A lot has been going right for the Bruins in January, as they’re now 10-2-0 on the month after beating the Winnipeg Jets, 3-2, at TD Garden on Saturday.
Three traits in particular bode well for them moving forward, and they were all on display Saturday: Toughness, resiliency, and an ability to close out games.
The Bruins’ toughness has come into question not just this season, but really for the last few years. Sometimes it’s been warranted; sometimes it’s been overblown.
The Bruins have unquestionably displayed some toughness over the last week-plus, though. There was no better example of that than Brad Marchand playing -- and playing well -- on Saturday.
Marchand was expected to miss the game after suffering an upper-body injury that forced him out of Thursday’s game when he got hit from behind by Garnet Hathaway. He admitted after Saturday’s game that even he didn’t expect to play, and still wasn't entirely sure until he took pregame warmups.
Marchand ended up playing, and he ended up leading all Bruins forwards in ice time (19:35) while tying for the team lead in shot attempts (8). He picked up the second assist on David Pastrnak’s game-winning goal in the third period.
He’s not the only Bruin who has played through pain recently. Matt Grzelcyk missed the last 13 minutes of the first period Saturday after getting hit from behind by Pierre-Luc Dubois and appearing to jam his hand/wrist into the boards. But he returned for the second period and played regular shifts for most of the rest of the game. Like Marchand, he assisted on Pastrnak’s winning goal. Charlie McAvoy has also played through a nagging lower-body injury recently.
It is worth noting that Grzelcyk didn’t play the final five minutes of the third, though, so the injury is still something to monitor. Bruce Cassidy said after the game the team would know more on Monday.
No one’s expecting anyone to play through an injury they might make worse, but pain tolerance is clearly something that's valued. No one would’ve blamed Marchand for sitting out one game in the middle of January against Winnipeg. But he was able to play, so he played.
“It’s gonna take a lot to sit out a game,” Marchand said. “If you feel like you can play through it, it’s always been part of the culture in this organization, is if you feel you can play, you battle through it. You almost feel like you’re letting the guys down if you sit out.
“…There’s a respect amongst our group when guys play through something. Same thing happened with Grizzy. Chucky went through it the last couple weeks. It’s not always known in the public and in the media what guys play through, but there’s a tremendous amount of respect, I think, that goes through the group when guys are willing to put their bodies on the line and play through injury and pain for each other.”
The Bruins also dropped the gloves twice on Saturday, with Connor Clifton and Brandon Carlo both stepping into the ring. While fighting isn’t a prerequisite for being a “tough” team, it is one way to push back against the narrative that has surfaced at times that the Bruins don’t stick up for their teammates or don’t force teams to answer for bad hits.
The Bruins' last three wins -- against Nashville, Washington and now Winnipeg -- have all been physical games.
There was little to be learned about the Bruins in Tuesday night’s embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Hurricanes. Every team has an off night here and there.
What was going to tell us something about the Bruins was how they responded. Good teams show resiliency and make sure that kind of effort is limited to one game. Bad teams allow it to spark a losing streak.
The Bruins chose resiliency, bouncing back with a pair of hard-fought wins over a playoff team (Washington) and a bubble team (Winnipeg). They’ve made sure -- at least so far -- that the disaster against Carolina looks like just a blip on the radar. By responding with back-to-back wins, they’ve maintained their status as one of the hottest teams in hockey.
They’ve shown in-game resiliency in both wins, too. On Thursday, they overcame two forwards -- including their leading scorer -- getting knocked out of the game. They also bounced back from a tying goal midway through the third period to score a late winner off the stick of McAvoy.
On Saturday, the Bruins overcame a slow start to pretty thoroughly dominate Winnipeg over the final 40 minutes. After getting outshot 11-4 in the first period and falling behind 2-1, the Bruins outshot the Jets 28-13 over the next two periods and surrendered just two more high-danger chances.
“I think the last couple games, except for the first period tonight, we’ve played some pretty good hockey,” Marchand said. “…We’ve been resilient when things haven’t really gone our way. We’ve found ways to battle back and respond in situations. And we’re doing it by committee, which is what you need if you want to go deep in the playoffs and make a good run. Hopefully we have that moving forward and it can continue.”
Closing out games
The Bruins of the first three months of the season were not a great third-period team. They had blown several third-period leads and found a way to lose a few games that were tied in the third. In 26 games prior to the December COVID pause, they had merely broken even in the third period overall (25 goals for, 25 against) and were giving up just about one third-period goal per game.
In 12 games since returning from the pause, the Bruins have been one of the best third-period teams in the NHL. They’ve outscored their opponents 14-7 in the third (14-5 if you want to take out Tuesday’s crapfest against Carolina) and are looking like a team that’s learning how to close out games and play their best when it matters most.
They outshot the Capitals 13-6 in the third period on Thursday en route to scoring their late winner. They outshot Winnipeg 12-7 in the third on Saturday. They limited the Jets’ chances by playing with the puck and continuing to attack, and then keeping them away from the front of the net when they did get possession.
“I think we know how to play winning hockey over the years here, so you’ve got the guys who have been here and done it,” Cassidy said. “Now the guys that are new to us are understanding what the expectation is, how you have to play, and how to help each other win. We’re gonna try to extend leads in the third period, but not at the cost of trading chances. I think we’ve done a really good job generating more than the other team.
“It’s not like we sat back and looked for our goalie to bail us out. I don’t think we had them for a chance in the third. Against Washington the other night, probably a few. But in general, we’re doing a much better job with that and still creating at the other end. … That’s now become an overall mindset of every guy in the lineup, and that’s what you want. We’ve done that around here for years, and that’s typically what separates some teams, is being able to put games away and play winning hockey when it’s necessary.”
There's still a lot of season left, but the Bruins are displaying some encouraging characteristics that show they're better than the team they were early on and that bode well for them moving forward.