But one of their biggest challenges of the season thus far will come in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night at TD Garden.
The Lightning currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference and trail the NHL-best Predators and Ducks by just two points. In net, they boast 2014 Vezina Trophy contender Ben Bishop, who will enter Tuesday’s matchup riding a five-game winning streak. Their plus-25 goal differential ranks as the fifth-best in the NHL.
So despite the fact that Tampa Bay enters Tuesday’s matchup on the heels of a 7-3 loss that came at the hands of the Flyers on Monday night, the Bruins aren’t expecting anything less than the best team in the East.
“Obviously, they’re one of the highest, if not the highest, [teams] in the league,” said forward Chris Kelly following Tuesday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “They skate well and they’re a creative group, so it’ll be a big challenge for us, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
In fact, given the loss on Monday night, the Bruins expect the Lightning to come out that much hungrier on Tuesday.
“You’ve got a Tampa Bay team that likes to play fast,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “[They] had a tough outing [Monday] night — no doubt they’re going to want to bounce back here against us tonight.
“We know the importance of this game, as well, for both teams. Again, a big challenge for us, and probably a big challenge for them.”
The Bruins enter the matchup playing some of their best hockey in a long time. They have strung together three wins for the first time since mid-November, and on Tuesday, they will attempt to win four straight for the first time since Oct. 30 to Nov. 10.
The B's have allowed just three goals in their last three contests, and though they haven’t been perfect during that stretch, they have been far better than they were for the bulk of December.
They certainly aren’t shying away from the challenge the Lightning will provide. In fact, it will serve as a good barometer for how far they have come over the last couple of weeks, during which they have taken points in seven straight contests — and for how much work they have left to do.
“We still have some work to do to be where we want to be,” said forward Patrice Bergeron. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing; I think it’s a good thing to want to improve and to find ways to do that, and to get some steps forward. I think we’ve done that the last few games.
“I think it’s about getting better. We’re facing a great team tonight — a team that we’re chasing in the standings, obviously — so we have to make sure we come out with a good effort.”
Gagne Not Returning
On Monday, Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli announced that forward Simon Gagne will not return to the team this year after being away since Dec. 10 due to personal reasons.
While the Bruins are certainly disappointed that their teammate won’t be returning to Boston, they respect his decision and wish him the best.
“There’s no doubt there’s a lot of things going through his mind right now,” Julien said. “Having been out for a whole year because of injuries and everything else [in 2013-14], and giving himself a chance to come back, and then coming back — I thought personally he was starting to find his stride there a little bit. Right near the end, you could see him coming around.
“Personal issues came into play there, and right now, I think — to his credit — he certainly doesn’t want to be a liability to us. He really feels that his head is not totally there. I understand where he’s coming from, and I feel for him, but yet I credit him for making the right decision, in his mind — feeling comfortable with the fact that he’s not ready to be able to give what he thinks he can give at this stage.”
Bergeron said he reached out to Gagne on Monday night after hearing the news that he would not be returning.
“Once I already knew last night, I texted him, and he texted me back — he was just [wishing us] all the best, and he’s definitely going to be following, and pulling for us,” Bergeron said. “He fit in well. Right away, he’s a veteran that has the experience and came in with a great attitude, and wanted to just fit in and be part of the solution.
“He definitely was a good addition to us.”
Gagne spent the bulk of his 23 games with the Bruins on the fourth line alongside Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. He tallied three goals and an assist in just over 11 minutes of ice time per game.
Campbell acknowledged that it is unfortunate that Gagne won’t be back this season but that his reasons for spending the rest of the season away from the ice are understandable.
“It’s disappointing from the standpoint that he’s a teammate and a friend and a linemate,” Campbell said. “He’s a good player, and he was kind of finding his game there before he left. But on the other hand, the circumstances that he’s going through, it’s really not [our place] to judge somebody.
“It’s personal, and we respect that, so it is what it is.”
Fourth Line Gets Another Makeover
While Gagne was on his personal leave of absence, rookie Craig Cunningham has done an admirable job stepping into a fourth-line role for the Bruins, providing energy and toughness to a fourth line that has looked more stable lately than it has all season.
“Cunny’s come in, and he’s played well,” Campbell said. “He’s provided some energy, and whether or not Gags was going to come back, he’s missed a little bit of time, so it would’ve taken him a while to come back, anyway. It wasn’t like we were waiting [on him] or whatever; we’re certain that Cunny’s certainly capable of contributing.
"I can’t speak for what’s going to be the makeup going forward. That’s not my job. So we’re just trying to do the best we can.”
Since a Jan. 7 contest in Pittsburgh, the line has undergone another series of makeovers: Paille moved up to Bergeron’s line against the Penguins, and after Jordan Caron filled in on the fourth line for a Jan. 8 win over New Jersey while Loui Eriksson nursed a hand injury, Kelly shifted to left wing on the fourth line alongside Campbell and Cunningham for Saturday’s win at Philadelphia.
“You just try to go out there and play a north-south type of style and support one another, and you come up the ice together,” Kelly said. “Soupy and I have played together before, and Cunny and I have played together, so we’re all on the same page, and it makes things that much easier.”
In years past, the fourth line has been a relatively stable one, but given personnel changes over the summer and over the first half of this season, stability hasn’t been a luxury afforded to that unit.
That lack of continuity has been an adjustment for Campbell, but one he has welcomed.
“I guess we were lucky in the sense to have that stability for the last four years,” Campbell said. “You kind of take it for granted because you look around, and it doesn’t happen often.
“The thing is, our role doesn’t change, so you just have to take pride in that, and the guys that have been on the [line] are more than capable of doing the job, and they’re good players, so we’ll make it work. Sometimes, it takes a little bit longer, whereas there was kind of that instant chemistry with [Shawn Thornton] and Piesy.
“But like I said, the guys that I play with are good players too, so I think it’ll come.”
That much-needed energy has been easier for the fourth line to provide over the last week or so, given the recent string of success.
“Energy’s a big thing, especially positive energy,” Campbell said. “The more that continues to build, the more confidence that we’ll play with as a team. Winning’s a lot more fun than losing, certainly — just the whole attitude, the whole makeup of the team changes, and believe it or not, you kind of loosen up a bit, and you’re able to kind of play your game and provide what you need to provide for the team.
“It comes through hard work, and we got here through hard work and perseverance, but it’s three games. We’re still in a dog fight, so we have to continue that.”
Tuesday’s Projected Lineup vs. Lightning
Brad Marchand — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Milan Lucic — Patrice Bergeron — Daniel Paille
Reilly Smith — Carl Soderberg — Loui Eriksson
Chris Kelly — Gregory Campbell — Craig Cunningham
Zdeno Chara — Dougie Hamilton
Dennis Seidenberg — Adam McQuaid
Torey Krug — Kevan Miller
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg