David Krejci knew there was a chance. He had the puck and there was the empty net yawning before him.
“I knew I had two goals already, so why not go for it?” he said, before adding, “I felt good. Every time I had a good spot with the puck, I felt like with my shot today I could have beat him. I’ll take the empty-netters.”
Going for it was a wise decision. With that last goal, Krejci recorded the third regular-season hat trick of his career, capping the Bruins’ scoring with 14 seconds remaining. It capped a 4-1 Bruins win over the Panthers Tuesday night at TD Garden.
The Bruins trail the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins by 3 points.
“That’s been our goal, to try to catch up to Pittsburgh,” Krejci said. “At one point they had a pretty good lead on us, but we’re [3 points] behind right now and there’s 20 games left. That’s pretty good time. We’re going to try to do everything we can to get as many wins as we can, and obviously it would be nice to get first place and who knows what happens?”
The Bruins hadn’t started the post-break schedule looking like a team worthy of first place. They lost in overtime in Buffalo and followed that with a loss to Washington. They righted themselves with a win against the Rangers in New York Sunday.
“I think in our first few games we were working on getting that sharpness and the intensity up,” Jarome Iginla said. “I think against the Rangers it was a lot better. We’re still working on tightening it up a little bit, but I think it’s coming.”
But that doesn’t mean their play was good enough.
“I still thought defensively, we’ve got to tighten up some more,” coach Claude Julien said. “I felt the second period wasn’t a very good period for us . . . Overall, it’s a good game, but where we want to be and the type of team we want to be also, we’ve got to be a little bit better defensively. Too many good scoring opportunities and too many defensive breakdowns.”
Still, the Bruins were able to take advantage of some shaky defense to take out Tim Thomas and the Panthers, beating up on a team near the bottom of the standings.
For Thomas, it was a rough day. Not only did the goaltender allow three goals on 38 shots to his former team — making it 12 goals allowed in three games against the Bruins this season — he also got the news that he would be sharing the Florida net with former nemesis Roberto Luongo.
While Thomas said he didn’t know much about the situation (or about his future), he did quip, in reference to their war of words in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, “It looked like [general manager Dale Tallon] went kicking some tires and found one that needed to be pumped.”
The Bruins were able to victimize Thomas and take a 2-0 first-period lead, the first time since the Olympic break they were able to strike first.
“We tried to get that,” Krejci said. “I think we’re a pretty good team when we play with the lead. It was nice to get the first one. I don’t think we played 60 minutes of Bruins hockey, but just take positive things from this game.”
Krejci started the scoring at 7:29, the unassisted goal coming off a turnover by defenseman Tom Gilbert. It came not long after Thomas had made a scintillating stick save on Patrice Bergeron.
They doubled the lead at 11:01, storming down ice after a Panthers missed shot. Jordan Caron fired a shot that bounced off Thomas’s mask and right to Iginla. The right wing buried the puck past Thomas, who was forced to go to the bench to change from his strange-looking navy version to his older red mask.
Thomas was still wearing the red version when he came out for the second period, but it didn’t seem to help much. Nor did his defense.
With less than a minute remaining in the second, Krejci was allowed all the time he needed with the puck in the slot, taking the opportunity to knock it off the post and in with 48 seconds remaining in the period.
Florida finally got one back with 7:13 remaining in the third though it took an assist from the Bruins. The puck went past Chad Johnson off the stick of Matt Bartkowski, with the goal awarded to Brian Campbell.
But the Bruins took the game and the points as they continue their hot pursuit of the Penguins.
“We’d love to be able to pass them, but that can’t be a priority,” Julien said. “The priority, for me, is our game and how we play because the rest will take care of itself. That’s the main concern right now, is us finding our game and if we can play well and win our games, hopefully it will be good enough to at least catch up, if not surpass them.”