NEWARK - The Bruins entered the 2020-21 campaign with some question marks.
In addition to some on-ice changes - chief among them, blue line stalwarts Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug departing via free agency - a global pandemic also brought with it plenty of uncertainty, as doubts arose about whether or not a season could even be completed.
Once the campaign did commence, the Black & Gold faced their share of adversity. Injuries ravaged the roster, at one point shelving the club's top four defensemen and top two goaltenders all at once. The Bruins also had their season put on pause for a period of five days after five players entered COVID protocols in mid-March.
All of that hardship is what made Monday night that much sweeter.
Nick Ritchie, Patrice Bergeron, and Matt Grzelcyk scored, while Tuukka Rask stopped 20 shots for his 52nd career shutout, as the Bruins blanked the New Jersey Devils, 3-0, at Prudential Center to clinch a spot in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It marks the club's fifth consecutive trip to the postseason.
"You play for an opportunity to play for the Cup, right? So, we've accomplished the first part of that," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who has led the club to the playoffs in all five of his seasons behind the bench. "As for the challenges, there were some. For sure. I think every team has gone through them. We had our share of adversity with COVID rescheduling and injuries and using different people.
"The flip side of that, the positive side is that you learn a little bit about guys. They get thrown into situations where they've got to step up. Saw it with goaltending, saw it a lot in the back end. Maybe not as much up front, but certainly other areas. But we came out of it OK.
"I think we're starting to play some really good hockey now. I know the last few games are against teams that are eliminated. But for us, I watch our game, how we're winning, how we're playing, We're playing the right way.
"I think guys are preparing themselves for how you need to play - normally I'd say April to May, but I guess it'll be May and June and hopefully July."
Video: Bruins clinch playoff berth in 3-0 victory
The Bruins have now won 10 of 12 games since the trade deadline when general manager Don Sweeney acquired Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly, and have leapfrogged the New York Islanders into third place in the East Division with 68 points. They are now just three points back of Washington and Pittsburgh for the top spot with five games to play and games in hand on both clubs.
"It's a great accomplishment. It's definitely not easy," said Rask. "You look at our division, it's pretty tough. It's tight. There's no room to have slumps, really. You've got to be able to keep up with other teams. We've had our ups and downs, but I think lately we've kind of found our game and our identity. We stuck to it. But every year you make the playoffs you can check that box off and it's a great accomplishment in this league. But we have, obviously, bigger goals in mind. We get to go for it again in a week and a half or two."
Between now and whenever the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, however, there remains work to be done. The Bruins still have areas of their game to shore up, including figuring out the best bottom-six combinations, as well as the most compatible defense pairs with Brandon Carlo expected to make his return to the lineup on Tuesday night.
"We're taking care of business the right way right now…I think we're getting there," Cassidy said of the team's readiness for the playoffs. "Brandon Carlo's going to come into the lineup [on Tuesday], so let's get him ready. The guys that have played in his spot - Connor Clifton did a great job tonight sticking up for a teammate, played hard. Steven Kampfer's done a good job for us. It's nice to know we've got depth back there.
"I think we need a few more games out of the bottom two lines because they haven't been together a lot. Sorting out who is our best sort of fourth line - who best fits with Lazar? Is it [Karson] Kuhlman, [Chris] Wagner, [Trent] Frederic? How does it all shake out? There's a little bit to go there, so those are some things we want to sort through.
"I'm not talking about positioning or anything like that, I'm talking about as our team and our group and chemistry."
The Bruins, while still having their eyes set on a potential East Division title, will also monitor their health. With such a condensed schedule over the past six weeks, a number of the team's top players are likely in line for some rest as the postseason approaches.
"It's always the goal during the regular season, to get your ticket and get in and go from there," said Bergeron, who gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead with 2:06 remaining in the second and secured his eighth consecutive 20-goal season and the 12th of his career, which ranks second in team history behind Johnny Bucyk's 16.
"Obviously, we know we're a great team. I like where we're at. I know we can keep improving. We talked about using those last few games to work on our game and make sure that we're ready for Game 1 of the playoffs."
Video: BOS@NJD: Bergeron taps home feed from Marchand
Cassidy believes Monday night's win was a perfect illustration of what has made the Bruin successful this season - and for the past five, for that matter. While Boston's hottest trio of Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith was kept off of the scoresheet, the B's got a number of contributions from elsewhere.
The Bruins top line certainly did its part with Bergeron and Brad Marchand - playing in his 800th career game - both picking up two points apiece. But Ritchie and Grzelcyk also found the back of the net with the former matching a career high with his 14th goal of the season, while Jakub Zboril (assist, plus-2) also played one of his strongest games of the season after sitting out eight of the previous 11 games as a healthy scratch.
"Other people stepped up," said Cassidy. "I like the fact that we're going contributions from everybody. Reilly is out of the lineup, Zboril comes in, does a nice job. Hasn't played in a while. Miller will go in tomorrow and Carlo will come in…we're putting another good player in the lineup.
"I like that guys go in and out, identifying their role, accepting their role, knowing what their responsibility is."
Ultimately, Cassidy believes that the DNA of the group has remained consistent for several years, from his first foray into the postseason in 2017 against Ottawa, to the team's 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance, to the current iteration of the Black & Gold, which has its sights set on another lengthy run.
"I think they're a together group, that hasn't changed," said Cassidy. "Guys that come in here tend to enjoy the players here, the camaraderie. Obviously with COVID, it's limited a little bit, what you can do. But guys have spent time together on the road, they still have their dinners. They're in their room together going through battles, practices, all that stuff.
"I like that part of it. I don't think we're a cliquey group at all. I don't think there's anybody that's an outlier. Everyone has their own business and their own personality, certainly can be themselves. But I think as a group, they understand the common goal. I like that about our team a lot."
And with five games remaining before the quest begins anew, the Bruins have even more time to come together.
"We've battled all year," said Bergeron. "I'm really proud of the way that we stuck with the ups and downs of a season…you don't get too high, don't get too low - it's always a cliché - proud of the adversity we faced, guys coming in and out, lots of injuries, everyone stepping up and chipping in. Lots of depth.
"It speaks volumes of the quality of players and guys that we have in this locker room to always find a way, and then finding our groove. Lately, it's been great to see the guys coming together and every line chipping in, defensively as well. It's been great. We need more of it."
Video: BOS@NJD: Rask blanks Devils in 3-0 shutout victory