SUNRISE, Fla. — The Bruins had already had a blueprint for this type of situation. Back in January, the schedule-makers had dealt them a hard break, back-to-back games in just more than 24 hours in Chicago and Boston, against two of the best teams in the NHL in the Blackhawks and Kings.
Fortunately for the Bruins, despite even less time between puck drop in Tampa and puck drop in Sunrise, plus a seven-round shootout against the Lightning Saturday night, the competition wasn’t quite as strong on the Florida swing, and the Bruins were able to sweep their way through the weekend.
That left them with five consecutive wins, including their 5-2 victory over the Panthers Sunday at the BB&T Center, and a place atop the Eastern Conference standings, 1 point ahead of the Penguins.
Not long ago, Pittsburgh had looked to be running away with the conference, but the Bruins have clawed their way back, getting their game back together after a rough first two games after the Olympic break.
“Hopefully it’s for more than a day,” coach Claude Julien said about being in first place. “We’ve worked hard to get ourselves back at the top of the conference. By the looks of it, it’ll probably be a battle right till the end.”
So, too, was the game against the Panthers, one that was punctuated by three goals in 52 seconds at one point in the third period.
The teams headed into the third tied at 1 on second-period goals by Jimmy Hayes and Andrej Meszaros before Torey Krug broke the stalemate with his 13th of the season (and first since Feb. 1) at 7:38 off a spin move from Brad Marchand. The Bruins then added an insurance goal at 11:21 of the third, a power-play wrister from Patrice Bergeron.
That set off the fireworks.
Just 29 seconds after the Bergeron goal, Hayes beat Chad Johnson for his second of the game.
“It can kind of go either way, it’s 3-1, you think you have the momentum, and then they score a weird goal like that,” Johnson said of the Hayes play. “It just can change things, and we responded really well.”
That’s because just 23 seconds after the Hayes goal, Jarome Iginla tallied the 550th goal of his likely Hall of Fame career, giving the Bruins back their two-goal advantage.
“You mostly don’t think about them,” Iginla said of the milestones. “I mostly try not to think about things like that. Today was 550, and I’m definitely thankful for it. It’s been fun. You know, I think back to when I started, I didn’t set out those type of goals or whatever, so it’s cool.”
It also gave Iginla 20 goals on the season, the 15th time in his 17-year career that he has reached 20 in a season. The two years he didn’t? His second year in the league and the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
But Sunday was less about personal records and more about the team record. As Iginla added, “Tonight our goal was to be at the top of the conference at the end of the day, and it was a really good win for us, especially with the short turnaround.”
The Bruins now have 89 points and, after Sunday’s games, just three teams in the NHL (St. Louis, Anaheim, and Chicago) had more.
“I didn’t mind our game tonight,” Julien said. “I thought for playing a game less than 20 hours later and having the kind of pace that we had to our game, I was pretty impressed with our team. Even in the third period, we could have looked like a tired team, but we didn’t. We looked like a determined team and I think that was pretty important for us.”
Part of that, Bergeron said, was returning to the Bruins’ system, not forcing plays. As he said, “Every time we do that, every time we play strong defensively, it seems to carry on with some offense. That’s our style, that’s our identity. We can’t get away from it. Every time we do, we’re not ourselves.”
The Bruins added one more goal, an empty-netter by Chris Kelly, and they had earned themselves a day off in Fort Lauderdale before heading up to Montreal a day before Wednesday’s game. With Pittsburgh playing twice before the Bruins face the Canadiens, it’s unclear whether they’ll still be in first place when they take the ice in Montreal.
But they do know that they’ll have the chance to battle with the Penguins for the top spot for the rest of the season. And that was enough in a 24-hour period in which the Bruins earned all 4 possible points.
“Two games in less than 24 hours, I thought we showed lots of resilience to stay with it and to have a big third period to get that win,” Bergeron said. “We talked about it before the game, that Pittsburgh was not playing tonight, that we were only 1 point behind them. I think we played a solid road game, and we came out with the 2 points.”