Bruins hit their stride
They finish off the Oilers in 3d period
Two years ago, Vladimir Sobotka was in Boston out of necessity. He was rushed into NHL service as a first-year pro because of injuries at the big-league level. Last season, when Sobotka might have felt that an NHL job was a given, he spent most of the time in Providence, which is where he belonged because of his listless play during his Boston recalls.
This season, after two games (against Nashville and Philadelphia), coach Claude Julien was seeing more of last year’s Sobotka than the 2007-08 version. They talked prior to the Bruins’ shootout win over Ottawa last Saturday, with Julien reminding Sobotka to play his old straight-line game instead of being a passive player.
The old Sobotka is back.
Yesterday, the third-line center assisted on Blake Wheeler’s winning goal at 2:47 of the third period. Just over four minutes later, Sobotka played give-and-go with Wheeler and buried his first goal of the season, as the Bruins took a 2-0 win over Edmonton before 17,565 at TD Garden.
“He’s starting to find his game again with us that he had a couple years ago,’’ Julien said. “He’s more of an in-your-face type of player. But doing that, he’s still capable of making good plays, doing the right things, and scoring goals. He’s been better in the last three games. Without a doubt.’’
The line of Sobotka, Wheeler, and Daniel Paille, which has been together for the last three games, was the Bruins’ best threesome even before the third-period goals. They skated well. They forechecked aggressively, with the straight-line Sobotka and Paille getting in deep and Wheeler often serving as the third man high. It was part of the game plan against the Oilers - get forwards in deep and have the third man high looking to dart into pockets for scoring chances.
“Teams collapse now, so you don’t have much room in close,’’ said Julien. “It’s almost like you have to jump into those holes and get good timing. If you’re in there for more than a second and stop, someone’s got you covered.
“We always keep telling our players that it’s a lot easier to walk into those situations than to have to back up. You have to time it right.’’
The game plan unfolded perfectly on the winning goal. The 5-foot-10-inch, 183-pound Sobotka worked the puck along the wall while fending off 6-2, 223-pound Theo Peckham. As Sobotka bulled his way around the boards, Peckham, trying his best to separate the center from the puck, lost his stick.
Sobotka darted down low, and Paille, who had been giving his center puck support against the boards, drifted back high along the wall. Wheeler, reading how Sobotka had gained a step on Peckham and how Paille had floated back, raced toward the net. The pass arrived, Wheeler shot, and the Bruins had the only goal they needed on Nikolai Khabibulin (25 saves).
“Paills and Vladdy did a great job ragging it down there,’’ Wheeler said. “I saw that Paills looked a little out of gas, so he came up. I decided I was going to sneak in there. I don’t think [Sobotka] saw me. He just threw it there right on the tape and the goalie wasn’t expecting it.
“Unbelievable job by those guys working the puck around and finding an open guy.’’
Wheeler and Sobotka connected again later. Sobotka won a puck battle against Ales Hemsky in the defensive zone and chipped a pass to center ice. Paille couldn’t gain control, but Sobotka, who had been providing support, jumped on the puck and initiated a two-on-one rush against Ladislav Smid.
Sobotka found Wheeler on the right side. Wheeler didn’t have enough speed to separate himself from Smid and put a good shot on Khabibulin, so he slid a pass under the defenseman’s stick for Sobotka. And just like that, the Bruins had a 2-0 lead.
“I had a feeling it was going to spring loose for a two-on-one,’’ Wheeler said. “[Denis Grebeshkov] was cheating offensively. They did a good job of working it by that first guy. Vladdy made a heads-up play moving it right over to me because I was ahead of him. I just wanted to pay him back and find his stick. He busted hard to the back of the net and got rewarded.’’
While the Bruins have been waiting for Sobotka to re-emerge as a gritty two-way center, they’ve been even more patient with Wheeler. The second-year wing, once a fixture with David Krejci and Michael Ryder, had struggled to find his offensive touch in the early part of the season. Wheeler has skated well and tried to be creative, but he had been too weak with the puck, getting stripped by defenders or coughing it up in bad areas.
Yesterday was Wheeler’s first multi-point game of the season, as he made the most of his 11:09 of ice time.
“With his confidence, I think we can all see that it’s growing,’’ said Julien. “He’s starting to play much better. When he’s confident, good things are going to happen.’’
Tuukka Rask stopped every puck he saw, but the way the Bruins played as a team, the goalie’s shutout was almost an afterthought. The Bruins had the puck more than the Oilers. They allowed only 19 shots, the fewest given up this season.
“Guys played really well,’’ Rask said. “It wasn’t the hardest game for me today.’’