UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin in a little more than a month, and the Bruins on Saturday took yet another 2-point step toward locking down home ice for at least the first three rounds of what they hope will be another long springtime fling.
Backed by a rare offensive surge from their defensive corps — a collective line of 2-5—7, including 3 points from Charlie McAvoy — the Bruins snuffed out the Islanders, 4-0, in front of 13,917 at Nassau Coliseum.
The win, bumping their record to a league-best 41-13-12 (94 points), had the Bruins holding a 9-point lead over Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division as they pulled out of the Island, with but 16 games left in the regular season.
True to their trademark much of this season, the Bruins built an early lead, with first-period strikes by David Pastrnak (league-high No. 47) and Matt Grzelcyk, then turned tighter on defense than an Army private’s new pair of boots — while at the same time getting the uncustomary offensive pop out of their blue line corps.
“Overall, I think the real story was how well we defended and took pride in our zone,” said McAvoy, who chipped in with his season-high 1-2—3. “And how well Tuukka [Rask] played.”
Rask, who had lost his last two starts, improved to 24-7-6 with his fourth shutout this season. The Islanders fired 61 times (eight more attempts that the Bruins) and Rask turned back all 25 that made it to his 6 x 4 hovel.
“As far as Charlie goes, that’s great,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “He’s a Long Island boy, so coming home makes it probably a little more exciting to play — so good for him. For the defensemen [at large], I thought early on we were transporting the puck well through the neutral zone. The Islanders use that right wing long [defensive strategy] and I thought we took advantage of that, using the ice available. We either got an attack or got it in behind them — and the defensemen kept pucks alive. We’re a pretty mobile group back there and we encourage that.”
As evening approached, the Bruins also had leads of 8 points over St. Louis and 10 points over Washington in the league’s overall standings. If they clinch the No. 1 spot — a.k.a. the Presidents’ Trophy — the Bruins would enter the playoffs assured of home ice throughout the postseason.
Recommitted to defense — forever the playoff touchstone — the Bruins have gone 12-3-0 in 15 games since the bye break. Most games, like the one here, they’ve been able to get out front early, ratchet down on defense, and burn down the clock without having to make up a deficit.
When Pastrnak ripped home his one-time slapper from the right wall in the first, they would hold the lead for the remaining 55:30. The nearby Meadowbrook Parkway became their Easy Street.
“We want to start on time,” mused Cassidy, who again has a solid shot at finishing with 50 wins. “I think that’s been a trademark of this team for a few years now. Sometimes we get the lead, sometimes we don’t. But we had our legs. We were really moving and managing the puck. Especially on the road . . . if you can set the tempo, put them on their heals, it’s an advantage.”
After Pastrnak canned No. 47, Grzelcyk followed with the 2-0 lead, his shot-pass from above the left circle rocketing in off a leg of ex-Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk at 13:10 of the first.
Following a scoreless second period, the Bruins bumped it to 3-0 when Brad Marchand made a big-man’s move behind the net, wheeled out front on his backhand, and stuffed it by goalie Semyon Varlamov.
It was Marchand’s third straight game with a goal, his best run since November. He now has 27 this season and 83 points overall, after posting a career-high 100 points last season.
“Happy when we win,” said Marchand, responding to one wag’s comment that he looks happier when the puck’s going in the net for him. “Everybody’s happy when they score, but . . . we just want to win. It’s why we play. The more we win, the happier we are.”
McAvoy provided the RIP capstone, a power-play strike with 3:34 to go, ripping in his one-time off of Torey Krug’s feed. The fourth goal this season for McAvoy (all during the 12-3-0 run), and helper No. 37 for Krug, now but three away from reaching 40 assists for a fifth straight season.
McAvoy did not score his first goal this season until he potted the OT winner in Chicago on Feb. 5. He now has four goals in the last 12 games.
“I just try and play, try to play the right way,” said McAvoy, the heir apparent to the title of franchise defenseman in the Hub of Hockey. “[Today] was a great opportunity. Torey made a great pass and allowed me to step into that. Kind of took all the thinking out of it and I just shot it.”