With little about his working life to grin about over the last month, a good number of his days spent pondering whether to swap his stick and gloves for a rocking chair, David Backes on Sunday night torched the Canadiens and lit up the Garden with a coast-to-coast smile.
“That was elation,” said Backes, 35, who hadn’t played since getting his head rattled yet again Nov. 2 in a monster truck collision with Ottawa’s Scott Sabourin.
Parked in the bumper spot on the power play — the spot manned expertly here for years by the now sidelined Patrice Bergeron — Backes banged home a pinpoint David Krejci feed to snap a 1-1 tie with the Habs midway through the third period.
And so that was that, Bruins win, 3-1. Well, nearly. Anyone who has paid attention to the Bruins the last couple of weeks has grown accustomed to their, shall we say, unorthodox victory template: tepid starts, chip back into a tie, then highstep through the third period and pick up another two points on the way out the door. That formula worked Sunday night on Causeway Street, where the Bruins are now a near-perfect 11-0-4.
“One of those games we had to stick with it,” said Backes, his goal only the 39th he has scored in three-plus seasons here. “Eventually we got the payoff for it. You know, I’ve been watching this team do this for a month, now it’s great to be a part of it and be able to contribute.”
Black and Gold first periods have become hauntingly familiar. No change vs. the Habs. There was one goal in the first and it belonged to . . . Montreal, of course, courtesy of a Joel Armia backhand lift that eluded Tuukka Rask (6-0-1 since his last regulation loss) to the top shelf, after the puck angled up at 45 degrees off of Charlie McAvoy’s left boot.
There really isn’t much to the sad sack Habs. The storybook Boston-Montreal rivalry, now going on 100 years, reads like a cheap novel these days. The Habs arrived in town, their roster dotted with a cast of anonymous widgets, in the thick of an 0-4-3 winless streak. They zip all around but it doesn’t add up to much. They’ve been outscored, 38-20, in what is now an eight-game losing stretch.
On a day the somber news broke in Montreal that iconic Habs winger Guy Lafleur underwent another serious surgery (on the heels of his recent quadruple coronary bypass), the Habs arrived here with a roster dotted with the likes of Nick Cousins, Artturi Lehkonen, Charlie Hudon, Jordan Weal, Gustav Olofsson . . . need we continue?
No star power. No presence. The once-great franchise lacks all manner of CH mystique and greatness. Mercy. It makes one long for John Kordic.
Les Glorieux captured Montreal’s imagination for decades. But this is an inglorious, bland bunch with middle-of-the-road skills faced with the stark possibility of missing the postseason for a third year in a row. They haven’t made it beyond the first round since 2015.
As hot as the Bruins have been of late (7-0-0), their starts have been torturously slow over their last half-dozen games. The sleepy start against the Habs marked the fourth time in five games they failed to score in the first period. They don’t get blown out in the opening 20:00, but they have been absent the trademark opening push they showed over the first six weeks of the season.
“We’ve gotten away from good starts,” acknowledged coach Bruce Cassidy. “It happened against New York on Friday . . . it happened against Ottawa [Wednesday] and it happened against Montreal ]Tuesday], even though we had the lead [3-1], it wasn’t our best first period. We have to get back to on-time starts.”
“It’s kind of slipping away from us a little bit,” added third-year winger Jake DeBrusk, who popped in the 3-1 jawbreaker with 6:33 to go. “I guess we dodged a couple bullets.”
No surprise that this dip in emotion has coincided, virtually in lockstep, with the absence of top-line center Bergeron, who sat out his fourth straight game with a nagging groin/core injury. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (goal No. 25 to tie it, 1-1) lead the scoring chart for the Bruins, but it is the detail-perfect Bergeron who frames the offensive discussion.
With Bergeron out, Krejci again moved up to pivot Marchand and Pastrnak. Charlie Coyle bumped up to the middle of the second line, between DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. Sean Kuraly moved up to third-line pivot and Par Lindholm anchored the fourth. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s just not Bergeron right.
“As a team, we have to be ready, especially early on in the games,” said Zdeno Chara. “It’s more the mental than the physical part — we have to realize that teams are coming to play us and play us hard.”
Such is the reality of a club that opened the night ranked No. 1 in the league’s overall standings and likewise held a league-best +32 goal differential (followed by the Avalanche (+22) and Capitals (+21). Parity alone makes for few easy games on the 82-game schedule. But the Bruins’ record over the opening third of the season, paired with the fact they came within one win of clinching the Cup last June, most nights guarantees the compete level of the opponent is spiked high from the start.
“That’s part of our game that we have to get back to — on-time starts,” noted Cassidy. “The good with that is we’ve always found a way to find our game eventually. We’d just like to find it sooner for longer periods of time.”
It’s only the start of December. This is where hockey’s dog days begin, as the schedule hits its middle third. The playoffs are four months on the horizon, a Cup winner two months beyond that. The grind goes on. No one in the building in Game 27 for the Bruins was loving that grind more than Backes.
“I’m able to play with a clear mind, and not worry about my next hit maybe being my last one,” said Backes, who has sustained 10 or more concussions over his career. “I was able to go and play on instincts tonight . . . I was just out there playing the game.”