UNIONDALE, N.Y. — When the Bruins returned to the ice for practice on Wednesday after a lengthy break that was lengthened further by the snowstorm, coach Claude Julien expected a bit of rust. It would only be natural after not having played since Jan. 21 in Colorado.
That wasn’t what he saw.
“To me, the biggest surprise was [practice],” Julien said. “We were sharp. So it was really encouraging. I expected us to be rusty, but we were sharp.”
They were sharp in the first period on Thursday, too, as they came out strong against the Islanders on their way to a 5-2 win in their final regular-season visit to Nassau Coliseum. Against a team that had played on Tuesday, the Bruins looked better to start — and to finish.
Though the Islanders tied the game at 2 in the second, the Bruins got a goal with 3.4 seconds left in the period — the eventual game-winner.
“It’s kind of a question mark on how it’s going to go because you have that much time off,” Milan Lucic said. “You don’t really know what to expect heading into a game like this, especially against a team that had a big win on Tuesday; they’re first in the Eastern Conference.
“We talked about being sharp in practice and making our passes and doing those type of things. And that transitioned into the first period tonight.”
The Bruins put the Islanders on their heels in the first period, which is not where the Islanders usually find themselves, especially at home. Boston scored twice in the period, the first coming off the stick of Reilly Smith, his first goal since Dec. 29. Smith had gone 11 games without a goal before scoring at 13:59.
The Bruins added another on a pretty play by Patrice Bergeron to find an opening between Thomas Hickey and Cal Clutterbuck on the power play at 16:09.
Then, things went a little sideways.
After Tuukka Rask made the most scintillating of his 43 stops — a stick save centimeters from the goal line on Michael Grabner at 5:34, about which he said, “I hope I make the highlights” — the Islanders broke through. Twice. John Tavares and Grabner beat Rask, and it appeared that the Bruins and Islanders would go into the second intermission tied.
“The good thing is that even though the second period was kind of tough sometimes, we battled back,” Rask said. “We never let our guard down. There’s been times when we have a tough stretch for 10, 15 minutes, we never regain that focus. Today, we did.”
Kevan Miller helped that. He shot the puck from the boards by the blue line and, helped by a screen by Gregory Campbell, scored his second goal of the season with 3.4 seconds left.
“It was a huge goal for us, being up, 2-0, then letting them back in the game,” Rask said. “We kind of took that momentum back. There’s been times we’ve gotten scored on in the final seconds and it definitely deflates your tires a little bit.”
Add insurance by Torey Krug at 1:45 of the third and an empty-netter by Lucic at 17:54 and the Bruins escaped Long Island with a win that was even more significant given the upcoming schedule.
“I think we knew we were limited on time to be prepared for this game, especially with that first day of practice canceled,” Krug said. “I think that played a big part of it. Coming out in practice, knowing that we don’t have much time to be prepared.
“Guys are also very excited about this last stretch of games. We know what we have to do in order to maintain a playoff spot and then move up in the standings, as well. The best time of year is right around the corner, so we want to make sure we’re in that picture.”
The Bruins next face the Kings, Rangers, Islanders, and Canadiens, before embarking on a season-high five-game trip through Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, St. Louis, and Chicago.
It’s not an enviable slate for a team attempting to solidify its place in the standings.
So, starting strong was crucial. And the Bruins, with little rust visible, did just that.
“I think it’s more of a statement to ourselves,” Lucic said. “If you look at it as a five-game segment, especially where we are in the standings, you’re going to go one of [two] ways. It’s up to us, we put emphasis on this to have a good segment here.
“We thought about what we needed to do tonight to get things going like we had it going before the break. So it’s good that we were able to recapture our game and our confidence right off the start in the first game after the break.
“The challenge now is you can’t get overconfident, you can’t get too high. You’ve got to remember what gave you success in a game like today against a really good team like the Islanders and bring it on Saturday.”