The primary duty of Milan Lucic, Glen Metropolit, and P.J. Axelsson yesterday was to nullify Ottawa's lethal No. 1 line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson, who had 112 goals among them.
But in the second period of a scoreless game, when the Boston grinders had the Ottawa stars hemmed in their zone, they decided to throw an uppercut at the Senators' skilled threesome.
After some strong cycling in the left corner, the puck found its way onto the blade of Metropolit, who waited for the play to unfold. Lucic, as the coaching staff has been repeating to its charges, drove to the net to create traffic and draw the Ottawa defense. Axelsson drifted to the left-side slot and loaded his stick. And Metropolit, after scanning Ottawa's defensive box to see if defenseman Aaron Ward was open for a cross-ice pass, instead dished to Axelsson, who had a clear shooting lane.
Axelsson took the pass and cranked a riser top-shelf ("scratching the ceiling," said Metropolit) over the glove of goalie Martin Gerber, giving the Bruins the only goal they needed in a 4-0 victory over a lifeless Ottawa club before 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden.
"That goal that Axey scored was obviously a huge one," said coach Claude Julien. "We're a team that definitely feels a lot better playing with a lead [29-7-4 this season when scoring first] than having to come from behind. That was a big goal for us."
A second-period power-play score by Marco Sturm gave the ruins a 2-0 lead, and the advantage became impossible to overcome when the Senators allowed a game-busting shorthanded goal early in the third period. David Krejci stripped Alfredsson of the puck in the Ottawa zone and passed to the far point for Shane Hnidy, who lifted a slap shot over Gerber's glove ("not a good goal by any means," said Ottawa general manager and coach Bryan Murray) at 1:13 for his second goal of the season and second career shortie.
"We had a two-goal lead going into the third, and to get that goal is big," said Hnidy. "They don't come too often."
The Bruins, who are eighth in the East, 2 points ahead of Washington, climbed within 2 points of the slip-sliding Senators, who are fifth, and within 3 of the fourth-place Devils. Ottawa is 1-3-1 in its last five games, and Murray got little contributions yesterday from the components that matter most: goaltending (Gerber allowed four goals on 31 shots), the Spezza line (zero goals on 12 shots), and defense (steady blue liners Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov were on the ice for two of Boston's four scores).
"Thank goodness we had a great start at the beginning of the season," said Murray. "We just are not playing at the level right now, where other teams are playing at a better level than they were early on. The main thing is that a number of guys have to play harder. They have to do more with the puck. We can't win if our good players aren't doing what they can do with the puck."
Conversely, a team missing its top two centers (Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron), No. 2 goal scorer (Chuck Kobasew), three defensemen (Andrew Ference, Andrew Alberts, Bobby Allen), and a goalie penciled in as the No. 1 starter (Manny Fernandez) rolled to its third straight win, rubbing out the blues that surrounded the club recently during a rotten 2-5-4 stumble.
Krejci (two goals and five assists in the last three wins) has grabbed the moment by the throat and emerged as a slippery No. 1 center oozing with confidence. The power play has clicked at least once in each of the victories. Metropolit's line, with help from the No. 1 defensive pairing of Zdeno Chara and Aaron Ward, threw a shutout against one of the most dangerous lines in the league. Tim Thomas stopped 34 pucks with ease to record his third straight victory.
Last week, the Bruins looked poised for a bad-as-it-gets tumble out of a playoff spot. Now, they're sprinting to the finish with a chance to improve their postseason position.
"We are playing a good style of game right now," said Thomas. "We're playing great together. We've just got to keep doing that. You can't ever be satisfied that you are where you want to be. You've got to bring it every night. Even in the middle game against Toronto, we kind of took off the second period. Now it's a matter of putting together 60 minutes every night."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.