In the first period of Monday night’s game at TD Garden, Detroit winger Tomas Jurco belted Carl Soderberg from behind so hard that the Boston center’s helmet spun off his head. Soderberg barely flinched, and stayed in the scrum.
Seconds later, partly because of Soderberg’s net-front jamming, Gregory Campbell ripped home the rebound of a Torey Krug shot to snap a 1-1 tie.
“Carl on that play lost his helmet but stayed in the battle,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after the 5-2 win over the Red Wings. “That’s the Bruins’ game. That’s what we want to see from our team. Our fans want to see that kind of hockey as well.”
The thing about that relentlessness, however, is that it was out of character for the 2014-15 version. This year’s team has applied temporary pressure, but rarely has it mashed the gas for 60 minutes as it did against the Wings. The Bruins earned the 2 points because they played with structure, passion, and purpose for the entire night, even without Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic.
“[Monday] was probably the closest we’ve come to playing to our expectations,” Julien said. “The ability to play that way is there, no matter who we have in the lineup. Now it’s a matter of getting some consistency and seeing more of that on a game-to-game basis.”
It didn’t matter that the Bruins’ fourth line of Matt Lindblad, Craig Cunningham, and Seth Griffith entered the night with 247 games of AHL experience versus 41 with the varsity. It was of no concern that David Krejci had never centered Reilly Smith. The Bruins didn’t suffer because Jordan Caron, buried in the AHL, was back up with Daniel Paille and Campbell.
Coaches and general managers spend hours every day pondering and fretting about line combinations. Sometimes good, structured, high-tempo play makes all that planning irrelevant.
But Monday’s win will be worth as much as a Black-and-Gold Matt Fraser jersey if the Bruins revert to their previous ghostly selves Wednesday night against Toronto. They need traction, momentum, and results, especially against a division rival that is ahead of them in the standings.
The Bruins are behind Toronto by 2 points. If they play against the Leafs the way they did in a 6-2 loss to Columbus on Saturday, they’ll be 4 points behind Toronto before one year turns into the next.
The Bruins team that rolled over Detroit would do the same to any team. But they have no idea which team will appear: the one that exhibited swagger and attitude despite the absence of Bergeron and Lucic, or the one that played panic-stricken hockey while giving up four goals in the second period against the Blue Jackets.
“I think it’s just a mental mind-set,” said Dennis Seidenberg. “We saw [Monday] that when we put our minds into it, we just learned how to play solid hockey. It was us having a picture in our minds of how we want to play. We played it on the ice. That’s what’s kept us in the past few months from showing it every night.”
If the Bruins stay true to their season-long peaks-and-valleys play, they will take another step back against the Leafs. They will come up short in one of their deficient areas, be it leaky goaltending, poor puck management in the defensive zone, sluggishness in the neutral zone, or one-and-done fly-bys in the offensive zone.
But they played against Detroit as if they finally understood their situation: They aren’t big, fast, or skilled enough to succeed if they don’t skate and execute with desperation. Their win gave them proof that they can hang with anyone if they commit to 60 minutes of frenzy.
They overcame heavy legs by breaking out cleanly and rushing up the ice as one. In the offensive zone, it didn’t matter that they lack scoring touch because of the pucks and people they threw at the net. Defensively, they protected their goal with layers, then leaned on Tuukka Rask to make Vezina-level, timely saves.
“You saw how many pucks we got to the net with guys in front,” said Seidenberg. “It creates so much offense and momentum. It’s a lot of fun playing that way. I’m sure everybody likes playing that way.
“Having the feeling of a win after is always better that way. Everybody wants to have that feeling. Hopefully we’ll keep it going and get on a roll.”
Bergeron and Lucic returned to practice Tuesday. Bergeron split his shifts with Krejci between Smith and Brad Marchand. Lucic and Lindblad alternated on the fourth line with Cunningham and Griffith. Their availability for Wednesday is undetermined.
Having Bergeron between Marchand and Smith has been a constant for more than a year. Lucic and Krejci have played together for five seasons.
But it didn’t really matter how the lines were assembled against the Wings. Nor should it be a factor against the Leafs.
The Bruins beat the Wings because they played with an identity. They were a hard team to play. It would be a shame if it were an isolated event.