The game before the Winter Classic was far from classic for the Bruins.
It was, however, gutsy.
The Black and Gold had things lining up for them when Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Jake DeBrusk, and Kevan Miller returned from injury over the last week. But injuries to Brad Marchand (upper-body) and Charlie McAvoy (lower-body) and David Backes’ three-game suspension put them right back at square one from a lineup standpoint entering their pivotal Atlantic Division matchup against Jack Eichel and a resurgent Buffalo Sabres squad.
The injury-plagued Bruins found themselves trailing after 40 minutes in Western New York. They hadn’t won a game this season under such circumstances – until Saturday night.
Here is what we learned as Bruce Cassidy’s squad ended 2018 on a high note with a much-needed 3-2 victory in overtime.
A tale of three periods
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The Bruins showed improvement in the first 20 minutes following their ugly home loss to the lowly New Jersey Devils coming out of the three-day holiday break. They were hardly sharp in the middle 20, however.
Johan Larsson’s shorthanded tally on a 2-on-1 tilted the ice in Buffalo’s favor. The Sabres’ aggressive puck pursuit and opportunistic play in all three zones led to quality scoring chances and put Boston’s defense on its heels with a 14-7 shots on goal disparity.
But the Bruins only trailed by one heading into the locker room. Slowly but surely, they tilted the momentum back in their favor with quality shifts and extended zone time in the Sabres’ end, outshooting Buffalo 18-5 during the final 20.
Their patience and hard work paid off on a late third-period power play. The Bruins kept the Sabres’ shorthanded unit from possessing the puck during that man advantage, which eventually led to Jake DeBrusk tipping in Torey Krug’s point shot to even things up at 2.
“As a net-front guy, you’re looking for one-timers looking at the goalie’s eyes but [Krug] looked right at me,” DeBrusk told reporters following his second game back from injury. “I knew [Krug] was coming and he threw me a perfect shot for me to tip. Obviously, I was happy to see that go in.”
Sean Kuraly makeshifts the OT winner
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Cassidy isn’t shy about switching his lines when his team needs a spark. The norm continued for the third-year Bruins bench boss as he frequently changed his four lines while the team desperately searched for goals during the second and third periods.
Overtime brought a unique situation. The Bruins were fresh off killing a David Krejci interference penalty. Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Brandon Carlo, and Joakim Nordstrom all appeared to be gassed during their relentless penalty kill. So, with a faceoff down Buffalo’s zone, Cassidy opted to use Sean Kuraly, Kevan Miller, and Matt Grzelcyk against Eichel, Jeff Skinner — who drew Krejci’s interference call — and 2018 first overall selection Rasmus Dahlin.
Kuraly won the faceoff and got the puck into the neutral zone with the intention of changing on the fly. He didn’t. Instead, the coaching staff kept him out there and the third-year forward split the Buffalo D after, following through on his own shot, and banked home his rebound to close out Boston’s come-from-behind victory.
“I went out there just to take the draw and I was coming to the bench,” Kuraly told NESN’s Alex Kraemer. “But they told me to stay and I stayed.
“Their call was better than mine.”
Tuukka Rask should get the nod at the Winter Classic
The red-hot Jaroslav Halak got the bulk of the starts during the last two weeks as Rask reportedly nursed a minor upper-body injury. Neither goaltender was sharp in Boston’s previous two outings against the Hurricanes in Carolina (Rask) and at home against New Jersey (Halak).
So, Cassidy went back to his short-term outlook with the two netminders, opting to start Rask against Buffalo. The Finn responded with a solid 26-save outing and kept the Bruins afloat with timely stops, including a flashy glove save on Remi Ellie to keep the deficit at one late in the second period.
Rask made 13 saves during that middle stanza. The Bruins lightened their starter’s workload the rest of the way, allowing just seven shots on net in the third period and overtime.
“There wasn’t a whole lot [of quality chances],” Rask said. “Couple of tips, some 2-on-1’s, but other than that it was good.”
Cassidy will announce his Winter Classic starter shortly. Even after one performance, he’d be smart to go with Rask. It would only be fitting for Rask to surpass Tiny Thompson for most appearances in team history at the iconic Notre Dame Stadium.