PITTSBURGH - The Bruins put 2 points in the win column last night, sent veteran defenseman Aaron Ward to the hospital for an overnight stay, and reapplied their tenuous fingerhold in the competitive scrum among the playoff wannabes in the Eastern Conference.
"We have to continue to play like this for the rest of the season," said captain Zdeno Chara, following the edgy 2-1 win over the powerful and talented Penguins in front of a sellout crowd of 16,982 at the Igloo. "It's a desperate time for us right now."
As for Ward, the 35-year-old backliner stayed over at a nearby hospital, under observation following a nasty hit to the throat sustained early in the second period. Clocked by ex-Bruin Sergei Gonchar, who appeared to drive his gloved right hand into the defenseman's throat as he was about to be hit into the boards, Ward dropped to the ice on all fours and writhed in pain for a minute or two before being helped off the ice.
"He is going to stay over for precautionary reasons," coach Claude Julien said. "I'm not sure what he has, to be honest, but he was spitting up some blood. They want to make sure he's OK." Gonchar told the Associated Press he didn't realize Ward was hurt.
"I just remember me joining the rush and shooting the puck and he was coming to me and I [was trying to] protect myself and trying to go back into my position, and that's why I didn't even see exactly what happened," Gonchar said.
Ward's injury reflected, in part, the kind of added grit the Bruins applied after losing four of their previous five games, including a passionless 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes the night before on Causeway Street. Their two goals, first by Petteri Nokelainen and then by Vladimir Sobotka (first of his career), were the products of strong, smart forechecking, an element absent in recent outings.
The Bruins also did an exceptional job of penalty killing, extinguishing all but one of eight man-advantage chances the Penguins had over 60 minutes. On a night when the referees failed to call so much as a roughing minor on Gonchar's blatant chop to Ward's throat, Marc Joannette and Fred L'Ecuyer for the most part spent their workshifts constantly whistling picayune calls against the Bruins - especially whenever anyone so much as cast a dirty look the way of Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin.
"I am certainly not going to blame my team for that," said Julien, responding to a question about the eight penalties his club had to kill. "We have the luxury of replays . . . I mean, that hit on Malkin, can you get any cleaner?"
Specifically, that hit was ruled a kneeing infraction with 6:25 gone in the third, the Bruins holding a 2-0 lead. The piston-legged Malkin cut into the slot off the right boards and soon was met near the slot by a charging Dennis Wideman. The agile Malkin, blistering hot in the absence of Sidney Crosby, jumped at the last second to try to avoid contact, and dropped to the ice with a thud after Wideman caught him with a clean hit to the left hip.
Official call: kneeing. Subtext call: a brush with greatness. It was reminiscent of the days when officials protected Wayne Gretzky, the sport's crown jewel of the 1980s. Putting two hands on No. 99 led to two minutes in the penalty box.
The Bruins, meanwhile, succeeded with their plucky game, thanks to the two goals they potted in a span of 1:45 in the first period.
Nokelainen's goal, his sixth, came after Milan Lucic forechecked down the left side and forced Gonchar to turn the puck over to Glen Metropolit. The cagey center made quick work of unleashing a shot on ex-University of New Hampshire goalie Ty Conklin, who made the initial stop but could not control the rebound. In swept Nokelainen for the easy shot to make it 1-0.
"Our forecheck was weak the last couple of games," noted Nokelainen. "But our first guy [in the zone] was hungry today, and that helped us turn some pucks over."
Next it was Jeremy Reich's turn to supply a key move on the right boards, dropping tough guy Georges Laraque with a stiff hit. Before Laraque could get fully upright, Reich dished to the middle and the oncoming Sobotka made the quick strike from the top of the crease.
"Lucky goal," said Sobotka, the puck stored in his bag for the flight home. "I shot and the goalie dipped. So, I think it's lucky." First called up in November, Sobokta had gone 27 games without putting one in the net.
The Penguins broke Tim Thomas's shutout bid with 6:58 remaining, Malkin picking the top left corner with a wrister from the right circle on the eighth and final power play. In the final two minutes, Conklin made sparkling saves on break-ins, first a Lucic-Metropolit combination, and then Phil Kessel (one of a game-high six shots the sophomore failed to convert).
"I think we had a really good start tonight," said Julien, his club back at it Saturday night in Toronto. "Obviously, our desperation showed."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.