blocking shots. And you kill that many penalties. It was a nice building block for us,” said Cassidy. “From the goalie on out, everybody was in there [in the win]. It was a tough game. It was a nice Bruins win. We had been doing it with offense earlier, and we’ve got to be able to do it both ways. You need to be able to win 2-1 hockey games, and it had been awhile.”

Now it’s simply up to the Bruins to be feeling good about their latest win while going back to basics, and looking for more next time around after ending their worst losing streak of the season.

Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

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Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

BROOKLYN, NY – Things didn’t go so well last season for the Bruins when Tuukka Rask suddenly wasn’t well enough to play in the last game of the season, so there was good reason for the B’s to be a little nervous when their No. 1 goalie again couldn’t answer the bell Saturday night vs. the Islanders.

Anton Khudobin had won four games in a row headed into Saturday night, of course, and in his previous start he’d helped snap a 10-game winning streak for the Calgary Flames. So perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising when Khudobin stood tall for the Bruins making 18 saves in a tight, nervy 2-1 win over the Isles at the Barclays Center.

“You don’t have that many shots, but maybe 10 scoring chances…that can be tougher than seeing 30 shots and same amount of scoring chances,” said Khudobin. “But I’m glad got the job done, we got our points and we got the ‘W’.”

It wasn’t wall-to-wall action in a game where both teams combined for 37 shots on net, but it was still impressive that Khudobin and the B’s special teams killed off six Islander power plays in such a tight hockey game. After the B’s backup netminder was lauded for the way he battled in the crease and competed for pucks like his team’s very life was on the line in a pivotal game.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard, and fighting that hard to see pucks and your D are blocking shots. And you kill that many penalties. It was a nice building block for us,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I loved his performance. He’s a battler. He got swimming a couple of times, but that’s Dobby. He keeps it interesting for you. He’s a battler and he always has been. That’s what we needed tonight.”

One could spend days analyzing Cassidy's words and wondering much of that was deserved, appreciative praise for Khudobin, and how much of that might have been a veiled message to Boston's No. 1 goaltender sitting back home in Boston. 

The best save of the night probably won’t even count as a save for the Russian netminder. It was John Tavares, after having beaten Khudobin once in the first period, moving into the offensive zone with speed during a third period power play, and getting an open look at the net front in the high slot. Khudobin thought quickly and dropped into the unconventional double-stack pad save that seemed to throw Tavares off just a little, and the Isles sniper smoked the shot off the crossbar rather than tying up the game.

“I didn’t touch it. I didn’t really have time to get there, so the only thing I tried to do was the two-pad stack, old school Bob Essensa-style,” said Khudobin, who has now improved to 6-5-1 with a 2.60 goals against and an .899 save percentage this season. “Then he hit the crossbar. You need to get some luck in this league, and if you don’t get luck you’re going to lose games.”

A little luck and a little good, old-fashioned battling between the pipes was enough for Khudobin and the Bruins in Saturday night’s mammoth win. Now the questions become whether or not to go right back to Khudobin again on Tuesday at home against the Nashville Predators.