With many of their best penalty killers already out of the lineup, and two of their best in the penalty box in Patrice Bergeron and Gregory Campbell, the Bruins’ remaining players were tasked with keeping hold of a one-goal lead.
Not that, in coach Claude Julien’s opinion, the situation was warranted.
Julien was critical of the referees after Saturday night’s game, taking issue with penalties called on both sides. One of the most crucial a cross-checking penalty on Bergeron that, coupled with Campbell’s double minor for high-sticking 12 seconds later, led to a 5 on 3 for the Sabres midway through the second period.
“It’s one of those nights where I really was disappointed in a lot of the calls,” Julien said after the Bruins took the 4-1 win over Buffalo. “I know they got a bad one at the end there on [Steve] Ott, but when I look back on it, it was a tough night.
“I was frustrated, to be honest, with some of the calls. You had a young referee in there tonight. He wants obviously to make the calls that he thinks need to be made, but there was a lot of them that put us in some tough spots there. It’s one of those games where, sometimes, you’ve got to beat more than the other team.”
They did, though, just two nights after Buffalo — the team with the fewest points (21) in the NHL — beat them at the First Niagara Center.
This time, the Bruins prevailed, improving their home hot streak to 12-0-2, thanks in large part to surviving five penalties, including two 5-on-3 chances for the Sabres.
In the first instance, the Bruins used the combination of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, and Torey Krug for part of the time — with Krug swapped out for Ryan Spooner on a key faceoff — to help survive. As Julien said, “You kind of ad lib once in a while and be creative, and that’s what we tried to do.”
Milan Lucic, whose first goal in nine games helped the Bruins to a 3-1 lead at 5:18 of the third period, thought the penalty kill was key.
“Seeing other guys come in and step up and kill that off was huge and brought momentum back on our side and kind of lifted us to victory after that,” he said.
The second instance of 5-on-3 came after penalties to Jordan Caron and Boychuk, which would have given the Sabres a two-man advantage for 1:13. Instead, it ended after 30 seconds with a slashing call on Ott that the Sabre hotly contested.
The Bruins were already missing much of their penalty kill muscle, with Chris Kelly (56:36 of shorthanded time this season), Daniel Paille (46:43), Adam McQuaid (32:24), Loui Eriksson (26:06), and Dougie Hamilton (20:11) all out of the lineup with injuries.
And, still, the Bruins have continued their excellent record on the penalty kill, their 82.7 percent mark ranking among the league leaders.
“The good thing about that is we have had a lot of guys on this team that have been able to do that,” Campbell said before the game. “The system’s been in place for a while now, so to be honest with you, most of the team is in the penalty-kill meeting, and so most of us know what to do and there’s a number of guys that are capable of doing that.
“Penalty kill has a lot to do with sacrifice and playing within the system and it’s really become a big part of the game these days,” Campbell said.
“Killing penalties is, although it’s not very glamorous, it’s a huge part of the game. I consider it an honor to be in that position, to fill that role, and I think a lot of other players do, too.”
Though the Bruins started slowly Saturday night, they took the lead at 9:39 of the first with Reilly Smith’s power-play goal on a nice feed from Carl Soderberg.
But with just 66 seconds to go in the first, Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons put one between Tuukka Rask and the post, tying the score.
The Bruins got the lead back at 1:47 of the second period on David Krejci’s seventh of the season, after Jarome Iginla had skated up ice starting from behind the Bruins’ blue line, the play aided by the net drive from Lucic.
Lucic added his late goal, and Smith added his second of the game with 22 seconds left on an empty net.
“You need effort and you also have to capitalize on your scoring chances,” Krejci said. “So we didn’t have the complete game [on Thursday], but I felt like we had an OK game. In this league, OK isn’t good enough.”
Fortunately for the Bruins, they were better than OK on Saturday — especially their depleted penalty kill unit.
“We were getting pretty thin with killers,” Bergeron said. “But we’re a team that everybody can do the job when they step on the ice. We have a system that we believe in, and they did a great job.”