BUFFALO — The Bruins remained on a roll Tuesday night in their drive to the playoffs, even if Game No. 44 on their abbreviated NHL schedule felt more like an exhibition of spinning tires and grinding gears than motoring to next month’s regular-season finish line.
Brad Marchand (24) and Connor Clifton (1) each scored goals and Tuukka Rask turned aside 32 shots for his 51st career shutout as the Bruins pinned a 2-0 loss on the Sabres in front of a totally empty KeyBank Center, save for a few hundred cardboard cutouts of fans sprinkled around the chilled arena’s lower bowl.
It was, all in all, 60 minutes of low-energy, light-hitting, near-emotionless hockey, though all of it sufficient for the Bruins to pick up their season-high fifth straight victory. The win chipped the Bruins another 2 points ahead of the Rangers (6-1 losers to the Islanders) in what of late has been a developing race for the No. 4 spot in the NHL East standings.
A funny thing about that race: Bolstered by the five consecutive wins, and a dramatically improved 5-on-5 scoring touch post-last week’s trade deadline, the Bruins Wednesday morning stood but 4 points from pulling into a tie with the Capitals and Islanders for the division lead.
So win No. 25 was by no means pretty, but winning has an enduring beauty. Another two wins here on Thursday and Friday could turn the Bruins into divisional pageant favorites.
“We won the game, got the 2 points,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “At this time of the year, that’s the most important thing. But we have to understand and play to our standard — I don’t think we were there tonight. We’ve got to raise our standard internally, get back to work tomorrow so we are better prepared for Thursday.
The first two periods fulfilled all expectations: Forty minutes of quick, low-emotion, light-hitting hockey. Without a chance of making the playoffs, the Sabres these days offer little resistance or gumption — the challenge is for the opposing team to stay interested. The Bruins tried to stay engaged, but it was a 60-minute struggle.
The Bruins did have enough spunk to score once in each of the first two periods, which added to their season-best streak of carrying a lead into the third period (for a fifth straight game).
Marchand scored in the first period, and Clifton scored early in the second, his first strike this season and only the third of his NHL career.
Marchand potted the opener at 8:06 of the first, finishing a nifty backhand lift near the right post with Sabres goalie Dustin Tokarski flat on his belly as Marchand flipped the shot under the crossbar.
The only serious offensive attempts for the Sabres came around the 13:30 mark of the first at the tail end of the power play when Arttu Ruotsalainen and Dylan Cozens peppered Rask with two primo chances at the doorstep and Rask made brilliant stops on both.
“Half skill, half luck … you’re kind of in desperation mode there and throw everything you can at the puck,” said Rask, referring to the flurry, “and hopefully it hits you — today it did.”
Cozens’s attempt, with a wide open right side, had Rask at his best. The puck came across the low slot for Cozens to cash in with a short forehander, until Rask dashed to his left and cut it off.
It was Rask’s third straight win since returning from a lower back strain that kept him sidelined for March and into April.
“Good enough to play,” said Rask, pondering a question about his overall physical status. “Hopefully I’ll be able to play many, many months ahead. But I’m feeling good. It doesn’t bother me playing, so that’s a plus.”
It took only 3:03 into the second for Clifton, with a slapper off the right point, to bump the lead to 2-0. Ex-Sabre Curtis Lazar helped with a screen. But the key assist belonged to Tokarski. The Sabres tender, unaware the puck had bled through his pads and stopped at least a foot in front of the goal line, inadvertently booted it ever-so-slowly into the cage.
The Bruins fell into messy penalty trouble late in the third, leaving the Sabres, with their goaltender pulled, to skate a 6-on-3 advantage for 93 seconds, beginning at the 17:26 mark. But even with a three-man advantage, they failed to land a single shot on net for the full 93 seconds (take that to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not).
All part of a strange night, on a very chilly early-spring evening, in an arena where the only smiles rested on the faces of the cardboard cutouts.
“It was kind of like back to the early part of the season with no fans,” said Rask. “I was surprised, because I thought they’d actually have fans here. We’ve kind of gotten used to having some energy in the building (with 2,000-3,000 fans in attendance), so this was pretty quiet. Obviously, it’s more fun when there’s fans.”