PITTSBURGH - As the player separated from Marc Savard and Phil Kessel in response to the threesome's struggles, Milan Lucic, dropped to the third line, appeared to be the most culpable for the unit's troubles.
But as Bruins coach Claude Julien was quick to point out, it wasn't just Lucic's underwhelming play that led to his displeasure. Savard and Kessel, so good and so dynamic for most of the season, were part of the team's dropoff in work ethic - the characteristic that has defined the club.
Last night, against the defending Eastern Conference champions, Savard (goal, two assists) and Kessel (eight shots, game-winning goal) showed that they got the hint.
The pair of top-liners, showing a ferocious will to compete, led the Bruins to a dominant 5-2 victory over the Penguins before 17,132 at Mellon Arena that was about as thorough a thumping as they have administered all year.
The Bruins have rolled off nine straight wins. They are running away with the East. They swept their five-game road trip and will return to TD Banknorth Garden tomorrow for a rematch with the Penguins, who were so concerned about last night's dud that they called a team meeting afterward.
"It's about time they had a meeting," said Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien. "You have to show some leadership."
The Bruins, with 40 shots on goal, accomplished their most recent achievement by sweeping aside any remnants of lifelessness from a pair of so-so matches against Carolina and Atlanta.
"We keep saying that over the course of 82 games, you're going to have some tougher games than others," said Julien. "The fact that we still managed to win those games was a good sign.
"We didn't want to get complacent and stay in that mode. For us to play against what I consider a real good team and play the way we did tonight was certainly encouraging."
Naturally, Savard and Kessel connected for the winning goal. Late in the second period, with the score tied at 2-2, the reconfigured top line of Savard, Kessel, and P.J. Axelsson (two assists) was on the forecheck in the Pittsburgh zone. Axelsson closed down on Hal Gill. Kessel was lurking around the net. Savard got in the face of Evgeni Malkin, the puck carrier along the wall.
Because of the pressure, Malkin lost the puck, which glanced off Savard's skate onto the stick of Kessel. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury challenged Kessel and got a piece of the winger's shot with his glove. But the puck dropped to Savard at the side of the net. With a quick glance, Savard saw that Kessel was open at the other side. He fed to Kessel, who banged the puck home at 16:43.
"We were ready tonight, that's for sure," said Savard. "I thought we played a full 60 minutes. It feels nice, because even though we got wins, we got away from that. I think as a whole tonight, we're really happy."
In the third period, after Shane Hnidy was called for interference, the Bruins got a shorthanded goal to put the match out of reach. Crosby, handling the puck on the right-side wall, pulled back his stick, threatening to put a slapper on Tim Thomas.
Martin St. Pierre, who was killing the penalty, wasn't fooled.
"I've watched enough video the last few days to know what to expect," said St. Pierre. "They've been pretty patient with me, showing me video and giving me pointers. I was finally in the right spot."
Crosby's eyes and skates, aimed at the net, said shot all the way. But St. Pierre knew that Crosby liked to hit teammates going backdoor, which is where defenseman Ryan Whitney was headed. St. Pierre also noticed that Crosby's hands were angled slightly away from the net, indicating a far-post pass.
So when Crosby's pass came, St. Pierre was already filling the lane. The puck bonked off St. Pierre's right skate and skittered up ice for Savard. St. Pierre took off, received a pass from Savard, and winged a wrister past Fleury (35 saves) for his first goal as a Bruin.
Even though the Bruins stretched their lead to three goals by the third period, Thomas (32 saves) had to make some game-changing stops. In the second period, when Crosby took advantage of a rare seam in the slot to rip off a wrister, Thomas exploded from left to right to get a pad on the shot, keeping the score tied at 1-1.
In the third period, when the Bruins were clinging to a 3-2 lead, penalty killers Pascal Dupuis and Eric Staal broke away for a two-on-one. With Matt Hunwick in full retreat, Thomas thought his defenseman had taken away the pass, so he concentrated on a Dupuis shot. Instead, Dupuis slid the puck through Hunwick to Staal in the slot.
"I was trying to get over, but he actually shot it back," Thomas said of Staal. "Instead of shooting it far side, he shot it back. And it hit me."
Timely goaltending. Big-time performances from the go-to guys. But most important, hard work.
"We had to get back to getting our work ethic back," said Julien. "That's our pride and our forte."