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Saturday, December 31, 2016

If Only the Bruins Could Play The Sabres Like Once Every Week, They'd Be in Good Shape

As the Bruins (20-15-4) have proven over and over again already this season, especially when they're at TD Garden, they can't underestimate anyone after they've lost to a bunch of bottom-feeder last-place teams. For whatever reason, the Sabres (13-15-8) are just what ails them since with today's 3-1 New Year's Eve matinee victory, the Black and Gold swept the season series with Buffalo for the first time in either team's franchise history. Of course, keep in mind that when there were fewer clubs in the NHL, the Atlantic Division rivals used to meet up to eight times a season which looking back on it now is pretty funny.

This was a feel-good moment for the B's as they captured back-to-back wins for the first time in nearly a month (Dec. 1, 3, 5), Patrice Bergeron continued to heat up offensively (3 goals in 5 games) while Ryan Spooner (3 goals, 4 assists) and Torey Krug (7 assists) each extended their point streaks to five games apiece. Tuukka Rask (26 saves, 19th win of the season) continued his mastery of the Sabres as he improved to 13-5-1 in 21 career games vs. Buffalo. Boston had won 4-2 in Buffalo on Thursday but they paid a price for those particular two points as David Backes is now out indefinitely with a concussion.

One of the guys that will counted on for more production with Backes out is Frank Vatrano who has been moved up to the second line. He gave Boston a 1-0 lead just 1:28 into the contest with one of his signature quick release shots. Zdeno Chara assisted on Vatrano's second goal of the season (2 goals, 2 assists in 5 games) that fooled Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner (25 saves). Seeking some payback from Thursday when he got bloodied by William Carrier's cheap shot punches while they were tied up by the refs, Adam McQuaid drilled Johan Larsson with a clean hit (that dislocated the left wing's wrist).

Bergy doubled the Bruins' lead in the second period with a one-timer from Spooner and Brad Marchand at 7:04 on the power play. Bergeron had been a ghost in terms of goal-scoring for much of the early going so it's been nice to see him find his game lately. Lehner had started his New Year's Eve drinking early or something as Tim Schaller's harmless backhander beat him at 9:29 of the second period for a commanding 3-0 Bruins advantage. Three goals scored by Boston can feel like double that with their struggles to find the back of the net and couple that with how well Rask has played. The Bruins are now 14-2-1 when they lead by 2+ goals in 2016-17. Krug and Austin Czarnik assisted on Schaller's fifth goal of the season that had to feel a little sweeter against his former team.

As you probably noticed lately, the NHL has done everything in its power to outlaw fighting so even though Kevan Miller and Evander Kane wanted to fight each other later in the second, not to mention many other chippy moments throughout the proceedings, the linesmen and referees weren't having any of it. I understand they want to eliminate needless injuries (most notably concussions) from fights but one of the things that makes hockey so great is the ability to settle things after a cheap play.

North Chelmsford, MA native and BU one-and-done star Jack Eichel always seems to do something when he's at the Garden so he didn't disappoint his friends and family with a one-timer at 19:38 of the second that he hammered past Rask. His seventh goal of the season was assisted by Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart. This was the first time in this campaign that Bergeron has scored in consecutive games and Boston's sputtering power play is slowly figuring things out with goals in four of their last five.

Nearly halfway through the season, Boston still finds itself in third-place in the Atlantic Division. They have 44 points like Ottawa (20-12-4) but the Senators have played three less games. Also, the Bruins are four points ahead of Tampa Bay (18-15-4) going into their meeting with Carolina this evening (Lightning will have 1 game in hand after that). Boston is back at .500 at home and five games over .500 on the road (11-6-4) so I suppose it's good news that they head out of town for five of their next six games.

This week is another one that at least on paper isn't too scary: at reeling New Jersey (14-16-7) on Monday (7, NESN), they host Edmonton (19-12-6) on Thursday (7, NESN) in Milan Lucic's latest return, at Florida (15-14-8) on Saturday (7, NESN) and at Carolina (16-12-7) on Sunday (5, NESN). The Bruins should get points in all of those road games and even though the Oilers have been unexpectedly good this season, I still don't fear them.

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