Bruins protect lead and now get a break
Four months whittled from the schedule, and a team identity at least in casting if not yet in cement, the Bruins last night skipped into the NHL All-Star break with a tidy, economical 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers at the Garden that further embedded Team Black and Gold at the top of the Northeast Division.
Paced by goals from Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic, and backed by the de rigueur, airtight work of Tim Thomas (34 saves), the Bruins ran their record to 11-4-3 over their last 18 games, an impressive .694 winning percentage. Lucic’s goal, good for a 2-0 lead at the start of the second period, gave the hulking left winger 20 goals for the first time in his four NHL seasons.
“The big question, for me and a lot of people, going into the season was whether I could get to that mark,’’ said Lucic, who scored 34 goals over his first three seasons. “But I can’t stop here, I’ve got to keep pushing for more.’’
Marchand started the scoring, although his shot at 13:31 of the first, a shovel from near the right post, had to be certified by video review prior to getting posted on the scoreboard. But after a quick review, with the Causeway faithful (reported crowd of 17,565) already celebrating based on the replay shown on the scoreboard, Marchand was credited with his 13th goal of the season.
Marchand, chosen 71st overall in 2006, the same draft that brought the Bruins Phil Kessel and Lucic, increased his point total to 25. Patrice Bergeron (40 points) and Zdeno Chara (26) picked up the helpers.
Marchand has 11 points (7-4—11) in his last 11 games, placing him among the hottest-scoring rookies over the last three weeks, a pace better than Logan Couture (San Jose) and nearly in lockstep with Jeff Skinner (Carolina).
“We are feeling pretty good right now,’’ said Marchand, his speed and quick shot two assets the Bruins often lacked last season. “It puts us in a great spot going into the All-Star game.’’
Ex-Floridian Nathan Horton continued to fight the puck. With but one goal in his last 19 games, he did not land a shot in the first period and finished with only two all night. Linemates Lucic and David Krejci also put up goose eggs in the first. Not much from a line that logged some 15:30 in ice time. Horton especially needs a break these next few days, a respite perhaps the only hope of him recovering his touch.
“He’s getting his chances,’’ coach Claude Julien said once again. “I don’t think it does any good to keep beating on the guy.’’
Lucic jumped the lead to 2-0 with only 1:52 gone the second, firing in a sweep shot from the top edge of the left circle after Krejci set him up with a perfect feed off a drop at the faceoff dot. Lucic had to reach back to his left to gather the puck, then sent a slingshot wrister that whizzed by goalie Tomas Vokoun.
“I’ve worked a lot on my shot, trying to get it off faster, a good, hard, quick release,’’ said Lucic. “It can be a one-timer, a slap shot, a snap . . . whatever. I’ve got to try to make my wheelhouse as big as possible. That one, I just tried to shoot it as hard as I could and I don’t think I could have put it in a better spot.’’
A couple of scary moments for the clubs, including Florida’s Shawn Matthias crashing feet first into the end boards to Thomas’s right. In pain, Matthias did his best to drag himself back to the bench, until the play was finally blown to a stop.
Earlier, with 12:28 gone in the first, Krejci fell clumsily into the rear boards, very near where Matthias tumbled. Trainer Don DelNegro tended to the center on the ice for a couple of minutes before Krejci straightened up and made his way to the third-floor hallway to walk it off. He appeared to hurt his left wrist or forearm, but he was back on the bench, ready for regular duty, after only a couple of minutes.
“I got my arm caught,’’ explained Krejci. “It was uncomfortable for a few seconds, but I don’t think it’s anything major.’’
Play turned messy in the Boston end in the third, allowing the Panthers to cut the deficit in half, 2-1, when Bryan Allen hammered in a steaming one-time slapper from the left circle. The near-impregnable Thomas misdirected an easy shot from the right side, leaving the rebound fat and in the opposite circle for the streaking Allen to blow by him on the blocker side. A rare miscue for Thomas, who has been all but perfect most nights.
“It’s rare that you’ll go through a game without being tested,’’ said Thomas, who didn’t face any real heat until midway through the second period. “When it came, I was ready for it.’’
His last save came with only 1.4 ticks on the clock. He used his midsection to stifle a one-time 15-footer from old friend Dennis Wideman.
“We made some mental errors,’’ said Julien. “But we were good enough to win — we competed hard enough to win.’’