RALEIGH, N.C. — Just a week ago, the Bruins were in a jam.
They were coming off a 5-3 meltdown against the Lightning, their first game without Dougie Hamilton. They were in ninth place. Ottawa, with a game in hand, had a 1-point lead. The Bruins were facing three games in four days, including two against the leaders of their respective conferences. If they wanted to get into the playoffs, the Bruins needed help.
One week later, the Bruins are back in control. On Sunday, with 37 seconds remaining, David Pastrnak hammered a one-timer through Anton Khudobin to give the Bruins a 2-1 overtime win over Carolina at PNC Arena.
At the same time, Ottawa lost to Florida, 4-2. The Senators still have one game in hand. But the Bruins are now 3 points ahead of the Senators.
“You feel like you’re playing with a little less weight on your shoulders and a little bit less pressure,” Milan Lucic said. “What we need to take from these last three games is we’ve got to continue playing with the same type of desperation, especially in our checking game. We allow only one goal today, two goals last game, [three in] overtime loss to Anaheim. Our commitment to the game plan in the checking part has gotten better. That’s what’s gotten us going in the right direction.”
The Bruins didn’t have their best legs following a busy week. Because they didn’t cause as many turnovers as they did Saturday against the Rangers, scoring chances didn’t come as easily. Khudobin looked more comfortable as the minutes ticked by.
But the Bruins had opportunistic scoring from two players who weren’t even NHLers at the beginning of the season.
There is no questioning the speed, talent, and creativity of Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner. They are north-south burners who can do pretty things with the puck at full speed.
The NHL, however, is not friendly to young players experiencing on-the-job training. Men with mortgages, children, and ill tempers enjoy punishing 18-year-olds like Pastrnak. Elbows flash. Sticks get high. Pucks don’t stick to blades when pain is promised to those who hold on to it too long. This kind of learning usually takes place in the minors, not up top.
“It’s invaluable,” said coach Claude Julien. “When you look at what they’ll have learned in this small amount of time, compared to a lot of guys who have to go through it stage by stage, they’ve been forced into that position. For the most part, they’ve responded well. There’s no doubt that anybody who knows the game sees that they still struggle in their own end with coverage and battles. But they also bring a lot on the offensive side as you saw tonight.”
Lucic, Spooner, and Pastrnak had their defensive shortcomings on Sunday. But they made up for those issues by putting the puck in the net.
In overtime, Carl Soderberg triggered the game-winning sequence by rushing the puck through the neutral zone. As Soderberg approached the right circle, he drew the Carolina defenders. Pastrnak, who had posted up at the blue line to wait for Soderberg, eluded coverage by sneaking into the slot.
Soderberg flipped a backhand dish Pastrnak’s way. The rookie streaked a sizzler past Khudobin for his 10th goal.
Had Pastrnak not buried his shot, the game could have gone to the shootout. Given their 3-9 shootout record, the Bruins had no intention of letting it get that far.
“Tonight was a big game,” Zdeno Chara said. “No question, this time of the year, you’re fighting for every point. Every point’s going to count. We can’t control what’s happening around the league. We’ve got to focus on how we play.’’
Spooner, Pastrnak’s center, gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead. After taking a pass from Pastrnak in the offensive zone, Spooner waited for Khudobin to slide his way. Spooner caught Khudobin in between and slipped the puck through his pads at 2:21 of the first.
The Bruins, who faded in the second, almost made it to intermission with a one-goal lead. But with 21.3 seconds left in the period, Nathan Gerbe finished off a two-on-one, tying the game at 1.
Late goals have burned and buried the Bruins before. That wasn’t the case Sunday. They didn’t play their best game. They felt the fatigue of a busy, stress-filled week. But they found a way to win.
“It may not have been perfect,” Julien said. “The effort and the will to battle through fatigue and find a way to win is what I’m really proud of.”