Bruins’ grinders do a number on the Blues
The Bruins got three goals from fourth-liners. Sounds boring, no?
It was not.
David Backes, in the crescendo of a tumultuous 48-hour stretch, scored the tying goal against the team he once captained, and plumber-turned-artist Chris Wagner produced a highlight-reel masterpiece in a 5-2 win over the Blues at TD Garden Thursday at TD Garden.
Wagner had two empty-net chances in the final minute, but hit the post twice — but that only allowed fourth-line brother Sean Kuraly to hammer home an ENG with 52 seconds left. And let everyone give it to Walpole Wags.
Coach Bruce Cassidy joked he might need to coach him harder. Brad Marchand wondered if his teammate had two left feet.
Wagner’s deadpan explanation: “Yeah, I wanted to get [Kuraly] on the scoresheet. He’s having a career year already,” said Wagner, who got an assist on Kuraly’s sixth of the season, which equaled last year’s line (6-8—14 in 75 games) in his 47th game.
All the checking-line chuckles fall flat if the top dogs aren’t producing, and some of Boston’s best forwards (namely Marchand and David Krejci) and offensive back liners (Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug) factored heavily in the scoring. Also, new addition Peter Cehlarik had Cassidy encouraged, excited . . .
“Elated,” Cassidy said. “Enthusiastic. He’s done what we’ve asked and more.”
So it was all good, here, as the Bruins (27-16-5, 59 points) pulled within 1 point of Toronto for second in the Eastern Conference, and snapped a two-game losing streak on the second night of a back-to-back.
“The week hasn’t been what we’ve hoped,” said Marchand, who scored his 18th of the season in the third period. “Tonight was a big game. Bounced back on a back-to-back.”
The comeback king was Backes, the proud veteran whose subpar play landed him in the press box Wednesday in Philadelphia for the first time in a dozen years. With the Blues (20-21-5) ahead, 2-1, on second-period goals by Ryan O’Reilly and Carl Gunnarsson, Backes had a moment against the team he captained for five seasons.
“Kind of a perfect setting for him to do it,” Cassidy said. “And a typical David goal.”
Kuraly drew a cross-check, and Backes parked himself in the slot. He said he was trying not to get hit in the face, with Zdeno Chara, owner of the game’s record slap shot, winding up from the point, and former teammate Jay Bouwmeester upending him.
Backes tipped Chara’s shot past Jake Allen (22 saves on 26 shots) to tie the game at 2, with four minutes left in the second.
“Those types of goals,” said a hopeful Backes, “are what I’m used to scoring, a dozen of those a year. If I can get back those places, we can get pucks to the net, there’s a dozen of those going in, and I can shoot a couple more in, that’s kind of the place I want to be.”
Cassidy expressed his enjoyment over seeing Cehlarik, a budding power forward with skill, bump big defenseman Joel Edmundson off the puck, helping keep the play alive on Backes’s goal.
“That’s a big part of hockey, to me,” Cassidy said. “You can go through all the X’s and O’s of every team, and systems, but when you win puck battles, assuming you have good players, which we do, you’re going to make plays.”
Speaking of playmaking: Krejci (three assists) was doing plenty of it. On Backes’s tying tally, he fed Chara after Cehlarik won the 50-50 battle. He recorded another assist on Kuraly’s empty-netter. His first of the night was special.
Krejci took a neutral-zone dish from Cehlarik and drew the attention of three Blues as he entered the zone and weaved his way around the left circle. With Jake DeBrusk getting his hands dirty, parked in front and occupying a defenseman, Krejci slipped a diagonal pass back to Krug, who had a two-count to fire high blocker at 3:31 of the second.
The Bruins lost that lead 10 minutes later when John Moore, paired with Kevan Miller after three games as a scratch, dropped the puck in an empty corner on an attempted breakout. Defenseman Gunnarsson beat Tuukka Rask (28 saves on 30 shots) with a bullet from out high.
A switch on the power play, which entered on a 3-for-14 skid, helped the Bruins tie it.
Chara, who had played 2:53 of power play time all season — an average of six seconds per game — rolled over the boards with the No. 2 unit of Krejci, Cehlarik, Backes and McAvoy. But Chara, who engaged in a rare fight earlier when he pounded Blues winger Pat Maroon, was having a throwback night. He sent a hard slapper toward Allen with four ticks left on Robert Bortuzzo’s cross-checking minor. Backes, as noted above, was ready.
Another unlikely source provided the go-ahead goal.
Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson sent a chip blue line to blue line, and Wagner, though bodied by Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, controlled it out of midair. He gained a step and went backhand-forehand before tucking it past a sprawling Allen 5:27 into the third.
“Made a pretty good move out of nowhere, I guess,” Wagner said.
“You could feel the weight come off your shoulders when he scored that goal,” Marchand said.
Boston earned breathing room when McAvoy, engaged and aggressive all evening, pinched off a Patrice Bergeron faceoff win, turned to the goal and banked a shot off Allen’s pads. Marchand snapped the rebound upstairs for a 4-2 lead, before Kuraly scored his ENG.
More fourth-line fun: Kuraly, wearing a full shield after breaking his nose in December, was scheduled to take it off after next week’s All-Star break. But Kuraly, who had 4 points in his first 30 games, has 10 points in 17 games inside his fishbowl. Something to consider.
But back to the top, where Marchand and Co. had a few 2-on-1 chances they missed. What could be done about that?
“I start telling David Pastrnak and March what to do on 2-on-1s, they’ll be telling me what to do with my ideas about what to do on 2-on-1s,” Cassidy said. “Maybe it’s more to the Kuralys and Wagners of the world.
“We’ve got to talk to Wags about his empty-net skills, I know that.”