The Boston Bruins are finding different ways to win during their recent four-game stretch. Whether it’s a track meet against a hot team out west, a Winter Classic victory in front of a massive crowd at Notre Dame, or Saturday’s grinder against the Buffalo Sabres, the Black and Gold are stringing victories together and inching closer toward a more favorable spot in the standings.
Buffalo kept the best line in the league in check, but the Bruins found scoring from a pair of unlikely sources and got another solid effort from Tuukka Rask (31 saves) en route to matching their season-high, four-game win streak.
Here is what we learned from Boston’s 2-1 victory over its Atlantic Division rivals — in the final regular season matchup between the two teams this season — Saturday night at TD Garden.
Wagner scores one for his family
Chris Wagner’s grandfather sadly passed away yesterday. Wagner responded by scoring a goal 20 seconds in that was waived off due to goalie interference. Hockey Gods and those above weren’t having it, and Wags scored again 9 minutes later. Amazing stuff pic.twitter.com/UifQEs50Jh
— Mike Flanagan (@fLAno0) January 6, 2019
Many of the 17,565 in attendance on Causeway Street were in their seats when Chris Wagner gave the Bruins’ a 1-0 lead at 10:10 in the first period. But some were still making their way through security when Wagner almost notched an earlier tally 20 seconds in.
Wagner banked home a rebound on a wide open net, but the officials immediately waived their hands once the puck crossed the goal line after Sean Kuraly collided with Linus Ullmark outside the crease. The call stood following Bruce Cassidy’s unsuccessful challenge.
“[We’re] trying to set a record this year for disallowed goals in TD Garden,” Cassidy joked postgame. “We’re well on our way.”
This marked the second straight game — and one of many — that Cassidy’s challenge went for naught. The Bruins overcame the calls against them in both instances.
Wagner’s goal — for real — gave the Bruins an early boost and they never looked back. It was an emotional game for the Walpole native, and it showed in his celebration.
“My grandfather passed away yesterday morning. This was a special game for me,” Wagner said. “Maybe he was watching out for me and making the puck follow me around. He was probably laughing after that first goal was disallowed.”
He played with a heavy heart, but Wagner and his fellow linemates, Kuraly and Noel Acciari, provided another quality outing.
The Bruins turn to Backes on the second line
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 6, 2019
David Backes returned from his three-game suspension Saturday night. His second line assignment came as a surprise to some with Jake DeBrusk moving back to left-wing and David Krejci centering.
Both DeBrusk and Krejci entered Saturday’s tilt coming off a three-point night against Calgary. Neither found the scoresheet against Buffalo.
Backes, however, notched his fourth goal of the season firing a beautiful wrist shot on a 2-on-1 — off Tuukka Rask’s outlet pass — to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead early in the second period.
“Well, he scored the winning goal, so that’s a plus. Got a shot, returned to d-zone the right spot, fortunate the puck found him, was able to bury it,” Cassidy said about Backes’ initial fit on the second line. “He goes to the net for that group. It’s hard to say in one game. He played with Krech [Krejci] before now it’s been probably at least a year or a year and a half, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
The revolving door continues on the second line. Backes isn’t a long-term plan to skate with Krejci and DeBrusk, though the trio slowly developed chemistry as the game progressed Saturday night.
The Bruins know they need a bonafide top-six upgrade to ease the pressure on the potent trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. But at least they have something to build on with Krejci, DeBrusk, and Backes each providing timely offense in Boston’s last two triumphs.
“Obviously we got the goal, but if I’m going to be self-critical, I think there are pucks against the wall, o-zone possessions, maybe a little bit better plays, make a few more plays and get pucks out of our zone,” Backes said. “So, you know, the goal they score is kind of a result of a bad change by our line and you know, myself included. As a right wing, I have to hold there but I’ll own that and we get the two points as a team. Two points aren’t easy to get in this league and we found a way.”
The Sabres are a different team without Jack Eichel
There’s no question that the Sabres are coming a long way in their second season under Phil Housley. Their first-half run puts them in prime position to notch their first postseason berth since 2011.
Jack Eichel has a lot to do with Buffalo’s success. The former Boston University standout is having himself a season worthy of Hart Trophy consideration as he sits atop the Sabres’ leaderboard with 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) that included a four-point outing the first time these two teams met at TD Garden. Though he displayed flashes of talent in his first three years, the 2015 second overall pick is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
But there’s no denying the Sabres are a much different team without their two-time All-Star, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Though they notched a victory in Eichel’s absence against the Panthers Thursday, Buffalo didn’t have the same luck Saturday as they looked out of sync up until desperation time against a focused Bruins squad.
Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart didn’t have the same quality chances they normally would with their top line center. The duo fired nine of the team’s 32 shots on goal but had very few Grade A chances against Rask. The rest of the lineup struggled as Boston rolled out a well-rounded effort from all four lines in the victory.
The Sabres shouldn’t be without their captain for long, but their playoff chances ride on Eichel staying healthy.