By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We won’t know fully for some time exactly what the implications will be of Don Sweeney’s decisions at the trade deadline this year. But on Thursday night, in a virtual must-win on home ice, the short-term impact was impossible to miss.
Coming off a depressing shootout loss at home on Tuesday — and facing a Red Wings team that was not only in position to clinch the playoffs with a victory but was also fresh off the heels of a thorough victory over the Flyers a night before — the Bruins badly needed to get off to a good start on Thursday night.
And thanks to John-Michael Liles, they did.
Coming off a defensive zone draw a minute into the game, Liles received a pass from Colin Miller in the left corner of the Boston end and looked up ice. While skating up the left boards, he saw David Pastrnak backing across center ice. Liles didn’t have a direct lane to hit Pastrnak in stride, so he got creative.
Liles fired a pass toward the boards at center ice and managed to make the most perfect of bank passes, putting the puck right on Pastrnak’s tape on the backhand as he crossed the blue line.
Credit goes to Pastrnak for staying onside (barely) and finishing with a goal, but that was the type of creative and artful pass that hasn’t been sent by a Bruins player since the days of Marc Savard.
The importance of getting such an early goal was not lost on the Bruins.
“Pasta did a great job at getting that first goal for us and we were able to get some momentum from that,” Patrice Bergeron said.
“We talked about getting off to a real good start against a team that had played [Wednesday] night so we wanted to come out strong and we did,” Claude Julien noted. “Not only that, we managed to get some quick goals here so that made a big difference. Obviously with what we’ve been going through here just kind of gave our guys some real good confidence there and loosened them up a little bit and took off from there. There’s no doubt that was certainly one of the keys to the game.”
Torey Krug echoed on the early scoring: “Not only did it push them back a little bit and break whatever confidence they had coming into the game, but for our confidence, it was huge.”
While the price tag on Liles was certainly steep, there’s no denying that neither the future third- and fifth-round pick nor prospect Anthony Camara could have made that game-changing assist on Thursday night.
Later in the game, Sweeney’s decision to keep free-agent-to-be Loui Eriksson certainly helped the Bruins earn two points on this night. He picked up the primary assist on Krug’s power-play blast to stretch the lead to 3-0, though admittedly, Eriksson didn’t do anything extraordinary on that one aside from manning the point and making a simple pass to Krug.
But in the third, with the Bruins leading 4-0, Eriksson was credited with a goal — his 30th of the season — on a double-deflection. Whether Eriksson actually got a piece of David Krejci’s redirect was hard to see, but Eriksson was positioned where is so often on so many goals: directly in front of the goaltender, causing problems.
That goal was preceded by the back-breaker, which was provided by the Bruins’ other trade deadline acquisition, Lee Stempniak.
With the Red Wings trailing by just two and looking to mount a comeback to secure that playoff spot, Stempniak extinguished all hopes just seconds into the final period. The veteran forward found himself unaccounted for in the right faceoff circle as Krug sent a shot on net from the blue line. Stempniak crashed the net and buried the rebound past a flailing Jimmy Howard.
The game was over.
“Yeah, the fourth one seemed to just take the wind right out of our sails,” Howard said.
The two players acquired, and the one guy retained all contributed in major ways to what was for all intents and purposes a playoff game for the Bruins. Though the defensive effort was exceptional, the goals — and, just as importantly, the timing of the goals — drove the team to a desperately needed victory.
For Liles, it was his sixth assist in 16 games. For Stempniak, it was his 10th point and third goal, and one of those goals was an overtime game winner. And for Eriksson, it was points 14 and 15 since the deadline, nine of which have come in Boston victories.
In hockey, analysts and fans are quick to judge trade deadlines instantly, dishing out letter grades just minutes after the deadline hits. Obviously, that’s much too soon to properly assess a whole situation, and frankly, even a full month-plus of hockey is too soon to fully evaluate the totality of a team’s decision-making. So ultimately, the story is yet to be told on just how smart Sweeney and the Bruins front office acted on deadline day, when they offered up a second, third, fourth and fifth for two players, while also passing up offers of picks for Eriksson, who’s likely to cash in via free agency elsewhere this summer. And for as big as Thursday night’s win was, it may still be for naught, and the Bruins could once again find themselves watching the postseason from home.
But, for one night at least, in a game the Bruins desperately needed in order to keep alive their chances of making the playoffs, it was the three players who are on the roster for that exact purpose who stepped up in a major way.