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Lately, Bruins taking it from the top

No. 1 line making a big difference

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

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The 2010-11 Bruins have been a sled pulled by two game-changing hounds: Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara.

Thomas should already start penning his acceptance speech for the Vezina Trophy presentation in June. Chara, although not a favorite to win the Norris Trophy, remains high atop a short list of shutdown defensemen.

In the last eight games, in which the Bruins recorded 15 of 16 possible points, some new names belong on the game-changing roster.

The Bruins had their seven-game winning streak halted at TD Garden on Saturday night. Pittsburgh — minus Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and Brooks Orpik — dominated the second period, fought off a late tying goal, and claimed a 3-2 win in overtime. But on both Boston goals, the No. 1 line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton was on the ice.

During the offseason, management’s belief was that Krejci was ready to become a first-line center. Last year in the playoffs, Krejci was so important that after he suffered a dislocated wrist against Philadelphia, the Bruins never could recover.

But for most of this season, Krejci has fallen short of the bosses’ expectations. He didn’t play with enough urgency. He cheated away from the play, failing to come back hard for pucks. In turn, that left Krejci with too little speed in the neutral zone to be a threat to opposing defensemen. In short, Krejci only showed bursts of game-changing presence.

That’s all changed. Krejci (10-40—50) is now tied with Patrice Bergeron for the most points on the team.

“Right now, we’re seeing David Krejci playing the way I think we expect him to play,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “So if we’re amazed by that, that’s the way David Krejci should play, and that’s what we expect out of him. He’s capable of making those plays. He’s capable of seeing the ice well. His two linemates are also playing pretty well. So that’s made for a pretty successful line lately.’’

Over the last eight games, Krejci has two goals and nine assists. He had a hand in both goals Saturday. In the second period, after taking a pass from Lucic, Krejci barreled over the blue line then stomped on the brakes, created separation between himself and Ben Lovejoy. As the Pittsburgh defenseman tried to recover and close the gap, Krejci flipped a backhanded pass to Chara’s blade. Chara walked into the slot and fired the game’s opening strike over Marc-Andre Fleury.

Late in the third, with Thomas pulled for an extra attacker, the coaching staff sent out the top-line forwards along with Chara, Tomas Kaberle, and Mark Recchi. After Chara held the blue line and dumped the puck into the corner, Recchi chased it down and got it to Lucic. The left wing found Horton, who fed Krejci in front. With only 32.5 seconds remaining in regulation, Krejci went upstairs on Fleury. The goal gave the Bruins 1 point on a night when they deserved none.

“All I know is that Rex was the extra shooter and he did a good job going to the goal,’’ Krejci said. “They went hard after the puck. We tried to get a quick shot. I tried to pick the corner and it worked.’’

Krejci’s play has been contagious. Lucic, who’s always elevated his performance in important games, has been just as powerful. During the eight-game point streak, Lucic has five goals, six assists, and two fights — against Edmonton’s Jim Vandermeer and Tampa Bay’s Eric Brewer. Lucic now has a team-best 28 goals.

The biggest surprise has been Horton. After a hot start as a Bruin, the right wing had been on the fast track to irrelevance. But Horton, who’s never dressed for a playoff game, has added a welcome element to his game: bite. He has four goals and four assists in the last eight games.

It perhaps is no coincidence that Horton also has dropped the gloves twice during this stretch. That’s two times more than he fought in each of the last two seasons. Before this year, Horton’s last fight, according to www.hockeyfights.com, was Nov. 17, 2007, when he tangled with Carolina’s Tim Gleason.

Against Edmonton Feb. 27, Horton didn’t like that Theo Peckham laid a lick on Krejci. Horton put Peckham down in a hurry, ending the fight with a wicked right hand. The punch left Peckham with a concussion.

On Saturday, after a net-front tangle, Horton made quick work of Craig Adams. When he was at his worst, Horton floated and failed to engage his opponents. Lately, Horton has bristled whenever someone gives him a dirty look.

The net result of the top line’s big, bad approach has been the quality of their opponents. On Saturday, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma often had his best two-way line of Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal, and Tyler Kennedy, along with default top defensive pairing Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen, against the power threesome.

In theory, if Krejci and friends are matching up against the best players, Bergeron and Chris Kelly, the second- and third-line centers, should be running into lesser-quality opponents.

At this time of year, the Bruins will welcome as many game-changers as they can get.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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