Looking far more like the up-tempo, confident club that won seven of its first eight games under new coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins followed what was a familiar February blueprint Tuesday night at TD Garden.
They took an early 2-0 lead. They were backed by stout, dependable netminding from Tuukka Rask, who turned back 24 shots amid the echoes of talk radio suggesting he was better fit for senior men’s league puckstopping. And above all, they won, pinning a 4-1 defeat on the Nashville Predators and maintaining their hold on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Meet the new Bruins, same as the old Bruins, or at least the Bruins who dusted themselves off upon Cassidy’s arrival and repositioned themselves for a run at the playoffs.
“I don’t have the reason why it wasn’t there for maybe a three-game stretch there,” said veteran winger David Backes, alluding to the club’s recent four-game losing slump. “But the fact that it’s back, and we’ve got our legs under us and we found that winning way again . . . hopefully, lesson learned.”
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci scored the early goals, posting the Bruins to a 2-0 lead by 13:52 of the first period. The two sides played to a 0-0 stalemate in the second, with Rask (now with 34 wins) on the verge of posting his seventh shutout — until a Craig Smith tip cut the lead to 2-1 with 11:16 gone in the third period.
Ex-Providence College standout Noel Acciari then provided the 3-1 jawbreaker, popping home his first career goal with 4:13 remaining in regulation when he finished off a 3-on-1 break off a feed from Riley Nash, the fourth-line center who is now 3-2—5 in his last three games. Backes sailed in a long-range empty-netter for the 4-1 final.
“It feels pretty good,” said Acciari, whose physical presence since rejoining the lineup March 20 has been a needed booster shot. “Riley Nash made an unbelievable pass, so I was left with the easy part there.”
The victory, their second in a row after an 0-4 dip, left the Bruins with a 40-30-6 record and still in possession of the final wild-card spot in the East.
Now with 86 points in the standings, they hold a 3-point edge on Tampa and 4 points on both the Islanders and red-hot ‘Canes (8-0-4 in their last 12 games, in the spirit of the old Nordiques, who played their best hockey once they were eliminated). The Bruins have six games to go, and likely need to play .500 or better over those games to avoid what would be their third straight season without making the playoffs.
“We had a lot of energy, we were pushing the pace,” said Cassidy, asked if the performance was more like what he saw his first three weeks on the job, after taking over for Claude Julien. “Our [defensemen] were active. We had one play, [Adam] McQuaid to [Torey] Krug, I think in the second period was a high tip . . . reminiscent of our Vancouver game a little while ago, maybe too much activity, but it worked out well. We wanted to play this way, with our D keeping plays alive, supporting the rush. For the most part, it worked out.”
Backes provided an even longer list of the night’s assets.
“We’re doing those little things that win hockey games,” he said. “Taking hits just to advance pucks. Taking hits to put our teammates in better spots. Blocking shots (a 24-9 edge for the night). The penalty kill’s humming (3 for 3 on the night). Those things are there when we are winning. And they were very absent when we were losing games and teams were walking on us.”
The Bruins, now 8-3-0 at home since Cassidy took over the bench, moved out to the 1-0 lead with only 2:28 gone in the first period. After Brad Marchand carried over on the left side, Zdeno Chara snapped off a wrister from high above the left wing faceoff circle, and Bergeron pounced on a loose puck to knock home his 18th goal this season.
Bergeron began the night with 271 shots on net, ranked No. 5 in the league. By the end of 20 minutes, he had four more as the Bruins outshot the Preds, 13-6, in the first period. He finished with a game-high seven strikes for the night.
Krejci, Boston’s No. 2 pivot, connected for the 2-0 lead with 6:08 left in the first period, finishing off with a short-range wrister that broke through the pads of Pekka Rinne.
Reminiscent of the early days under Cassidy, the Bruins never trailed, playing with the lead for a total 57:32. They play five of their final six at home (sandwiched around a Sunday matinee in Chicago), with their top tender seemingly fit and their confidence renewed.
“End of the day,” mused Cassidy, “more positives than negatives. That’s kind of how we want to play everywhere, but particularly in this building. Let’s establish the energy level, be on our toes, be ready to play.”