3 takeaways as the Bruins outlasted the lowly Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, at home

The shorthanded Bruins are currently in survival mode.

Buffalo Sabres' Rasmus Dahlin and Bruins' Craig Smith battle for the puck.
Buffalo Sabres' Rasmus Dahlin and Bruins' Craig Smith battle for the puck. –Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

COMMENTARY

One day after relinquishing a 2-0 lead over the New York Islanders, the Bruins received a verbal chewing from Bruce Cassidy during Friday’s practice at TD Garden. On Saturday, they returned to Causeway Street hoping to take care of business against a Buffalo Sabres squad carrying the fourth-longest losing streak in National Hockey League history.

With Brad Marchand added to the NHL’s COVID protocol list, the injury-riddled Bruins came into the contest without their top line left winger, their fourth-line center in Sean Kuraly and forward Jake DeBrusk up front. Dan Vladar made the start between the pipes two days after Jaroslav Halak’s relief appearance for an injured Tuukka Rask.

Jeremy Lauzon’s return provided a positive but unexpected development for the shorthanded Bruins. Yet, the team they fielded on paper had the edge over the lowly Sabres.

They hardly made things easy on themselves. The Bruins had to come back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits. But the needed secondary scoring output – via Matt Grzelcyk’s second-period tying tally, Nick Ritchie’s third-period equalizer and Craig Smith’s winning marker late in regulation – helped the Bruins eke out a 3-2 victory.

“It was a battle out there,” Cassidy said afterward. “No easy games in this league, and credit to us though. We played winning hockey in the third period on both ends of the ice.”

Here’s what we learned as the Bruins handed the Sabres their 17th straight setback.

Charlie McAvoy put on a skating clinic.

The Bruins entered the third period needing something or someone to give them a jolt. Enter McAvoy.

Paired with his fellow ex-BU teammate in Grzelcyk, McAvoy made his presence known in his game-high 26:32 time on ice. His third-period impact, in particular, gave the Bruins some much-needed life.

The instinctive McAvoy took matters into his own hands with his speed, quickness and crafty skating prowess. After a couple of trips around the net against Buffalo’s man-to-man defensive setup, McAvoy eventually found a crease to deliver a potential scoring chance for Smith. The puck caromed off the skate of a Buffalo defender en route to Ritchie’s stick, who promptly broke his eight-game goal drought to even things up at 2-2 at 5:22 of the final stanza.

A great hockey play, indeed.

“Just playing hockey,” Oftentimes when I’m playing hockey…I’m not overthinking. I’m just trying to find space, trying to find a play and trying to make it. And there, I was just looking to get to open space, and when you get skating and against a man-to-man team it can sometimes create confusion,” McAvoy said of his thought process on Ritchie’s ninth goal of the season.

“They did a good job trying to pack it up in the middle there, but as I said it was a fortunate bounce. When I’m trying to move the puck up ice or playing in the offensive zone, I’m just playing off my instincts, and when I see a guy, and that’s really it.”

McAvoy remained assertive as the Bruins searched for the go-ahead tally in the final 14:38 of play. His thunderous open ice hit on Taylor Hall shortly afterward provided another energy boosting moment.

After those game-changing moments, McAvoy watched as the Bruins finally took the lead with Smith’s winner on a stellar second line shift with linemates David Krejci and Ritchie assisting.

Dan Vladar recovered from his first-period blunder.

He hasn’t entered the net in the most ideal of circumstances.

His first appearance came in last year’s postseason where Cassidy threw Vladar into the proverbial fire in relief of Halak in Game 3 against a high-octane Tampa Bay Lightning squad. Vladar’s two regular-season starts this year came in the heat of the Bruins’ injury and COVID situation.

Amid all this, Vladar stood tall in his first two career starts. But his second appearance of the 2021 campaign didn’t start as smoothly compared to his stellar outing in Pittsburgh 11 days ago.

A miscommunication between Vladar and fellow rookie Jakub Zboril prompted an easy power play tally for Sam Reinhart a mere 2:25 into the game. Vladar shook off the blunder and gave his team a chance to win.

“In fairness, it looks bad on [Vladar], but he fired the puck right past Zboril…so that’s a shared responsibility in my estimation,” Cassidy said of Vladar’s blunder and bounce-back effort. “I thought he responded well from it. You don’t know with a young guy if it will get in his head or if he’ll park it. I thought he did a good job parking it. He made some good saves for us. I don’t think he made a ton of stops in there, but he made the ones he was supposed to.”

He didn’t need to stand on his head in this one, especially after facing only three Buffalo shots in the third. But Vladar (25 saves) made some timely stops for his second career victory — becoming the eighth goalie in franchise history to win his first two starts – before the Bruins found their skating legs in the final stanza.

The shorthanded Bruins are currently in survival mode.

Between their injuries and COVID situation, the Bruins hardly entered an ideal situation when they returned to the ice this week. It didn’t get any easier with Rask and Karson Kuhlman’s departure Thursday night Marchand’s arrival on the COVID-19 protocol list jumbled Cassidy’s lineup further.

Even with Lauzon’s arrival the Bruins entered Saturday’s tilt without their top-line left-winger (Marchand); a middle-six forward (DeBrusk); their fourth line center (Kuraly); a depth piece in the bottom-six (Kuhlman); their stalwart in net in (Rask); and one of their two anchors on the right side of the blue-line (Brandon Carlo).

The Bruins have several games in hand on everyone in the division. They have six more meetings with the Sabres in the final 26 games. But they know they have little room for error trying to stave off the Flyers and a resurgent Rangers bunch for the final playoff spot in the East.

Even with a healthy lineup and a recent uptick in the secondary scoring department, Don Sweeney knows they need some outside help between now and the April 12 trade deadline. The Bruins remain stuck in neutral as they battle through their toughest road bump on this young season. It won’t get any easier, either, with their hectic 24-game-in-41 day stretch (not including their postponed tilts against the Sabres and Islanders from last week).

Given everything, Cassidy has done a remarkable job keeping his team in playoff position. Yet, the roller coaster season continues on Sunday when the Bruins hope to overcome their struggles against the bottom-feeding Devils.

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