Thursday night’s 3-0 win over Winnipeg wasn’t a perfect game for the Bruins by any means.
Skate Pod: Bruins bounce back with win over Jets
They were still a little sloppy defensively, contributing to 35 shots against. They took too many penalties, giving the Jets five power plays -- four in the first period alone. Their own power-play struggles continued, going 0-for-3 with just two shots on goal. They were definitely a little too reliant on Jeremy Swayman, who was terrific in his third shutout of the season.
Nonetheless, it was a big step in the right direction after back-to-back losses to non-playoff teams and four straight incomplete efforts. That last word was the most important change: Their effort was there. They started better, despite running into penalty trouble later in the first period. And they closed a lot better than they had recently, playing their best hockey of the night in the third period against a desperate team that was fighting for its playoff life.
In games against Edmonton and Chicago during this mini-skid, the Bruins let third-period leads slip away by seemingly just trying to coast to the finish line. In their two games against Detroit, they were going through the motions to start before finally turning it on -- in time to get a comeback win on Saturday, but too late in a loss on Sunday.
Some slip-ups were expected down the stretch. The Bruins simply don’t have as much to play for right now as many of their opponents, as they continue to pace 11 points ahead of second-place Carolina in the conference and 18 points ahead of Toronto in the division.
But four straight games of slipping up, culminating in a 6-3 loss to the lowly Blackhawks, was more than the Bruins were willing to allow for. It needed to be addressed, so that’s exactly what the Bruins’ coaching staff and captains did.
Jim Montgomery revealed before Thursday’s game that “some honest communication” began first with a staff meeting on the flight from Chicago to Winnipeg, then with a meeting between coaches and captains, and then with a full-team meeting on Thursday morning.
“We got a lot of feedback from them as to, where are we at? Like what’s causing this malaise that seems to be [permeating] through with what we’ve gone through? It’s been four games. It hasn’t just been the last two,” Montgomery said.
What Montgomery heard in that feedback was a team that admitted it was struggling to deal with being so far ahead in the standings and already having a playoff spot clinched with a month left in the regular season.
“It coincided with the day we clinched playoffs,” Montgomery said of the “malaise.” “Players’ honest feedback, which I really value, was, ‘We’ve never been in this situation’ -- where you have 20 games left and you’ve clinched a playoff spot. And it is, it’s human nature a little bit to take your foot off the gas pedal, and that’s what’s happened to us.
“We’re trying to find the right message all together to put our foot back on the gas. We don’t want bad habits and details to creep into our game where then, all of a sudden we lose confidence. We’re still a very confident bunch, but we don’t want to get to the point where we lose confidence.”
Montgomery had expected this to happen at some point. In fact, he had expected it to happen even earlier than it did. He said he had talked to some coaches who had been through record-setting or near-record-setting seasons -- namely Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville -- and they all said a stretch like this would be inevitable.
“There’s gonna come a time where you’re gonna have to address the certain malaise that has come over our team,” Montgomery said of what they told him. “You understand it, but that’s a good time to get their attention back.”
If Thursday night was any indication, consider the Bruins’ attention back. They got contributions up and down the lineup, with Trent Frederic, Pavel Zacha and Tomas Nosek scoring the goals. Jakub Lauko, playing his first game in two weeks, drew two penalties and led the team in individual scoring chances. The Bruins were the better 5-on-5 team overall, with penalty trouble the biggest factor in the 36-24 shot differential.
While the defense was a bit sloppy early on, the effort was there in the zone, perhaps best exemplified by Charlie McAvoy tying a career high with seven blocked shots. Derek Forbort, unsurprisingly, had a few big blocks as well, including one late in the second that unfortunately resulted in an injury to his right leg. Montgomery said after the game that Forbort, who was spotted in a walking boot by the Boston Globe’s Matt Porter, would undergo more testing on Friday and was expected to miss at least the next two games.
And then there was Swayman, who had an important bounce-back game himself after a couple subpar outings against Edmonton and Detroit. He stopped all 35 shots he faced in what Montgomery said “might’ve been his best game of the year.”
After the game, Swayman perhaps summed up the team’s reset mentality best.
“Challenge accepted,” Swayman said. “We put ourselves in that position by the dedication we had throughout the season. We know that the regular season isn’t done yet, so it’s time to look each other in the eye and just understand that there’s still more to do. We haven’t proven anything yet. We know that it’s game-by-game, and changing that mindset’s gonna help us along the way.”
Thursday night was an important step in the right direction. Now the Bruins will look to build off it when their road trip continues Saturday afternoon in Minnesota.