Boston had dominated the final frame for the most of the first half of the season, showing a special knack for rallying from deficits and the killer instinct to put away teams when they had late leads — something that had been lacking in previous seasons.
Those abilities seemed to evaporate on their current road trip, with the Bruins being outscored 6-2 in the third period in the first three games of the expedition. Carolina and Tampa Bay each had three third-period goals to beat the Bruins.
Thursday in New Jersey on the final night of the four-game trip, the Bruins got their third-period groove back. They entered the final frame down 1-0, but scored four unanswered goals to rally past the Devils 4-1 and finish the trip with an even 2-2-0 split.
"I think good teams try not to lose two in a row," Bruins forward Gregory Campbell said. "I think the way we've been playing lately, we've kind of been playing with fire. We had to rectify our game a little bit. The first two periods it wasn't all that good, but I thought the third period was better. We have some pretty tough games coming up before the [All-Star] break. It's not going to get any easier. New Jersey's been on a roll and they're a tough, hard, competitive team to play against. Once we picked up our battle level in the third period we showed that we can play with this team and ultimately came up on top."
The Bruins had beaten the Devils 6-1 on their last visit to Newark on Jan. 4, and New Jersey was looking for a little revenge on Thursday. They looked poised to get it as the Devils scored the only goal of the opening two periods when Petr Sykora finished off a Dainius Zubrus feed from behind the net.
Tim Thomas kept the Bruins in the game with 30 saves, 22 coming in the first two periods as he bounced back from a shaky outing in Tampa on Tuesday. But the Bruins didn't put similar pressure on New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur, managing just six shots in the first and six more in the second.
"It was no secret we were getting outbattled, outraced to pucks," Campbell said. "Sometimes things don't go your way. You just have to bear down collectively and try to find a solution. For us it was just being simple, coming out with a higher competitive level. With a Hall of Fame goaltender like Brodeur, you have to give him his due respect. You have to make it harder on him, and 12 shots after two periods wasn't nearly good enough. So we had to get some traffic and shots on net."
They did just that in the third. Boston had the first 10 shots of the final frame, scoring on three of them. Andrew Ference tied it 3:01 into the third from Campbell and Shawn Thornton. Then Nathan Horton scored on Boston's only power-play chance of the night at 7:10 and Campbell added another 35 seconds later to put the Bruins up for good.
"I didn't think we were playing that bad of a game," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "I thought we were skating much better than we had been lately. We were down 1-0 and the one thing we had to do was create more scoring chances and hang on to the puck a little better and get some quality shots from the points. Our guys did a great job of that. We finally got ourselves a power play and cashed in on that. I thought that kind of got the ball rolling for us."
It was the kind of third period the Bruins have put together often this season, just not recently. Even with their late struggles on this trip, Boston has outscored its opponents 67-30 in the third period. It just took getting back to basics to find that finishing touch again.
"The first two periods I'm sure there was frustration, and that frustration and the desire to do well almost makes guys try to do too much," Ference said. "It just doesn't work. And it's not like you're playing a team that's just rolling over. They're coming at us hard and playing really good, so obviously they made it very difficult on us. The third period I think it was just more not worrying about referees or bad shifts or frustrations and just playing. They still played us hard, but I think we just found a way to use our energy in a more effective way."
The Bruins will have to continue using their energy effectively, as it doesn't get any easier any time soon. They return home Saturday for a huge clash against the Rangers. New York leads the Eastern Conference, but has just a one-point lead on the Bruins, who can claim the top spot with a victory in the first of four meetings between the Original Six clubs this season.
"I think there was disappointment in our game [after the Tampa loss]," said Julien, whose club finishes its pre-All-Star slate at Philadelphia and at Washington after facing the Rangers. "I think the guys realized we had to work a little harder. We had to find that energy we've been talking about for the last little while. We seemed to find it tonight. These next three games before the All-Star break are all tough games. We know we're going to need to play like that and even better going forward."