By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s a pretty simple formula and the Bruins seem to have finally figured it out just in time for the new year.
They put it to perfect use against the Buffalo Sabres in a New Year’s Eve matinee at TD Garden on Saturday.
It’s easy: score three goals, limit the scoring chances with the type of defense that has been the hallmark of successful Bruins teams for the entire Claude Julien coaching reign, and then let Tuukka Rask bail them out when the occasional breakdown happens.
The Bruins used 26 saves from Rask, goals from Frank Vatrano, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Schaller, and overall solid team defense to complete a home-and-home sweep of the Sabres with a 3-1 win. It was their third straight game with at least three goals (they scored an empty-netter in Buffalo on Thursday).
The Bruins are 11-2-2 when they score more than two goals in a game. After you get over the shock that the Bruins have scored more than two goals just 15 times in 39 games, you have to realize that it’s pretty remarkable that all it takes is three and the Bruins suddenly boast an elite record.
Not only did the Bruins score first against Buffalo, they scored the first three goals – giving the defense corps and Rask a rare margin of error to work with.
“Those are huge. Huge goals for us and it’s not like you play on your heels and you relax but it’s definitely a nice cushion to have and we need to take advantage of those when we get them,” Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller said.
If the Bruins’ new New Year’s resolution is to score three goals every time out, they might have already cashed in on some pre-New Year’s resolutions to get off to better starts and have a power play that contribute to their success than serves as a detriment.
After giving up at least the first two goals six times in December, the Bruins figured out how to have a better start. Vatrano needed just 1:28 to score the first goal of the game.
“I think that’s what we talked about after our last game in Buffalo is getting off to better starts, putting teams on their heels and not having us be on our heels right away,” said Vatrano. “We just wanted to be on our toes right off the bat, bring energy, make sure we were taking care of the puck early and I think we did a good job of that.”
And then there’s the power play, which had been hapless for months. With Bergeron’s goal (the game-winner) the Bruins were 1-for-3 with the man-advantage. They are now 5-for-17 (29.4 percent) over the past five games.
“We’ve been able to kind of set two power plays,” Julien said. “In my estimation, right now, I think both power plays are pretty even. It’s not like you’re going with your first power play, and if it doesn’t score, then you just cross your fingers. A lot of teams have a second power play unit that just shoots the puck at the net. I think we have a second power play that can be just as potent in all areas as the first one. So hopefully that pays off moving forward, but I think it’s more about putting players in the right place. I’m not going to tell you that there was no confidence that was built through that. I think there is. The confidence is building, and we’re getting a little bit more success.”
The Bruins might be figuring out their key to success just in time. The schedule is only going to get more difficult in the 2017 portion of the schedule and the fight for scarce playoff positions is going to be treacherous. Although they’re going to be missing David Backes for an indefinite period because of a concussion, Vatrano’s return after missing the first 34 games should continue to boost what’s been a sluggish offense. Bergeron seems to be coming on with goals in consecutive games for the first time this season, Ryan Spooner seems to be getting comfortable on the wing and David Krejci is doing Krejci-level things.
There are still pretty faults with the Bruins’ lineup. They could still use more sources of scoring and they’re dealing with two young defensemen making inexperienced errors on a nightly basis. And we don’t know if the recent offensive uptick is a sign of better things to come or an anomaly.
Nonetheless as the Bruins enter the New Year, their mantra should be: three goals or bust.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.