Battling Bruins left with scraps
They lose, but compete better
TAMPA - At 9:28 of last night's first period, something took place that hadn't happened for the Bruins in the last eight games.
Shawn Thornton took on 6-foot-6-inch, 227-pound Tampa tough guy David Koci, landing a left before being taken down. Later in the first period, after delivering a shot to youngster Steven Stamkos, Mark Stuart tangled with veteran Gary Roberts in a lengthy scrap in which both fighters landed blows.
To coach Claude Julien, it was no coincidence the fights followed an element that has eluded his stumbling squad lately: emotion.
"Our engagement was there," said Julien after one of his club's more rough-and-tumble efforts before 18,454 at St. Pete Times Forum. "We were more intense. I think the message was clear that we needed to pick up our game in all areas. The physicality was there. When your physical play is there, you're going to see some sparks out there, and it was."
The good: For the second straight night, the Bruins poured 40-plus shots on net, but they created traffic and havoc last night that hardly existed in Saturday night's 2-0 loss to Florida.
"I don't think anybody's going to dispute that we were the better team out there," said Julien.
The bad: The Bruins closed out their failure of a road trip with a 4-3 loss to the lowly Lightning, finishing their five-game swing with a 1-3-1 record.
The ugly: Their game. Which is a good thing.
Julien hasn't liked what he's seen for the last month. Not enough engagement. Far too little physical play. A hesitation to dip into the dirty areas and perhaps risk a stick to the teeth. Naturally, the Bruins have slipped. They have won only once in their last seven games. Their once double-digit lead over the Capitals now is seven points.
Last night, despite the loss, the Bruins finally looked like they got the message by playing a dirty, blue-collar game.
"Probably the most encouraging thing is that we saw our team compete better than we had in a long time," Julien said. "I thought our game slipped for at least a month now. If anything, I thought that was one of our better games in the last month. We've got to work our way back to where we were. It took us a month to lose it. It's probably going to take another month to get back to where we want to be. We've got to take another step in the right direction the next game with the same kind of effort."
The best example? Phil Kessel, No. 81 in Black and Gold, who entered the game riding a 14-match goal-scoring drought, with his once-potent style reduced to a floating perimeter game.
Last night, Julien reunited Kessel with Milan Lucic and Marc Savard, and the right wing responded with one of his most lethal games of the season. At 1:38 of the first period, Kessel snapped his skid - Savard's backhand feed bounced off defenseman Steve Eminger and onto the forward's stick - when he beat goalie Karri Ramo with a wrister.
In the final minute of the second period, with the score tied, 3-3, Kessel blew into the offensive zone and fired a shot past Ramo that batted off the left post. Then in the third period, Ramo (40 saves) robbed Kessel with a pair of back-to-back stops, making the second by powering to his right and snuffing the winger's rebound attempt.
"Just wasn't doing much," Kessel said of his slump. "They broke me, Savvy, and Looch up there for a bit and tried to get stuff started. We got back together tonight and got more motivated again. Just tried to get back at it."
What made Kessel so dangerous last night, however, was his off-the-charts competitiveness. He raced for pucks. He drove to the net. He backchecked aggressively.
"When Phil plays like that, he's a great player," Julien said. "When he doesn't play like that, it takes away a lot of his opportunities and he's half the player that he can be. You want to build some consistency in having him compete like that every night. I thought he did a pretty good job at that in the first half of the season. Last month, it's slipped quite a bit."
At 15:17 of the second period, trailing, 3-2, Zdeno Chara tied the match. Aaron Ward started the play deep in the Boston zone with a sharp reverse-and-feed to Chuck Kobasew, who sprinted down the right wing with Patrice Bergeron riding shotgun. As Bergeron's middle drive opened up a seam, Kobasew slipped a right-to-left dish to Chara for his 14th goal.
But at 15:15 of the third, David Krejci was called for interference. With only five seconds remaining on Krejci's penalty, Andrew Ference joined him in the box after floating a backhander out of the rink, earning a delay of game call. With 1:33 left in regulation, forward Vaclav Prospal beat Manny Fernandez (14 saves) with the winning power-play goal.
"We played really decent tonight," Chara said. "But again, points are counting. We didn't get any tonight. We have to put it behind us and prepare for the home stretch of games."