BOSTON – The unofficial first half of the regular season is drawing to a close for the National Hockey League. For the Boston Bruins, the year 2016 can be looked at as one of mediocrity.
Things have been spiraling out of control for Boston during this recent stretch in which the team has dropped eight of its last 12 games. That said, the schedule has not been kind to the Bruins as they have already played 21 games on the road and have skated in seven back-to-back sets. There could be changes coming to the organization in 2017, but the Bruins had one last chance to right the ship before the calendar flips to a clean slate.
The Black and Gold were back on home ice Saturday afternoon for a New Year’s Eve matinee against the Buffalo Sabres. This was the final game in the season series between these two teams; both sides faced each other this past Thursday night which resulted in a 4-2 win for the Bruins.
The B’s have not exactly exceeded expectations so far this year, but it is not like this team has greatly underperformed either. In fact, it is safe to say that they have validated many preseason predictions about their current position. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Bruins had a lock on 3rd place in the Atlantic Division with 42 points and a 19-15-4 record. Boston currently possess 8th place in the Eastern Conference and would sneak into the postseason if the playoffs started this week. This is what it is going to be like for the rest of the season; teetering on that line and needing to grind out every point possible.
Across the sheet, the opposition is engulfed in a vastly different situation.
The Sabres have been plagued by the injury bug all season long. The latest casualty for Buffalo is star center Ryan O’Reilly, who will be out indefinitely after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Even though the Sabres are near the basement of the Eastern Conference, it is not an accurate portrayal of just how talented this team can be at full strength. However, the key phrase there is full strength and the Bruins can certainly relate. Although injuries should not be an excuse, the Sabres have had some bad luck this year in that regard.
With the physical and chippy nature of Thursday’s tilt, speculation was running rampant about whether or not there would be any carry over in this second game of the home-and-home series. The Sabres always seem to play up to the competition and the Bruins entered this game not wanting to take anything for granted. All of that made for one entertaining afternoon at TD Garden.
In the goaltending matchup, Tuukka Rask (18-7-3, 1.96 GAA, .927 SV%) opposed Robin Lehner (8-11-5, 2.49 GAA, .922 SV%). Rask was looking to remain perfect against Buffalo this season.
The Bruins decided to get off to a fast start this time around, a good change of pace from their usual habits. Frank Vatrano blasted home his second goal of the season from the edge of the circle off a feed from Zdeno Chara. The Sabres made a surge at the other end of the ice as the period progressed. Despite taking two minor infractions that led to a two-man advantage for Buffalo, Boston was able to hold strong on the penalty kill.
There was certainly a lot of extracurricular activity behind play, but nothing that took place between whistles. In other words, the officials were letting them play.
“We came into this game knowing that it was going to be physical, but we just had to be smart out there and play our game,” said Vatrano regarding the temperament out on the ice.
The Bruins took a 1-0 lead into the second period with a 9-5 shot advantage. The B’s increased their lead when Patrice Bergeron netted a power play goal after some collective sharp passing and patience with the puck. Minutes later, Tim Schaller added himself to the score sheet when he carried the puck down the ice and put a nifty backhander past Lehner to give the Bruins a 3-0 lead.
“It was good to see our key players starting to find their game again,” said head coach Claude Julien. “Playing with the lead really makes a big difference, but we also had to play smart to close things out.”
Neither team was able to really sustain much consecutive offensive zone time with the neutral zone being the main place for occupancy in the second 20 minutes. The Sabres were able to get on the board near the end of the second off a one timer from Jack Eichel.
With the score 3-1 in favor of Boston heading into the third period, both teams got off to a somewhat sluggish start. There was no real pushback from the Sabres to mount a comeback as the game winded down. Rask held strong in net and ended up securing the victory by that 3-1 margin. He finished the afternoon with 26 saves.
“That third goal was huge for us because it gave us some insurance and breathing room,” said Rask following the game. “I think we came out really strong like we wanted to and it was a good team win.”
The Bruins will play their next game on Monday night against the New Jersey Devils.
Lineup for 12/31 vs. BUF
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak
Ryan Spooner-David Krejci-Frank Vatrano
Tim Schaller-Austin Czarnik-Riley Nash
Anton Blidh-Dominic Moore-Jimmy Hayes
Zdeno Chara-Brandon Carlo
Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Kevan Miller-Colin Miller
Side Notes…John-Michael Liles returned to the ice this week and has resumed practicing with the team. He has been out of the lineup since Nov. 27 with a concussion…Matt Beleskey (knee) remains out of the lineup for a couple more weeks…David Backes will be out indefinitely with a concussion…David Krejci entered Saturday with a three-game point streak in which he recorded two goals and three assists during that stretch…Dominic Moore entered Saturday just three goals shy of his 100th NHL goal…The Bruins came into this game with an 11-1-2 record in their last 14 games against the Sabres.