BOSTON – It wasn’t the first time Byron Bitz had a big crowd chanting his name. It had been a while, though.
The rookie fourth-liner scored his second and third NHL goals Tuesday night, leading the struggling Bruins to a 6-1 win over the Florida Panthers in the opener of Boston’s six-game homestand. Bitz’s performance had the fans buzzing, just like he used to in his days at Cornell.
“Couple times in college – but 20,000 people’s different than 4,000, so it was pretty cool,” he said.
Bitz, playing in his 20th game since being recalled from Providence, Jan. 10, scored once in the second period and again in the third as the Bruins won for only the second time in their last eight games.
His second goals made it 4-1 and Aaron Ward and Michael Ryder followed with goals to break the game open. That got the home crowd chanting for Bitz to finish off the hat trick.
He didn’t do it, even with a bit of late power play time.
“It would have been nice if it worked out but it’s not that big a deal,” he said.
Bitz tipped home a Stephane Yelle pass at 15:53 of the second period and then scored on a rebound of a Yelle shot 3:24 into the third.
“He got rewarded for doing the things that we’ve been kind of preaching for the last little while,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “This guy here, not only does he bring size (six-foot-five) and strength along the boards, he’s been solid, but I think he’s a guy that I think with confidence and with experience you’re going to see him probably score more goals. He demonstrated a little bit of that tonight.”
Bitz scored 13 goals for Providence last year and had three goals and seven assists in 37 games with the AHL club at the time of his recall last month.
His contribution Tuesday night was one of several that helped the Bruins come back strong after a 1-3-1 road trip, one that included a 2-0 shutout loss at Florida last Saturday night.
Ryder, returning from a seven-game absence after surgery to repair facial fractures and wearing a full shield, had his 20th goal and an assist and Marc Savard joined Yelle with two assists.
The win allowed the Bruins, who scored six goals in a game for the first time since Jan. 8, to move nine points ahead of Washington for the lead in the Eastern Conference.
Goalie Tomas Vokoun had the shutout for Florida but was unable to play Tuesday because of illness. So the Bruins roughed up backup Craig Anderson, playing for the first time since Feb. 3, who was beaten by the first shot he saw just 48 seconds in.
“It was just ugly,” said Florida coach Peter DeBoer, whose team came in with nine wins in its last 13 games. “I didn’t think it was as bad as the score indicated. We spotted them two goals, which we can’t do to anybody, let alone the best team in the league.”
“We’ll burn the tape and keep moving forward. We’ve played more good than bad lately. We’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
Tim Thomas made 24 saves to snap a personal two-game losing streak for the Bruins.
Patrice Bergeron and Mark Stuart beat Anderson in the first 6:17 of the game. Then Bitz answered Kamil Kreps’ goal with his pair.
Bergeron, playing in his 14th game since returning from his second concussion in a 14-month span, scored his second goal in the last four games; the other was an empty net score at Carolina. Tuesday’s goal was his first past a goalie in 25 games, since he beat Vokoun on Florida’s first visit, Nov. 21.
Stuart made it 2-0 at 6:17 with his career-high fifth goal, set up by Ryder.
Notes: Vokoun had played nine straight games in the Florida goal, winning six, the most recent the shutout of the Bruins. He took part in the morning skate and was on the bench as the backup. The crowd of 16,781 ended a streak of eight straight Bruins sellouts. … Shawn Thornton assisted on Bitz’s first goal for his career-high 10th point. … The Bruins sent forward Vladimir Sobotka and defenceman Matt Hunwick to Providence of the American Hockey League. … Local Space Shuttle Endeavour astronaut Steve Bowen dropped a ceremonial first puck that travelled on the Space Shuttle Discovery with fellow local astronaut Stephanie Wilson. The puck was then to go on display at the Boston Sports Museum, housed in the TD Banknorth Garden.