Keith Ballard and his Minnesota teammates were in good shape. For the opening period of Monday’s game at TD Garden, the go-go Wild had the Bruins scurrying.
This is not the old-school Wild. Minnesota plays with pace. They encourage creativity at the offensive blue line instead of dump-and-chase, paint-by-numbers rote. They roll two dangerous first lines centered by Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu.
But once Jarome Iginla scored a rim-shot of a goal through Darcy Kuemper, the Bruins played big-boy hockey. Suddenly, the Wild could sustain only a few short pushes through the final 40 minutes of a 4-1 Bruins win.
“We had a little bit of a lull there in the second period and they gained momentum,” said Ballard. “From then on, it was just short periods of us grasping to get it back. We’d get it back for little bits of time. But we couldn’t sustain anything.”
The Wild do not belong among the Western Conference’s heavyweights. Their inexperience in goal — despite a change in direction off Jonas Brodin, Iginla’s shot was moving slower than a school bus — could sink them in the postseason. The Wild, however, have enough star players (Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter) to make them a threat in the first round.
But aside from a third-period push, the Wild didn’t threaten the Bruins at all. The Bruins pushed their heads under water and never let them come up for a breath.
The Bruins are winners of nine straight. Monday’s domination proved why losses are nowhere in sight. When the Bruins’ offense is rolling, they play downhill hockey. They skate and check and shoot with momentum. Opponents are always retreating. There is no relief.
One line kicks sand in your face. The next jerks away your towel. The third swipes the drinks from your cooler. And the fourth clubs you over the head with your umbrella.
Top-line right wing Iginla scored two goals. Reilly Smith, the No. 2 right wing, popped his 15-game goal drought by punching in the rebound of a Patrice Bergeron shot.
But again, it might have been third-line right wing Loui Eriksson who delivered the most offensive presence.
At 11:55 of the second period, Eriksson scored the winning goal. The play started after Chris Kelly lost the puck in the offensive zone to Nino Niederreiter. The turnover should have triggered a Minnesota breakout.
Instead, Carl Soderberg swooped in to force Kyle Brodziak to cough up the puck. Things went sideways for the Wild after that.
“The way Carl is playing, everyone to that extent is playing all three zones, coming back hard, and preventing goals,” Kelly said. “When you do that, I think good things happen. That was an example of that.”
Soderberg swatted the puck off Brodziak’s stick. The puck landed on Eriksson’s blade. Eriksson laid a drop pass for Soderberg, who wheeled around the net, causing Suter to spin.
As Soderberg curled around the net and looked for his options, Eriksson drifted down low.
Goal scorers know how to identify quiet spots on the ice and get there before defensemen claim the real estate. Before the Wild recognized that Eriksson had gained backdoor position, it was too late. Soderberg connected with a cross-crease dish that Eriksson slammed home to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead.
“They’re a very solid team,” Brodziak said. “Structurally, they play extremely well. Obviously they have a lot of talent and a lot of size. That’s a really good hockey team.”
The Bruins didn’t play poorly in the first. But they dominated the second. The Wild punched back with a late partial breakaway goal by Pominville. But a one-goal lead for the Bruins after 40 minutes felt like a far fatter cushion. In the second, the Bruins attempted 19 shots to Minnesota’s 11, underscoring how much they controlled the puck. The Bruins carried that momentum into the third and closed the Wild out.
Throughout coach Claude Julien’s watch, the Bruins have rolled four lines. It is a pillar of their identity.
In his six previous seasons, it’s doubtful Julien’s top three lines were this deep and dangerous. The first line, with Iginla replacing Nathan Horton, is playing to its blueprint. Iginla and Milan Lucic are the wide-shouldered strongmen complementing the slick and skilled David Krejci.
Bergeron is at the peak of his powers. He defends ferociously. His defense creates scoring chances for Smith and Brad Marchand.
The new element, however, is the third line. They’ve had skill there before. Consider the line of Krejci centering Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder. Or the Cup year when Kelly was between Ryder and Rich Peverley.
This is a different unit. They have a puck-possession monster in Soderberg setting up the offense. The 6-foot-3-inch, 216-pound Soderberg is overwhelming third and fourth lines and No. 3 pairings with his size, vision, and speed.
Soderberg’s 0-to-60 sprint isn’t eye-opening. But once Soderberg reaches cruising speed, it’s hard to slow him down without taking a penalty.
Soderberg’s developed good chemistry with Eriksson. From when they’re young boys, Swedes are taught to think creatively in tight spaces. Coaches introduce games and situational play along the walls and in the corners. The Swedes jab and cut and poke by using their hockey sense.
Most teams can handle two skilled lines. Not many can match up against a third. Throw in the skull-cracking style of the fourth line, and opponents find themselves limping back to the bench and shaking their heads.
“They’ve got good balance to their lineup,” Ballard said. “They’re allowed to play everybody. They’ve got good balance, good structure.”
Now the Bruins just need the playoffs to start.