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Back End Thriving as Bruins Prep for Rangers

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — As Dougie Hamilton said, it seems like the Bruins have faced a lot of benchmark games over the course of the last two weeks.

And yet they’ll face another one on Thursday night.

“Obviously we know they’re good, and we know it’s a big game,” Hamilton said after Thursday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “I think everyone’s prepared for it. The last couple games, we’ve had a lot of big games, and everyone’s been getting up for them, and hopefully we have the same attitude tonight.”

Though the New York Rangers are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and are tied with the Bruins with 52 points, they are certainly one of the league’s hottest teams. They have won 13 of their last 15 dating back to Dec. 8, 15 of their last 19 and 17 of their last 22. In 11 of their last 14 games, they have allowed two goals are fewer, so the Bruins know that getting off to a good start and playing a full 60 minutes will be crucial on Thursday night.

“They’re a real strong team,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “Their lineup is a good mix between size and skill and speed, and the D’s are very active, so it’ll be a good challenge tonight, and I think it will be a fun game to play in.”

Cam Talbot is expected to be in net for the Rangers, which means the Bruins won’t have to face familiar foe Henrik Lundqvist — but they know Talbot poses no less of a challenge. Talbot enters the matchup with a 4-1-0 record, a 1.13 goals-against average and three shutouts in his most recent six appearances.

“Talbot’s a good goalie as well,” said forward Patrice Bergeron. “He’s been playing well, and we know that, so we definitely can’t take him lightly.”

The most important factor the Bruins were missing throughout a tough month of December was consistency, but they seem to have found it lately. Throughout their four-game winning streak, the Bruins, for the most part, have limited their mistakes and managed to submit that full 60-minute effort that seemingly eluded them earlier in the season.

“We’ve talked a lot about consistency in the past, and last four games, it’s been better,” Seidenberg said. “There hasn’t been too many ups and downs in our games, so it’s been a good start to the new year, I guess, and hopefully we can keep it going.

“The last few games, I think we’ve started playing smarter hockey, defending better and just sticking to our system, so that makes everybody happy around this team, and the whole mentality itself — it’s a whole lot better than it used to be.”

There certainly has been more positivity in the Bruins’ room over the last couple of weeks, and although winning seems to beget that positivity, the team is dedicated to maintaining that, regardless of what the future holds.

“It’s obviously a full-team effort,” Hamilton said. “I think we’re having more fun obviously right now, and [we’re] more positive, and trying to enjoy hockey right now, and I think with our game, it’s pretty fun to play, too.

“I think we’re definitely working harder and getting bounces, obviously, too, and I guess the thing we talked about — playing 60 minutes — so I think there are kind of less lulls than in the past. I think that’s what’s helping us.”

Defense Stepping Up

For much of November and December, the Bruins found themselves committing the kind of defensive lapses that are uncharacteristic of this team.

Lately, that component of their game has been far tighter. Boston seems to have recommitted to its system, and it has shown on the scoresheet: During this four-game winning streak, they have allowed six total goals.

The resurgence is partly due to the return of key injured players who were hampered by injuries. It’s partly due to the heroics of goaltender Tuukka Rask. But mostly, it’s due to that dedication to the system that seemed to be missing at times earlier in the season.

“You look at Zdeno [Chara] coming back and finding his game; we talked about [Adam] McQuaid [on Wednesday]; two veteran players that you put in your lineup that are big, strong and are extremely good defensively, so that certainly helps,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “Tuukka’s really been good the past couple weeks here. Tuukka’s playing the way we’ve gotten used to seeing him play.

“Obviously, the rest of the team is playing better as well — not just offensively, but the layers are better and everything else, so there’s a lot to talk about as far as why have we gotten better defensively.”

As those key players have returned from injury, Bergeron said things have seemed to fall into place. Perhaps there was a certain level of comfort missing when players like Chara and McQuaid were out of the lineup, and now that they have returned, the comfort level has as well.

“Every time you get guys back — and it was definitely some key players that were missing — it definitely helps and makes you feel…I wouldn’t say more comfortable, but at the same time, it kind of [does],” Bergeron said. “It’s one of those things where you’re used to playing with the same guys. You know what their tendencies are, you know what they’re going to be doing with the puck or without it, and it definitely helps everyone on the ice.”

There were times earlier in the season when Rask talked about the Bruins “duplicating jobs” out on the ice. Players tried to do too much in certain areas, which left others exposed. Now, with each player focused on his job and his role, those problems have been resolved.

“It’s a five-man unit that plays out there on the ice, so if one guy doesn’t do their job, everything breaks apart and seems to open up, and scoring chances happen up close on the net,” Seidenberg said. “Lately, it’s just been a better team game we’ve played. We’ve played smarter hockey, and more consistent, and that always helps to allow less goals and win hockey games.

“I think it all works hand in hand. If the forwards don’t do their job backchecking, it makes it hard for us to stay up, so [opponents] have more room and create more stuff off the rush. If we don’t keep our gap and the forwards have their back pressure, [opponents] have more room going forward and have time to make plays. So it all goes hand in hand, and we have to work well together and communicate out there in order to make [the other team] tired, and make it hard to enter our zone.”

Pastrnak’s 9th NHL Game

If line rushes from Thursday’s skate hold true as puck drop approaches, this matchup against the Rangers should mark rookie David Pastrnak’s ninth NHL game of the season. After the game, Boston’s management and coaching staff will choose to either keep him in Boston and burn a year off his entry-level contract, or they will be forced to send him back to Providence.

Given the way Pastrnak has played during his most recent callup, the question of whether he will or will not remain in Boston has been top of mind.

“This player’s going to be an important player to our organization — I think we all feel that way,” Julien said. “So you just have to make sure that whatever decision is made, whenever it’s made, you hope it’s going to be the right one.

“I can stand here and tell you that he’s made unbelievable strides since the beginning of the year. Offensively, we’ve seen what he can bring — the skillset, the speed that he’s got. We’ve also seen how good he’s become at playing without the puck — coming back to positions and really playing the North American style of game.

“He’s really learned this game real quickly, and you’ve got to give him credit for that. I think right now — I said it the other night — he’s certainly made as strong case for himself, but I’m not the one who’s going to stand here and give you the answer, whether he’s here or not. That’s not my job.”

Hamilton didn’t have to reach back too far to remember a time when he was in the same situation as Pastrnak. Back in January 2013, as the Bruins returned to action after the lockout, Hamilton played in his first chunk of games with the varsity club. When the decision came to either keep him in Boston or send him back to his junior team in St. Catherines, the Bruins elected to keep him.

Hamilton said that hearing the news that he’d be staying in the NHL was an experience unlike any other.

“I think it’s pretty surreal,” he said. “I think it’s a dream come true, and you’re just soaking in every minute. I think it goes pretty quick. I’ve been here for two years now, and it’s gone by really fast, and it’s been a lot of fun, and everything you would want out of it.”

Though Hamilton has been reluctant to offer advice to Pastrnak as he approaches his ninth game, he has encouraged Pastrnak to cherish these first few months in the league because they go by fast.

“I think you obviously have that little bit of doubt in your mind that you might not be ready, and you might get sent back at that nine-game mark, and I think once you kind of get told that you’re staying, it’s obviously a really good feeling,” he said. “You’re getting told your dream has come true and you’re going to play in the NHL, so I think for him, I don’t think he has to worry about it.

“I think he’s been playing really well, so I think he should be fine. But it’s obviously a really good feeling when it’s announced and you know you’re staying.

When Bergeron made his NHL debut at the age of 18, he, like Hamilton, made sure to soak in as much as he could — both in the dressing room and on the ice.

“I think I learned a lot just by looking at the captains and the other players,” he said. "They were so kind to me, I guess to make me feel at home right away. A lot of them took me under their wings and taught me the way to go about your business on and off the ice, and it was definitely something very special.”

Bergeron and the rest of the Black and Gold have made certain to serve as that same kind of influence on Pastrnak, but Bergeron agreed with Hamilton: Pastrnak brings so much to the table, even after just eight games, that he doesn’t even need much much direction.

“To just play his game,” Bergeron said, when asked what advice he has shared with Pastrnak during his time in Boston. “He’s been so good since the first time we’ve seen him. I think he just keeps improving, and he’s one of those guys that wants to get better, so I told him just to enjoy it.

“It goes pretty fast, so it’s about soaking everything in and playing and being in the moment, and so far, he’s been great.”

Projected Lineup vs. Rangers

Milan LucicDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronReilly Smith

Chris KellyCarl SoderbergLoui Eriksson

Daniel PailleGregory CampbellCraig Cunningham

Zdeno CharaDougie Hamilton

Dennis SeidenbergAdam McQuaid

Torey KrugKevan Miller

Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg

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