NEWARK – Tradition in the NHL holds that the last game before the three-day holiday break is a dud for one team.
The Bruins looked as if they were on their way to dumping coal on the Devils at the Prudential Center, but an adventurous third had them scooting off to their homes and hearths with a 4-3 win.
After surviving a New Jersey push, Boston (27-4-2) is the No. 1 team in the NHL entering the respite, which ends next Tuesday in Ottawa before a Wednesday rematch at The Rock.
This is the first time the Black and Gold have been in first place overall at Christmas since 1973-74. It has happened 12 times prior, including three years in the Bobby Orr era (’68-69, ‘70-71 and ‘73-74).
In 98 years as a franchise, the Bruins have never had more wins or fewer losses at this point of the season.
“It was about us starting off the year well and then building every day,” coach Jim Montgomery said. “We got to how we want to play pretty quick. After 10 games, we were there. The confidence has just grown. I think we’re just deep and can come after people wave after wave.”
The Bruins, delivering smiles to New England as reliably as Santa Claus himself, turned a one-goal deficit into a three-goal lead. They scored four times in the second period to take a commanding 4-1 lead and chase Devils starter Mackenzie Blackwood (four goals on 18 shots).
The goals came from David Pastrnak (twice), Patrice Bergeron, and Jake DeBrusk. The big saves came from Linus Ullmark, who stopped 36 of 39 pucks he saw and hasn’t lost in regulation since Nov. 5. The patience, confidence and puck management came from nearly everyone in the lineup.
The Devils, hoping to show their stuff against the best-in-class visitors, didn’t expect to fall into a hole that deep. Superstar scorer Jack Hughes summed up their frustration with a two-handed baseball swing against the boards as he changed off late in the second period.
But they charged in the third. With 8:59 left, Tomas Tatar cut the deficit to 4-2, rapping home a rebound off a scramble in front. Yegor Sharangovich made it a one-goal game with 6:13 remaining, smacking home the 4-3 strike off another rebound.
The Devils outshot the Bruins, 39-23.
“Teams are ready for us,” said DeBrusk (1-1–2), now on pace for 33 goals and 67 points. “They’re coming to play their best game. We’ve felt it the last couple weeks, teams are coming out hot.”
Hughes provided New Jersey’s only goal through 40 minutes, a first-period strike on the power play after Matt Grzelcyk was guilty of boarding Michael McLeod.
Grzelcyk, not typically a physical force, shoved McLeod face-first into the boards. The Devils forward showed Grzelcyk the makings of a reverse hit, then turned his back as the Bruins defenseman was returning force. Smart play by McLeod, Montgomery noted, catching Grzelcyk by surprise.
Six seconds into the power play, Hughes played catch with Dougie Hamilton, walked in from the left point and beat Ullmark under the glove-side arm at 16:26. The shot was quick, and screened by Brandon Carlo.
Ullmark made a right-pad kickout of a Miles Wood breakaway early in the second. After Bergeron tied the score, Ullmark bookended his breakaway stop with a 2-on-1 save on a cross-ice feed from Fabian Zetterlund to Nico Hischier.
Between those moments, a pretty faceoff play tied the score. Bergeron won an offensive-zone draw and cut to the middle, stick on the ice. He deflected a hard shot from DeBrusk above Blackwood’s right pad to make it 1-1 at 3:12 of the second.
“It worked out perfect,” said DeBrusk, who estimated Bergeron has at least 20 faceoff plays in his head. “I had speed and time, and I saw Bergy with the stick there. It reset the game.”
The Bruins took the lead when Blackwood gave away a clearing attempt to ex-teammate Pavel Zacha, and the broken play led to David Krejci finding Pastrnak in front. No. 88 tapped his own rebound underneath Blackwood’s pads for his 23rd of the season.
Ullmark provided more heroics, reaching behind him for a Jesper Bratt laser that leaked through, saving the puck off the line. The Bruins’ breakouts and regroups improved during the second period.
The third Bruins goal was a study in an element that has made them so successful this year: patience with the puck.
The Czech line didn’t see a way to attack up the ice, the Devils hanging back and filling lanes. Twice, the Bruins regrouped to the defense. Finally, Connor Clifton sprung Krejci up the ice. Pastrnak got open, the Devils saying “uncle” on the backcheck.
“Textbook play,” Pastrnak said. “Hopefully we see it in the [video] meeting when we come back after Christmas.”
Pastrnak snapped his 24th goal of the year upstairs at 9:52.
“When you’ve got a finisher like that …” Montgomery said. “Boy, it was beautiful, wasn’t it?”
The Bruins’ patience — and the Devils’ mistakes — continued toward the end of the second. Defenseman Damon Severson went high in the zone to cut off Charlie Coyle, but never recovered when Coyle sent it low. Marchand swiped the puck from Severson’s partner, Kevin Bahl, behind the net and hit a wide-open DeBrusk in front.
Upstairs finish for No. 74, his 13th, at 17:27.
“I thought that might happen,” DeBrusk said. “An anticipation play.”
A late-period power-play — McAvoy for hooking Wood — was a chance for the Devils to get back into it. Bratt hit the crossbar on their best chance. Hughes assaulted the side boards in the final seconds.
The Bruins have had that effect on teams.