Bruins open Garden with impressive win
After only four games and only one power-play puck had beaten an opposing netminder in 15 go-arounds, it was evident to the Bruins’ coaching staff — assistant Geoff Ward is in charge of all things man-advantage — that radical changes were required to jolt a sputtering PP to life.
Last night, the Bruins completed a change they started in practice Wednesday. Matt Hunwick and Dennis Seidenberg, point men on the two respective units, were out. Mark Recchi and Patrice Bergeron, usually down-low men, replaced the defensemen at the points.
The Capitals strutted into TD Garden with a perfect penalty kill (25 for 25) in 2010-11. The Bruins grabbed the Washington penalty kill and shattered it, scoring three times en route to a 4-1 win before 17,565 at the Garden.
“I think we just did a better job of making good, crisp passes and taking shots when they were there,’’ said Milan Lucic, credited with doing his goalie-screening job on Nathan Horton’s one-up strike in the second period. “It felt like the first four games there, we were trying to force plays. We weren’t taking shots when they were there. That’s why we weren’t having success. That was the difference tonight and why we were having success.’’
It would be unfair to single out Hunwick and Seidenberg as reasons why the power play was flickering. But with neither defenseman having found his respective comfort zone, the coaching staff looked for stable, calming sticks on both units.
In Recchi, they had a veteran who played the point in Tampa Bay and Carolina, his two most-recent previous stops. Bergeron has been employed here and there on the point, primarily because of his hockey sense, responsible approach, and vision.
Neither Recchi nor Bergeron has the one-time moneymaker often required of point men. But that’s not what the coaches were looking for, especially with big-shot boomers such as Zdeno Chara (No. 1 unit) and Johnny Boychuk (No. 2) ready to unleash their cannons.
“It was more about getting some poise back there, guys that can find some seams, and just kind of relax the power play a little bit,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “We’ve thrown a lot of guys in there on the back end at the beginning that are more shooters. They weren’t necessarily shooting the puck. But we decided to put [Recchi and Bergeron] back there and see if it would settle things down a little bit.
“Bergy’s very comfortable back there. Rex has played there before. Having them back there just settled things a little bit. If you want a power play to be successful, you’ve got to find people who can be quarterbacks and control things back there. I thought both guys did a good job tonight.’’
Bergeron initiated the PP scoring when, with Matt Hendricks serving a tripping penalty in the first, the converted point man faked a shot. The maneuver forced Washington’s penalty-killing box to shift and open a top-to-bottom seam with Michael Ryder available down low.
“I think they thought he was going to shoot,’’ Ryder said. “They were worried about getting to him. I just moved back a little bit and he saw me perfect. I just tried to get it on net.’’
Ryder took Bergeron’s feed and beat Semyon Varlamov (30 saves) at 19:32. Early in the second, Bergeron recorded another helper. With the Capitals vacating their net-front house, Bergeron, from behind the cage, slid a backhand pass to an unmarked Jordan Caron in the slot. Caron collected the pass and ripped a wrister under the crossbar at 2:22.
The Bruins made it 3-0 with their second power-play goal. This time it was the No. 1 unit wearing down the Capitals and dogging the puck for nearly the entire two minutes. With 13 seconds remaining on the power play, Recchi came down the left wall and backhanded a pass to Horton in the high slot. Horton blasted a slapper through a Lucic screen that dribbled past Varlamov at 12:16.
“Couple times Varlamov was kind of pushing me in the back, so I knew I was in his kitchen a bit,’’ Lucic said. “The power play, that’s basically why I’m out there, to be in front of the net. It was a good shot by Horty that was able to find a seam. I did everything I could to screen him.’’
After Jason Chimera picked off Tim Thomas’s clearing attempt and scored Washington’s lone goal at 9:27 of the third, the Capitals had a extra-man chance when Bergeron was sent off for tripping at 17:11. But the power play was wiped out when the Capitals were caught with too many men, and Chara capped the win with a power-play one-timer.
But as pivotal as the reborn power play turned out to be, it was a born-again Thomas flaunting his best stuff that kept Washington’s flammable offense from exploding. In the first period, when the Bruins had yet to find their legs, Thomas was at his sharpest. Thomas stoned Brooks Laich on two net-front chances. He foiled Alex Ovechkin in the slot.
Late in the second, Thomas (38 saves) turned back Mike Knuble twice to keep his shutout alive. For Thomas, winner of four straight, this stretch has been among the finest of his career — challenging shots, moving fluidly, battling on every shot, recovering to turn aside second and third opportunities.
“When a goaltender’s in the zone, you want to ride him,’’ Julien said. “The way he played the other night in Washington, coming back with him was important. They knew what they were going to face. He didn’t give them much in [Washington].
“I thought maybe mentally, it was giving us an edge putting him in nets against them tonight. He proved us right. He was outstanding tonight. It was unfortunate he lost that shutout bid. At least he can blame himself and nobody else, right? What a great job he did.’’