BOSTON -- Aaron Ward hopped out of the penalty box and found himself on a breakaway.
He was more familiar with the former than the latter.
"I've never scored on a breakaway. I didn't know what to do," the Boston defenseman said, semi-seriously, on Thursday night, when he helped stake the Bruins to a three-goal lead before they held on to beat the Ottawa Senators 5-3. "It's like an offensive lineman scoring in football. Hopefully they won't have video of it. I think my eyes were closed."
Ward scored his first short-handed goal in 750 NHL games, and P.J. Axelsson followed soon after with another breakaway as he left the penalty box for Boston. Axelsson added two assists, Phil Kessel scored twice, including an empty-netter with 56 seconds left, and Tim Thomas stopped 25 shots to help the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins win for just the fifth time in 16 games.
"It's important to keep in mind that we just played a team that isn't going to make the playoffs, and we just skidded by," Thomas said. "We have to get that killer instinct."
Boston, which had led by as many as 14 points in the conference, maintained a six-point lead over the second-place New Jersey Devils, who beat the Phoenix Coyotes 5-2.
"They looked a bit fragile when we scored to make it 4-2," Ottawa coach Cory Clouston said. "It seems like they've had a tough go of it lately, and that might have crept into their minds."
Jason Spezza scored twice, and Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson each assisted on both for the Senators. Alex Auld stopped 17 shots for Ottawa, which had won four consecutive games.
The Bruins have beaten Ottawa six straight times, including all four this season.
"It's been a frustrating year for us," Senators forward Chris Neil said. "When you're playing the top team in the East, they're not going to give up too many cushions like that."
There was a flurry of penalties in the opening minutes, and it set the tone for the opening goal two minutes later.
Ward was called for hooking 70 seconds into the game, a penalty that was matched when Nick Foligno was sent off for tripping on the ensuing faceoff, just three seconds later. As Ward's penalty expired, Zdeno Chara blocked Heatley's shot and fed Patrice Bergeron, who found Ward to set up a point-blank, breakaway slap shot that made it 1-0.
Boston also took advantage of the man coming out of the box on its second goal, when Axelsson came off a roughing penalty and worked a perfect give-and-go with David Krejci to make it 2-0 just 6:52 into the game. Midway through the first period, Chuck Kobasew took a backdoor pass in front of the net and gave the Bruins a 3-0 lead.
"We seem to have good starts, but we let off the gas pedal," said Boston forward Mark Recchi, who was acquired at the trade deadline to bolster the Bruins for the playoff push. "The good thing is, though, everybody in here understands that we're not where we need to be."
Spezza cut the deficit to 3-1 just two minutes later when he slammed home the rebound after Heatley tried a wraparound stuff shot.
After a scoreless second period, Kessel roofed a slap shot 4:31 into the third period to extend Boston's lead to 4-1, but two minutes later Christoph Schubert made it 4-2 on an easy tip-in from Ryan Shannon. Spezza's second of the game cut the Senators' deficit to a single goal.
Krejci and Kessel sat out practice on Wednesday, but both played their regular shifts on Thursday. ... The Bruins are 15-3-2 against the Northeast Division. ... Alfredsson extended his point streak to five games. ... Marc Savard had two assists for Boston and has 12 in his last 10 games. ... Heatley has 38 points in 37 career games against the Bruins.