The Bruins couldn't have scripted a better end to their exhibition slate. Now they just have to carry it over to the games that count.
Boston closed out the preseason with a convincing 7-1 win over HC Liberec, thoroughly defeating the overmatched Czech club on Tuesday. With the victory, the Bruins finish the preseason even at 3-3-1, though two of those victories came against non-NHL clubs as they dominated the Belfast Giants and Liberec Tigers by a combined score of 12-2.
Phoenix is sure to present more a challenge when the Bruins face the Coyotes in a two-game set in Prague to kick off the season on Saturday and Sunday, but for now they can enjoy a near-perfect preseason finale.
Patrice Bergeron was the catalyst for most of the offense on Tuesday, factoring into five of the seven goals as he scored a pair himself and assisted on three others. Five other Bruins, including newcomers Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell and rookies Tyler Seguin and Jordan Caron, each had one goal, while 12 Bruins in all finished with at least one point.
Blake Wheeler finished the scoring with Boston's final goal, set up by Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, who chipped in two assists. Czech native David Krejci, Matt Hunwick, Johnny Boychuk, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille each contributed single assists.
It was an impressive offensive display, even if it came against a Liberec club boasting just two players with NHL experience. Those two actually combined for the hosts' lone goal, briefly making it a 2-1 game in the second when Andrej Podkonicky scored from Petr Nedved.
That's the same Nedved who piled up 310-407-717 totals in 982 games in the NHL, but last played in North America when he dressed for 19 games in Edmonton back in 2006-07. Podkonicky, meanwhile, has just eight NHL games on his resume in brief stints with Florida and Washington in 2000-01 and 2003-04, respectively.
That's still eight more games than Seguin and Caron have played in the NHL, but the two rookies continued their impressive camps in this contest. Seguin followed up his two-goal game against Belfast with another tally in this one, as his speed and skill obviously plays well on the big ice in the European rinks.
Caron had slowed a bit after a strong start to camp and coach Claude Julien had dropped him off the Bergeron line in practice on Monday and for the start of this game. But he was eventually reunited with Bergeron and veteran Mark Recchi and seemingly found his second wind. Caron's goal was a short-handed strike set up by Bergeron just moments after Liberec scored, as the Bruins restored their two-goal lead and reestablished control of the game.
Even with all of the offensive fireworks, the most encouraging sign of the game may have been the play of goalie Tim Thomas.
The veteran netminder has been slowed in camp by the hip surgery he underwent in the offseason, and didn't make his preseason debut until the club's final North American exhibition game last Wednesday against Washington. He looked shaky at times in that game as he allowed four goals on 24 shots, but made it through the contest without any ill effects from the surgery.
On Tuesday, Thomas appeared to have his timing and reflexes back, as he made a number of key saves when the game was still in doubt early. The only goal he allowed was one he had little chance on, as it came on a 2-on-0 break after a Bruins turnover.
If Thomas can stay healthy and get back anywhere close to his Vezina-winning form of two years ago, the Bruins will have a dominant duo between the pipes with Thomas and Tuukka Rask, who led the league in goals-against average and save percentage last year and has looked sharp again this preseason.
The only Bruins who might not be feeling too elated about this game are the healthy scratches. Even with the expanded 22-man rosters customary in European leagues, rookie defenseman Matt Bartkowski and tough guy forward Brian McGrattan were held out of the lineup for the second straight game.
Julien cautioned not to read too much into that, but with the Bruins needing to make one more cut by 3 p.m. on Wednesday, it could be an uneasy night of sleep for both players.
Bartkowski has enjoyed a strong first pro camp, but the Bruins are unlikely to keep eight defensemen and he is the only blueliner who would not have to clear waivers to be sent to Providence. With no pro experience, he would also probably be better served logging big minutes in the AHL instead of sitting in the press box with the big club.
McGrattan remains unsigned after coming to camp on a tryout invitation. He has had a solid enough camp, even though the preseason games he was dressed for didn't provide a heavyweight opponent to display his best skill against. It doesn't seem likely that the Bruins would fly him all the way to Europe if they didn't like what they saw and intend to sign him, and his toughness certainly wasn't needed against the two European clubs.
Still, McGrattan's fighting abilities aren't what are in question. The Bruins are more concerned with knowing they can trust him to play a regular shift on the fourth line when needed, and seeing him on the big ice against a skilled Czech club would have been a good test for that.
It's possible Boston could delay a decision, as they aren't technically over the roster limit as long as McGrattan remains unsigned, but eventually they will have to make the tough call and cut at least one more player. And if the Bruins keep playing as well as they did against these European clubs, those decisions will become even more difficult.