BOSTON — To a remarkable degree, the power in the NHL this season largely resides in the Western Conference – where, perhaps, a half-dozen teams are superior to the best clubs in the Eastern Conference.
For the Boston Bruins, generally viewed as the best or second-best team in the Eastern Conference, the first two games of their California trip brought a troubling dose of unpleasant reality. The Bruins were outplayed convincingly in Anaheim and Los Angeles.
The Bruins compiled a strong won-loss record by beating up on weaker teams in their conference, but when they went against the iron of the West, serious cracks in the foundation were revealed.
Those concerns were largely alleviated Saturday night at San Jose, where the Bruins battled a strong Sharks team, played their game the way it should be played and prevailed 1-0.
The Bruins are back home Tuesday night against Toronto – needing to avoid the first-game-home blahs and play with the same effort they delivered Saturday in San Jose.
Goalie Tuukka Rask summed it up well.
“That was Bruins hockey,” said Rask after stopping 26 shots for his fifth shutout of the season. “That’s how we get points in this league. Sometimes we slip from it, but this was a great example of how we need to play in order to get points. I was really happy with the effort.
“It’s about pride, too. You come on this road trip and lose the first two, you don’t want to get swept. We talked about it, gave a sharp effort and it paid off with a win. I’m really happy with the guys.”
The difference in the game – handing San Jose just its second regulation loss at home this season – was Carl Soderberg’s goal at 12:25 of the third period. With the Bruins playing strong team defense and Rask sharp again after some sub-par showings in recent outings, one goal proved enough.
The goal came on a lucky bounce, as Loui Eriksson’s shot from mid-slot bounced off the leg of Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan and went perfectly to Soderberg low and left of the cage. Soderberg directed a quick forehander into the open net.
Bruins Coach Claude Julien knew the goal was the result of good fortune, but also more than that.
“A goal’s a goal in this league,” Julien said. “You can have some tough ones go against you and every once in a while one goes for you. That’s the breaks of the game.
“Sometimes you’ve got to make them yourself. For us to get the puck in the slot was a good play on our end. Yes, the puck goes off a shin pad. But we had someone going to the net, and if he’s not, it’s not a goal. I don’t necessarily call that lucky, as much as good execution by us.
“A good bounce, but still the guys were in the right place.”
The Bruins were in the right place most of the night, even as the Sharks sometimes came with maybe the hardest forechecking game in the NHL. But the Bruins battled hard and won their share.
“We played a really solid game,” team president Cam Neely said. “We didn’t give them too many scoring chances and Tuukka played really solid. We were able to clean up what we needed to. A lot of people might look at that score and say it wasn’t a very good game. But that was a hard game, a great game. There were a lot of battles. Guys played well defensively on both sides.
“It speaks to what our guys know they need to do to be successful. They don’t have to think about it too much; the coaching staff goes in there and breaks it down for them very well. It’s really just about playing a simple game, a north-south game. That really was a tough challenge for this team. I mean, no one wanted to leave California 0-3 and have a long flight home.”
It wasn’t a great trip. But it wasn’t a disaster.