Jonas Gustavsson and Cory Schneider came to play yesterday, which isn’t to say that their teams didn’t, but the men between the pipes shined in a 2-1 shootout contest that went the Boston Bruins’ way.
Ryan Spooner tallied the lone goal out of six attempts Sunday between the Bruins and New Jersey Devils to secure the extra point for the home team, putting them just one point behind idle Atlantic Division leader Montreal with two games in hand.
Goals from Loui Eriksson and defenseman Andy Greene were the only pucks that got past the masked men, who were more like thieving bandits all game long, stealing quality scoring chances away in a game that had at times some impressive tempo and pace despite the low score. The tension came to a head in overtime, when Boston and New Jersey traded glittering opportunities during the B’s 4-on-3 power play and in the 3-on-3 setting, with neither goaltender yielding an inch.
Boston overcame at times ragged play in the first 40 minutes, getting the first goal of the game quickly from Eriksson, then going stretches of not being able to get much going in the way of sustained offensive pressure. Gustavsson was there to bail them out when they faltered however, giving up the one Devils goal on a deflected shot when exciting rookie Frank Vatrano lost his check in the defensive zone and Greene was able to exploit the extra time and space.
Eriksson continued his outstanding play, netting his 13th goal and 28th point of the season (he had 22 markers a year ago and just 10 goals in 61 games his first full campaign in Boston 2013-14) in 32 games. The 30-year-old is on pace for the best offensive season of his career and has been a consistent presence alongside David Krejci all year.
But the story of the game for Boston was Gustavsson, who made 29 saves to earn his first win of December and post his best game since signing with the Bruins in early October. The veteran Swede has six wins in 10 games, to go with a 2.42 goals against average and .912 save percentage. No save was better than the one he made on Travis Zajac in OT while the Devils were killing a John Moore penalty. Captain Zdeno Chara’s attempted pass near the point was intercepted by superb two-way forward Adam Henrique, and as was the case against Calgary, the former Norris Trophy winner got caught flat-footed as the Devils broke out and took a 2-on-1 rush the other way with Colin Miller back to defend. Henrique sent a perfect saucer pass to Zajac who did not miss, but Gustavsson got an excellent push and extension of his left pad to deny the low shot. ‘Gus’ would later be tested again during 3-on-3 play, and made a late routine-looking stop (that was anything but) to prevent the Devils from stealing one in Boston. Gustavsson’s heroics (Schneider faced a higher volume of chances, especially in OT) set the stage for Spooner to win the game.
As Boston’s first shooter, Spooner attacked the New Jersey net with speed, did a quick hesitation fake to freeze Schneider before beating the Marblehead native with a bullet shot to the blocker side. Max Talbot, whose usage as second shooter was heavily criticized more for the way his attempt looked than anything else, was denied after he came in slowly and then managed a weak shot from outside the hashmarks that Schneider stopped easily. Patrice Bergeron beat a sprawling Schneider, but hit the post, forcing Gustavsson to deny all three Devils shooters to seal the win, Boston’s 20th of the season.
Jonas Gustavsson- The game’s 1st star played an ideal game for a backup, giving his team confidence during a run in which Tuukka Rask has looked like the all-world goalie he has the talent to be. Being a backup goalie is tough at any level- you have to work just as hard in practice, but you aren’t afforded the benefit of knowing you’ll play most of the games. When your number is called, you must be ready to go, and a poor performance could mean an even longer break in between starts. What’s bigger is the way a team will play in front of the backup. If you do well, the club’s trust translates into a more effective, aggressive mindset. If the team lacks confidence in the backup, it’s human nature to be more conservative, playing a tighter, more defensive game that often just leads to more goals and losses. Contrast the way the B’s played in front of Niklas Svedberg last year compared to Gustavsson this time around, and you start to catch the drift.
Ryan Spooner- The soon-to-be 24-year-old is playing the best hockey of his career. Coming off a four-assist night against Pittsburgh, he has 10 points in his last seven games. Although yesterday’s contest goes down in the ledger as no points for the third-liner, his nifty little move in the shootout stood up as the decisive tally to secure the extra point for Boston. In typical New England fashion, too many fans focus on Spooner’s shortcomings defensively to see the forest for the trees. He’s currently fifth on the team in scoring with 22 points in 32 games, and has really come on over the last month. It would be one thing if he wasn’t producing, but he’s pulling his weight in that regard and is only getting better and more confident as the season goes on. There is always room for improvement for any player, and he could stand to improve on his draws and overall consistency in all three zones, but for the most part, he puts in the effort. If you focus on one player enough, you’ll see them make mistakes, and there are plays Spooner makes where a lack of effort hurts the team, but those are fewer and far between and not because he doesn’t care, but because he’s human. For years, Bostonians have wanted skill and excitement at the center position, and Spooner brings that. A year ago, he looked d-o-n-e in the organization, but to his credit, he was ready to do something with that last chance they gave him in late February and he’s still finding ways to contribute.
Loui Eriksson- He so smooth and effective. Sure, he doesn’t have the blazing wheels, but you can appreciate how he’s managed to be such a consistent 20+ goal scorer over the course of his entire NHL career. It’s hard to praise Eriksson and recognize his contributions to Boston’s success this season on the one hand, and then talk about trading him because of his impending unrestricted free agency on the other. However, that’s part of the business of hockey, and Don Sweeney will have to weigh the pros and cons of either signing him to what will likely be a higher cap hit and AAV than the public will be happy with given he’s on the wrong side of 30, or moving a key piece out of town for future assets. We’ll just have to see where the Bruins are in late February as we hit the trade deadline, but if they’re still sitting near the top of the division, it’s hard to square with sending him away from the team. It’s easy to sit at home when you don’t have a job on the line and talk about how it’s better to get a return rather than risk losing a player in free agency, but the teams themselves have a different outlook given their skin in the game and the fact that they’re trying to win hockey games. Only a select few clubs can be considered “legitimate contenders” every year, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else in the mix is just going to give up and pack it in. That’s what trading Eriksson would signal, and right, wrong or indifferent- dealing him just to get something is more akin to what you do in EA Sports NHL 2016 video game than what happens in real life.
Cory Schneider- The former Phillips Andover and Boston College star (he was the best prep goalie I have ever seen in 2003-04- better even than Jonathan Quick and that’s saying a hell of a lot) kept the Devils in it and by most accounts, they should have won. He’s been everything Lou Lamoniello traded for at the 2013 NHL draft (in Newark, btw) and more, and as long as he’s healthy and between the pipes for New Jersey, they’re in every game. He should enjoy a better fate on most nights, but as long as Ray Shero can build around him, this team is headed upwards under new coach John Hynes. Schneider was like an Octopus in the OT, especially when the B’s were on the power play and getting pucks to the net, but they could not solve him.