BROOKLYN, NY – It certainly could have been that the Boston Bruins' modest two-game win streak over Nashville and Winnipeg could be explained away as unique circumstances or a couple of good one-off performances for the Black and Gold.
After all, they were powered by the energy of their enthusiastic moms cheering them in both of those games and they were against talented Western Conference teams that haven't played up to their potential yet this season.
But the B's 3-2 overtime win over the New York Islanders on Saturday night at the Barclays Center for their third win in a row was proof positive that their losing doldrums are behind them, and that they've officially regained their early-season mojo. The OT win was a hard-fought, playoff-style battle with heavy, tight-checking play, plenty of physicality, lead changes and a slew of painful blocked shots that left a large group of Bruins players carrying around ice bags in the dressing room after it was all over.
It was a heavy enough game that young winger Anders Bjork was moved around the lineup because his game was "a little light" per Bruce Cassidy, with perhaps it being a signal to him what's going to be expected as the NHL nears playoff time.
"It's such a cliché, but they played heavy and we responded. There were momentum swings both ways and we stuck with it. It wasn't pretty, but we stuck with it and that's what matters," said John Moore. "It doesn't matter who the opponent is. It's about building our game for 60 minutes and we were able to find it after the first 20 minutes."
In that instance, it isn't so much about the end result as it was the way they got there that shows the Bruins are once again invested in playing winning hockey and has allowed them to protect a seven-point divisional lead against a Lightning team that's now won 10 games in a row. The fact they did it against an Islanders team that's been a top-3 group in the Metro Division all season also gives the two points a little more weight than a run-of-the-mill victory as well.
"I thought that was a great game. It was fun to be a part of it even though it was a low-scoring game. There were a lot of things happening. Both teams were skating well and creating, but checking tightly with not much space out there. That's what we're going to see down the road. And they're a great team. My expectations from them were what we got, so it was a great game."
And it was a great, quality win for a Bruins team that hadn't had many of them lately. The kind of win that takes a hockey team from a modest two-game winning stretch to a genuine winning streak where Boston has clearly regained their game.
The win over the Islanders was dotted with the positive signs that they Bruins have regained the winning standards to their game. The B's second and third lines produced the goals with Jake DeBrusk and John Moore lightning the lamp during regulation play before the Perfection Line took things over with a PP goal in the overtime session. Then, there was the one in OT itself that snapped a string of six straight losses when they advanced to the extra session and "improved" their OT/shootout record to 3-11 on the year.
Most encouraging of all, though, might have been the play of Charlie McAvoy, who hasn't given many Grade-A performances this season while still looking for his first goal of the year in mid-January. He's been good enough most nights, to be sure, as he's averaged over 23 minutes of ice time with a plus-11 rating, and he leads the Bruins in the painful blocked shots category.
But he hadn't been dominant too many times this season. He was dominant against the Islanders as he led all players with a whopping 28:43 of ice time, blocked a game-high four shots, threw out five hits and picked up an assist on a second period play where he showed the offensive aggression and playmaking the has sometimes receded from his game this season. He was the best player on the ice for the Bruins and along with Isles center Mat Barzal showcased two of the young stars on a night when they both had it going.
"It's that type of game where you don't have a ton of room. You can get through the neutral zone, but they always have three back [on defense], so you have to manage the puck well," said Bruce Cassidy. "I thought we did a good job with that and had patience. Charlie McAvoy did a really good job of getting inside ice when he could and otherwise we went outside and went to work on the fore-check. Slot coverage on both sides were tight, but for the most part that's what you expect [against the Islanders]."
It wasn't all perfect, of course, as the Bruins were outshot 15-4 in the first period and needed Tuukka Rask to have their bacon early before they were able to elevate their collective in the final 40 plus minutes.
But the victory over the Isles was a clear sign that the Bruins are out of the midseason doldrums, and it really couldn't have come at a better time.