TORONTO — Skidding through their longest losing funk of the season with their playoff chances slipping, the Boston Bruins had to have two points in Toronto.
They managed to do just that on Saturday night. Zdeno Chara ended a 20-game goal drought, sliding a backhand through the pads of Jonathan Bernier for the eventual game-winner in a 3-1 Bruins victory — one that snapped a season-long five-game losing streak.
The win created some much-needed breathing space in the Eastern Conference playoff race for Boston, currently third in the Atlantic Division with 88 points and now three points up on Detroit with six games to play.
The Bruins had been outscored 18-6 in losing the previous five in regulation.
“We played better, simple as that,” Chara said. “We were tighter defensively, better offensively, stronger on pucks, more physical. Overall, I thought we had a good strong game.”
Though still last overall in the NHL with 65 points and boasting plenty of young talent, the Maple Leafs gave them a fight. Toronto had won three straight coming into the evening (including a 6-5 overtime win against Anaheim) and six of the previous eight, backed by the impressive play of young players like 19-year-old William Nylander and 23-year-old Zach Hyman.
The Bruins knew they could ill afford to take them lightly no matter Toronto’s place in the standings.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” said Patrice Bergeron, who opened the scoring for Boston with his 29th goal of the season. “We were respecting them and expecting that.”
Boston started slower than it would have liked, yielding the opening goal to the Leafs late in the opening frame. Ben Smith redirected a Colin Greening shot past Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who continues to own the team that drafted him.
Rask improved to 14-3-2 lifetime against the Leafs with a 24-save performance on Saturday.
Bruins coach Claude Julien suggested his team may have been tight early given the implications of the game, which had added importance after the Red Wings dropped a 7-2 showing to the Penguins earlier in the day.
He saw his team look more like itself after Bergeron evened the score at one, asserting control over the final two periods. The 30-year-old Bergeron got it going by cleaning up a Torey Krug rebound attempt with an early-period man advantage.
The Bruins hadn’t scored on the power play in their previous five games.
Chara gave the Bruins a lead that would last the rest of the night less than four minutes later. Dipping in from the point with the two teams playing four a side, the Boston captain snared a rebound of his own as he zipped through the slot.
It was Chara’s first goal since Feb. 13 and ninth this season. The 39-year-old has 121 goals since he joined the Bruins in 2006, third-most among NHL defencemen in that span.
Bernier stopped every shot from there, sharp again for Toronto with 30 saves. Playing perhaps his best hockey of the season, the 27-year-old has a .954 save percentage in his last five starts.
The Leafs, especially their head coach, weren’t happy with some of the physical play that went uncalled in just their third defeat in the last nine games (6-3-0). At one point late in the third with Toronto pushing to even the score at two, Nazem Kadri was shoved into the boards by Bruins centre David Krejci, a foul Mike Babcock felt deserving of a penalty and subsequent power-play.
He exuded frustration afterward with liberties being taken against Kadri in recent days.
“The first time, four games ago, they decided you can’t call a penalty on Naz, that was four games ago,” said Babcock. “That was probably the memo to them. Then three games ago. Then tonight. Clearly, I’m not blaming anybody for anything … It’s got to be over with now. Let’s get on with it. If there’s a penalty, let’s call a penalty.”
“I wasn’t very hungry,” Kadri said. “I didn’t want to eat the dashboard there.”
Frustrated with the no-call, Kadri took a cross-checking penalty himself 10 seconds later.
Toronto ultimately couldn’t beat Rask again despite a hearty late push. The Leafs have yet to win this season when trailing after two periods, now 0-27-4.
Saturday marked an end to their six-game homestand, of which they won four and lost two.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have six games remaining after Saturday’s victory, including difficult matchups with the Blues and Blackhawks to conclude the month of March. Boston will also host Detroit in its penultimate regular-season game, a game that could have serious playoff implications.
The 2011 Stanley Cup champions are trying to get back to the post-season after a string of seven straight playoff berths was snapped last year.
“You want to win,” said Julien. “You look at what happened today and Detroit loses. This (was) an opportunity for us to gain some points and it was an important game for us for that reason, but also the fact (that) you don’t want to prolong that streak anymore than you had to. Whether it’s relief or satisfaction, (we’re) happy that we got a win under our belt. That first win is always the toughest.”