At this time a year ago, the Bruins were in a free fall. Coach Robbie Ftorek was less than three weeks away from being fired, the team was losing often, and the tension in the dressing room was thick.
Now, the players are talking about vying for first place in the Eastern Conference. Their latest test, which they considered a measuring stick, came yesterday against the conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers at the FleetCenter. The result was a 3-2 overtime victory, which moved Boston within 2 points of the conference lead.
Playing in overtime for the 25th time in 66 games this season, the Bruins snapped a four-game winless streak (0-1-2-1) and atoned for their OT loss to Montreal Thursday.
"Obviously, we're excited to get the 2 points and to win in overtime, especially after losing in overtime the other night," said coach Mike Sullivan. "I think it's a boost in confidence for our players. Our team has been playing pretty well of late and the players really haven't gotten rewarded for their efforts as far as the win column is concerned. We seemed to be getting points but the expectation is to get more than just points. We want to win hockey games."
The Flyers took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal at 17:47 of the first period. Mark Recchi's one-timer from the top of the right circle glanced off Bruins defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and past goalie Andrew Raycroft.
The Bruins answered at 6:48 of the second period on Andy Hilbert's second goal of the year. Dan McGillis moved the puck ahead to center Craig MacDonald, who skated up the right side and shot from the right circle. Flyers goalie Robert Esche made a kick save, and Hilbert, cutting in from the left circle, buried the rebound.
Boston went ahead just 14 seconds into the third on a goal by Ted Donato. Donato redirected McGillis's shot from the right point and Esche lost sight of it. It trickled behind the goalie and Donato swept it into the net to make it 2-1.
Alexei Zhamnov, who joined the Flyers Feb. 19 in a trade from Chicago, pulled Philadelphia even at 8:45 with a shot from high between the circles that deflected past Raycroft.
In a very rare fit of emotion, Raycroft threw his arms out and then fired the puck out of the net and into the corner.
"Two goals go off sticks and legs in front of me, I just got a little frustrated," said Raycroft. "Two goals in a big game, and we had a 2-1 lead.
"I try to keep it in, but every once in a while, you snap a little bit more. But it doesn't make much of a difference. By the time I shoot the puck into the corner, I'm pretty much back to normal."
Glen Murray, who had been pointless in three games, potted the winner at 1:21 of the extra session. Joe Thornton drilled former Bruins defenseman Mattias Timander behind the net. The puck went out to Recchi, who turned it over, and Murray snapped it past Esche to end it.
"[Thornton] made a great hit on [Timander]," said Murray. "He made him hurry it up and get rid of it and I got a bounce off the wall from their player [Recchi], and we were at the end of a shift so we were kind of tired so I just tried to shoot it on net."
With 16 games left in the regular season, the Bruins are hoping to parlay performances like yesterday's into not only a strong playoff position but postseason success, which has been elusive since they last went to the conference championship in 1992.
"To [gain] a point on them is big and we're only one win behind them," said Raycroft. "That's our goal right now, to get first overall in the conference. It's well within our grasp."
Can the Bruins play better? They say they can, and they plan to.
"I don't think we've played our best hockey," said Murray. "We've had some chances and played not bad. We're hanging in there and getting points in overtime. Hopefully we can play a little better like we were earlier in the month."