Thomas’s ninth shutout backstops Bruins past the Cup champs
Even before last night’s 3-0 win, the Bruins had a chokehold on third place in the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens entered the night 7 points behind. The Bruins were playing Chicago, a club fighting to hold onto eighth place in the Western Conference. With the playoffs just over two weeks away, getting points is hardly the Bruins’ primary concern.
Funny, then, that they rolled out one of their most thorough performances of the season.
“We had to come out strong, especially against a team that’s desperate and is a pretty good team,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “They’re the Stanley Cup champions. We needed to be ready. This is one game. We’ve got more to come. We’ve got to keep taking that approach. It’s important to build some consistency in our game so that when the playoffs come around, we know we’re capable of doing it night in and night out.’’
Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk scored second-period goals. Nathan Horton, skating on the fourth line in place of Shawn Thornton (the tough guy left in the second because of a cut above his right eye), buried the Blackhawks with his 24th goal at 5:20 of the third.
Tim Thomas stopped 32 shots to record his ninth shutout of the year. The Bruins have allowed only three goals in the last five games.
It may have seemed that Thomas’s grasp on the Vezina Trophy may have been slipping earlier this month. But now that Thomas is 33-10-8 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage, the Boston netminder can put the finishing touches on the final draft of his acceptance speech.
“I didn’t feel that bad during that stretch,’’ Thomas said. “There were shots that were going wide and going in. But having said that, I do feel good right now. I didn’t feel all that bad before. It’s a fine line for a goalie.’’
It is no coincidence that Thomas’s game has become sharper in lockstep with the efficiency of his defense. During the team’s downturn, the defense was scrambly and hectic. When they were failing to enter shooting lanes to block shots, they were bumbling in front of Thomas and Tuukka Rask, keeping their goalies from seeing the puck. When their goalies made the first save, they weren’t in position to clear out bodies and rebounds.
Last night, Chicago’s dangerous forwards — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa — didn’t have many clean looks at the net. In particular, Thomas highlighted the team’s performance on Kane, his Olympic teammate. Kane is a slippery right wing with a slingshot release. But from Thomas’s experience, Kane doesn’t let that wicked shot loose unless he’s in his preferred patches of real estate.
That didn’t happen last night. Kane put three pucks on goal that Thomas stopped with ease.
“He’s got a really good shot,’’ Thomas said. “He only takes it when he gets into spots where he feels comfortable taking them. We didn’t let him get into those spots. He floated a couple at the net, those half-pass things. But he wasn’t taking his shot to score because they were keeping him that far to the outside.’’
After a scoreless first, the Bruins took advantage of some back-end scoring in the second. After Patrice Bergeron won an offensive-zone faceoff, the center and Brad Marchand cycled the puck down low. Bergeron then spotted Chara at the left point. Chara floated a shot that deflected off defenseman Brian Campbell’s leg and beat Corey Crawford at 12:02 of the second.
The Bruins weren’t finished scoring from long range. The Bruins knew that the Blackhawks place a heavy emphasis on collapsing down low and leaving room up top.
Just over two minutes later, the Bruins doubled their lead. Milan Lucic started things off with a heavy forecheck. Lucic rimmed the puck around the wall, where Mark Recchi fished it off the boards.
With a deft bank pass off the boards, Recchi got the puck to Boychuk. The defenseman, who had just rolled over the boards, snapped off a long-distance knuckleball that Crawford (31 saves) couldn’t handle.
“It dropped like 3 feet,’’ said Crawford, otherwise electric in repeatedly foiling the Bruins. “It was a weird one. I’ve never seen one like that. It was just a tough one to pick up. It started high and just finished right over the pad. It sank quite a bit.’’
The Blackhawks were coming off a 3-2 overtime road win over Detroit on Monday. Their leaden legs showed in the third. After Horton’s goal, Chicago never got any serious heat on Thomas.
“It doesn’t matter that you clinch,’’ said Chara. “You still have to play desperate hockey. Especially when the teams we’re facing are playing for their playoff spots and playoff positions.
“If you don’t match it and you don’t play the way you’re supposed to, you’re going to get embarrassed. That’s certainly not what we want.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.