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Bruins Controlling Their Playoff Fate, as Three-Game Road Trip Awaits

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins

BostonBruins.com - The Bruins' playoff fate is in their hands.

They have a handle on the first Wild Card spot, a position they have hovered in for months, with 12 games left in the regular season.

As of Wednesday, the Bruins had a game in hand on the Washington Capitals, who sit three points above them.

Not far below, the Ottawa Senators have 79 points and a game in hand on Boston, while the Florida Panthers aren't going anywhere, with 76 points.

Is this what the NHL schedule makers had in mind, when they arranged the Bruins' upcoming road trip through Ottawa and Florida?

The Senators have been on a tear to climb back up the standings and have won four straight games since dropping a 3-1 loss to Boston on March 10. They have been emptying their tanks every night, and the Bruins will need to follow suit on Thursday night at Canadian Tire Centre.

"It's definitely an exciting time right now," Brad Marchand said following the team's skate on Wednesday, before they flew to Ottawa. "But it's also nerve-wracking. It's not the most ideal position to be in. I'm sure we'd much rather be in a more secure playoff spot, but at the end of the day, it's in our hands right now."

"And it's up to us to come out and play good hockey and win hockey games and if we can do that, then we'll be able to secure a playoff spot. But it's in this room, and it's up to us whether or not we're going to be there."

The Bruins have earned points in nine of their past 10 games, going 7-1-2 in that span. As much as they have been winning in March, the other teams around them have responded to the urgency as well.

"Well, you know, that’s the stage we’re at right now," said Tuukka Rask. "We’ve been there for a few weeks, and we necessarily didn’t expect it to change but we obviously hoped it would change and we would get some lead on the teams below us."

"But everybody’s battling for that playoff spot now, and points are important, and everybody’s winning, so it’ll be like that till the end. We’ve been there for a few weeks, so [we're] getting ready the same way."

However you want to describe Thursday night's game - important, crucial, exciting, defining, playoff-style, a must-win - its outcome will be telling, for both sides.

Julien is hoping it will bring out the best in his team.

"Well, you don’t have a choice. Those are the kind of games, and there’s lots of them coming up, and we’ve got to show that we’re capable of handling those," said the bench boss. "And the old saying — one game at a time. We can’t be looking to far ahead, here. We’ve got to be really focusing on those games at hand."

"Because as far as I’m concerned, there’s no easy ones, and we need a good stretch here at the end to make it happen."

The Bruins can't afford more performances like against the Capitals and Sabres, where chances don't find the back of the net. Effort alone won't yield points this time of year. The Black and Gold need results. They need to convert on their opportunities -- 95 shot attempts and just one goal won't give them what they want.

"That's something we have to do, especially at this point of the year, with these points," said Marchand. "We can't afford to be giving any way, and now it puts us in an even tougher position [for Thursday] night and it's going to be a huge game."

With the Bruins' five-game win streak snapped by a 2-0 loss in D.C. on Sunday and then a 2-1 shootout loss to Buffalo on Tuesday, they have put up just six goals in their past four games. Scoring first hasn't been an issue, but finding that killer instinct to extend the lead is a point of emphasis.

"We feel good. You’re not going to win every game. We’ve had a tough time scoring in the past few games, and I think that’s our biggest issue," said Rask. "Nothing wrong with how we’ve played, but when you’re not scoring that much, it becomes an issue, and something we obviously want to fix."

"It’s been an up and down scoring season for us, and that’s something we have to fix, but other than that, nothing that I think we have to be worried about."

Scoring won't get any easier, with Ottawa's rookie netminder Andrew Hammond getting the start in goal for Thursday's tilt. If not in touch with the NHL scene beyond the Black and Gold as of late, Hammond is helping keep the Sens' playoff hopes alive, with usual starter Craig Anderson back out of the lineup after aggravating his hand injury and usual backup Robin Lehner recovering from a concussion.

Hammond is 11-0-1 in 12 starts, with a 1.35 goals-against average and .956 save percentage.

The "Hamburglar" (a nickname the 27-year-old undrafted goalie received in college and has since guaranteed him free McDonald's for life) has allowed two or fewer goals in all 12 games, making him the second goaltender in NHL history to achieve that feat. Frank Brimsek yielded two or fewer goals in each of his first 12 career starts with Boston in 1938-39.

So, how will the goal-strapped Bruins beat arguably the League's hottest goaltender?

"Well, you get an opportunity. That’s what we’ve got [Thursday]," said Julien. "We’ve got an opportunity to hand this guy our first loss, and it’s up to us to make that happen."

"This is a guy we haven’t seen; we know that he’s a battler, we know he’s played well, we know he’s riding a hot streak right now, but at this point in time, I think it’s up to us to figure it out and score some goals and win ourselves a big game."

"I think that's also a good compliment to their team," said Marchand. "Their team's been playing very well in front of him right now, which definitely helps him, so we're going to have to be even better because of that."

"He's obviously not giving up very many goals, so we're going to have to be very tight defensively and hopefully if we can do that, we can pot a couple and hopefully it's enough to win."

Though the goal scoring isn't erupting, the defensive game has been there for the Bruins. They haven't allowed more than two goals against in their past 10 games, aside from a 5-3 win over Detroit on March 8. Rask is comfortable in tight situations, and his strong play gives the Bruins a chance every game.

"Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve really taken pride in our defense, and keeping the goals against low, winning games 2-1, 1-0, 3-2," Rask said casually. "So I don’t take any extra pressure [on myself]."

Those in the Spoked-B just need to be on the better side of those outcomes, starting in Ottawa.

"I think the biggest thing is the composure that you have to have — the composure to play those kind of games, and the commitment, dedication, to do the right things here," said Julien. "You’ve got to stay poised in those situations, in pressure situations, and you rely on your veteran players to lead the way in that area, and the young guys to follow."

Marchand is now one of those players. He showed up in a big-time situation against the Flyers with the late tying goal and overtime winner. The Bruins will look for more of that spark, from the entire team, down the stretch.

"It seems like those big games are ones we respond to and ones we show up for," said the winger.

Whether they wanted to or not, the Bruins appeared to take the Sabres lightly. That won't be the case against the Sens.

"They're going to compete a lot harder," said Marchand. "We have to make sure that we're fully aware and prepared for that."

And if the Bruins play their cards right, they'll head to Florida still in control, with 11 games to go.

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