Even with the slew of injuries in March, the Bruins were in a pretty good spot. They had games in hand on both the Maple Leafs and Lightning with home ice — and potentially a top spot in the Eastern Conference — well within reach.
Well, the Black and Gold are now a step closer to overtaking the Lightning, who have held the East’s top spot since the fall.
Their month started with Patrice Bergeron hitting the shelf with a foot injury. Charlie McAvoy (sprained MCL), Jake DeBrusk (upper body), David Backes (suspension), Zdeno Chara (upper body) and Brad Marchand (upper body) also missed time since returning home from the B’s four-game road trip in late-February.
Saturday night alone, the Bruins were without Bergeron, Chara, McAvoy and DeBrusk. Backes, himself, left the game following a nasty laceration in the knee late in the first period. That left them without their top center, top defensive pair, second line left winger and their versatile power forward against a potent and much healthier Lightning bunch.
Yet Tuukka Rask (23 saves) and the Bruins marched on without some of their key guys and delivered arguably their most impressive win of the season. The 3-0 triumph pulled the Black and Gold within two points — with a game in hand — of their Atlantic Division counterparts.
“I think it’s a message to ourselves that no matter how many guys are missing — or who’s missing — that if we put our minds into it we can play some solid hockey,” Rask told reporters following his second shutout of the season, “and I think that’s the most important thing.”
“I try to stay in the present, and obviously you’re playing a first-place team, and we talked about Pittsburgh last week being a measuring stick game because they were playing well,” head coach Bruce Cassidy added during his postgame press conference. “I don’t think you can classify [the Lightning game] as that, because when you’re playing down as many men as were who are important guys; so we were looking it [as] more of a bounce-back game against a really good team, and I thought we answered the bell.”
Winning without some of their top players has been quite normal for the Bruins. The way they defeated the Lightning, however, was a little different from the three-week norm.
Unlike their goal barrage during their six-game homestand — highlighted by an 8-4 win over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins and a 7-4 triumph over the Blackhawks — and their impressive third period come from behind outburst in Carolina, the Bruins had one of their better defensive efforts of the season in Tampa in a playoff-like atmosphere.
Any team will have their hands full against the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and the highly-skilled Bolts. That task is more difficult when your two top defensemen and four-time Selke winner are out of the lineup. But Rask and the makeshift Bruins defense with Nick Holden, Kevan Miller, Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo kept the Lightning in check just two nights after their 3-0 loss to Tampa’s in-state rivals from Sunrise.
“Probably the biggest win in a long time,” Cassidy assessed. “We’ve had some high scoring affairs, but it’s nice to get a zero on the column. Just good solid team defense, winning pucks hard. Probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored getting to the net…it’s playoff hockey, and I thought we were better at it than they were tonight.”
Even with a postseason spot well within reach, getting used to playoff-like hockey during the last few weeks of the regular season isn’t a bad thing. Even without some of their marquee core players, the Bruins have shown they are ready for the postseason.
Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci and Torey Krug have all stepped up in providing clutch moments during this stretch. DeBrusk, prior to his recent injury, took another big step forward and had one of his better stretches of play during his rookie season. The trade deadline additions of Nick Holden, Rick Nash, Brian Gionta and Tommy Wingels have fit in seamlessly in their roles.
The Bruins still need Bergeron, Chara and McAvoy for any realistic shot of a Duck Boat parade in June. Their impressive run without Bergeron and McAvoy, in particular, has given Cassidy another shot in the arm in a year where the Black and Gold have made the jump from a fringe playoff team to the upper echelon of Cup contenders.