Their legs leaden, arms weary, and shooting eyes out of focus, the Bruins last night came out with their "B" game, and were summarily chewed up, 3-1, by a Grade "A" example of stifling New Jersey defense.
"These guys are not robots," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, noting it was his tired club's third game in four nights, amid what has been a hellish schedule the last 3-4 weeks. "We try to squeeze as much as we can out of them, and they do that themselves . . . but we just didn't seem to have enough tonight to make a difference."
And so, on a day of heavy snow and maddening gridlock in the old West End, Boston's three-game winning streak came to an abrupt and unspectacular finish at the Garden. A crowd of only some 3,500 brave souls ventured through storm conditions to Causeway Street (despite a reported attendance of 12,064 that would make a forensic accountant hyperventilate). Instead of a wintry treat, the modest gathering witnessed a freeze-out at the hands of the Devils, who built a 2-0 lead in the second period and allowed the Bruins but a meager 20 shots - the second time in four games they have cobbled only 20 on net.
"The biggest thing, when I look back on tonight, is the passing," said Bruins center Marc Savard, whose goal early in the third period sliced the New Jersey lead to 2-1. "We weren't hitting the tape . . . and there were too many icings."
All of which has been part of the New Jersey trademark for the better part of 15 years. No matter who is behind their bench (Brent Sutter is the watchdog these days), they have a patented knack on limiting opponents' chances, usually by taking control of the neutral zone and preventing opponents even from thinking about ways to crack their imaginary vault. To try to gain entry with anything less than fresh legs is all but impossible.
"Our legs for sure were not there," said top-line left wing P.J. Axelsson. "If it's not there, you have to fight through it somehow, and we weren't able to do that."
Following a scoreless first period, highlighted by a Milan Lucic-David Clarkson bout that had Lucic the decisive winner (his oversized fist print embedded on Clarkson's nose), the Devils had the win put away with a pair of strikes in the second period.
Goal No. 1, by ex-BC Eagle Brian Gionta, came with 10:57 gone, the sides at full strength. Gionta collected a pass in the New Jersey end from Johnny Oduya, and then made a beeline up the right side, racing past defender Andrew Ference as he approached the right circle. Alex Auld had the angle covered, but Gionta's quick shot from the right faceoff dot zipped between the towering goalie's pads, putting the Devils out front.
Thanks in large part to a pair of penalties, New Jersey doubled the lead at 14:34. The march to the penalty box began when Andrew Alberts errantly clobbered John Madden across the kisser with his stick, drawing a double-minor (four minutes) for the indiscretion. The Bruins were in the middle of killing it off when captain Zdeno Chara was caught for slashing, setting up the Devils for a five-on-three for two minutes. Not that they needed all of it. Only 39 seconds into the advantage, Jamie Langenbrunner traded passes with Zach Parise, and was ultimately left alone at the top of the right circle to slam home a one-time slapper to the top left corner. Devils, 2-0.
"Defense is definitely their bread and butter," noted Auld, the ex-Phoenix netminder who was in net for the previous three wins, fresh off his acquisition last week. "Especially with a lead . . . they know how to shut it down."
Savard's goal, his eighth this year, came with 1:31 gone in the third, the Bruins striking with a power play of their own. Chara ripped off a booming slapper from the right point and the cagey Savard squirted in front to pot the rebound.
Auld kept it tight in the third, allowing his new squad a chance to come up with the equalizer, but the Bruins could only manage four other shots in the remaining 18:29. With future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in net, four shots is a whole lot of nothing. With 15 seconds to go, Langenbrunner supplied the kill shot with an empty-net goal.
Now a day's rest for the 17-11-2-1 Bruins, and then the Blue Jackets are on Causeway tomorrow night.
Little rest for the weary. The Bruins, after playing 11 of 13 on the road, are one tired bunch.
"Tonight," mused Julien, "I thought our guys were out of gas."