Every game for the last couple of weeks has had the feel of a Game 7: the same desperation, the same physicality, and while the consequences aren’t the exact same, they are similar enough. The stakes are huge at this time of year, and that is not lost on the Bruins as they enter Tuesday night’s matchup with the Panthers, who sit just four points behind them in the conference standings.
“Right now, it’s really about taking it a game at a time,” said forward Patrice Bergeron following Tuesday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “I think that’s what you have to do in the playoffs, and in Game 7’s, and it’s definitely something [where] you need to play your best hockey every night and make sure everyone shows up and everyone is playing to their strengths.
“It’s definitely going to be like this for the rest of the year. We know it’s going to be a huge battle, and we know what’s at stake for both teams tonight, so it’s definitely going to be a tough game.”
Boston and Florida enter Tuesday’s matchup riding similar waves of success. After a difficult middle of March during which they went 0-3-3, the Bruins have rebounded in their last three games, taking five of a possible six points from the Ducks, the Rangers and the Hurricanes. One week ago, they were out of the playoffs, having been usurped by Ottawa; just five days later, they found themselves back in the race and are now three points up on the Senators for the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference.
Things can change quickly in the span of a week, and the Bruins expect the case to be the same as they head into the final six games of the season.
“We’ve built a little bit of a gap right now, but if we don’t take care of business tonight and the next couple of games, we’re right back where we were,” said forward Reilly Smith. “So I think you’ve got to keep the momentum, especially in this late stretch of the year, and if you do make it to the playoffs —whatever team it is — that’s what’s going to carry you through the first round.”
One of the teams the Bruins faced — and lost to — during the aforementioned tough mid-March stretch was, of course, the Panthers. On March 21, Boston dropped a hard-fought shootout contest in Sunrise, marking their first lost to Florida in 10 games.
For Florida, that win continued a resurgence of sorts. The Panthers have won four of their last six games to keep themselves in the hunt for a playoff berth.
“It’s not easy to turn an entire franchise around, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Florida defenseman and Calder Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad. “We’ve come from the bottom, and I think that’s a good accomplishment, but it’s nothing if we don’t make the playoffs this year, and that’s kind of what our goal was at the beginning of the year — to make the playoffs. We didn’t expect to be a [No.] 1, 2 team coming into the playoffs, but we want to sneak in there. We want to make this push.”
This past weekend was nearly as successful for the Panthers as it was for Boston. First, the Panthers earned a point in an overtime loss to Montreal before taking a 4-2 victory over the Senators in what was, at the time, their most pivotal matchup of the season.
Now, on Tuesday night, they face an even more pivotal matchup: The Panthers have the opportunity to end a very successful five-game road trip with a win, and they have a chance to pull within two points of Boston for a playoff berth.
“We’re playing real good hockey — we’re playing well — and we’ve got to play well again tonight,” said Panthers Head Coach Gerard Gallant. “It’s going to be two hungry teams out there tonight looking for points, and obviously they want to win the game — they get a big jump on the two teams [chasing them] — but if we win it, it’s right back in there. So it’ll be interesting.”
That makes the Bruins’ task on Tuesday night simple, yet challenging. They have to play smart. They have to bury their chances. They have to make sure this contest is the same kind of tight-checking, physical game they played in Florida just over a week ago, but with one key difference: two points in the end instead of one.
“We all want to continue to win — and if possible, [win] every game we play,” said B’s captain Zdeno Chara. “But sometimes, we've got to realize that sticking with the gameplan is very important instead of trying to do more out there. We've just got to realize that if we play to our strengths, we are very effective.”
There have been times this season when the Bruins have managed to string together a couple of weeks’ worth of excellent hockey. There have also been times this season when they have fallen victim to mediocrity and a lack of desperation — and sometimes, those stretches have lasted weeks at a time.
At this stage, the Bruins know they cannot let the latter happen. The stakes are too high. There is a playoff berth on the line, and there are two teams lingering just behind them in the standings — and those teams aren’t going anywhere.
“I think that we've really had that commitment of everybody going, and we've had to [be] really good,” Chara said. “We know that these last few games of the regular season are very important, and again, same phrase I've been using: We know where we're at, and we need to continue to play desperate hockey.”
One additional feature the Panthers and the Bruins have in common this season is an infusion of youth.
The Bruins have certainly benefited from the play of 2014 first-round draft pick David Pastrnak, who has been a staple in the lineup since joining the team after his stint at World Juniors, where he represented the Czech Republic.
The 18-year-old phenom has registered 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points in 40 NHL games this season, but what doesn’t appear on the scoresheet is the knack he seems to have for timely scoring. Most recently, he showed it in a big, big way when he tallied the game-winning goal in overtime against the Hurricanes on Sunday, waiting just inside the left circle for a Carl Soderberg drop-pass that he one-timed past Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin.
It is clear that Pastrnak’s confidence is growing with each game he plays, and at a time when points are at an absolute premium, his knack for tallying a clutch goal could not be coming at a better time.
The Panthers know something about clutch teenage phenoms: They have one of their own in Ekblad, who continues to set Florida’s rookie defenseman scoring record with every game that passes.
Ekblad, therefore, can respect what Pastrnak has done for Boston this season.
“He’s been one of the better players on Boston, from what I’ve seen,” Ekblad said on Tuesday. “Obviously, me and him are the only 18, 19-year-old guys in the league. He’s playing really well. It’s great to see for the game, and it’s good that [another] young guy like myself is doing well.”
Ekblad’s point production isn’t the only asset he has provided to the Panthers this season. His maturity seems to belie his age, and that — like Pastrnak’s timely scoring — has served Florida well as it continues its playoff push.
“[I’m] just focused on our own game and the Florida Panthers,” Ekblad said. “We’re here trying to make a playoff push, and obviously, tonight’s the biggest game of the year for us, so that’s what I’m focused on. I’m not really focused on myself or anyone else in the league, but [on] our opponent tonight, and our team.”
Connolly Progressing; No Word on Hamilton
Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien didn’t have much of an update to offer on injured defenseman Dougie Hamilton on Tuesday — “Still obviously not out there [on the ice]” was all he could say — but that was not the case for forward Brett Connolly, who has yet to play in a game with Boston since being acquired via trade on March 2.
Connolly dislocated his right index finger during his second practice with his new team and has missed all 14 of Boston’s games since. Connolly began skating with his teammates last week, and while there is still no official projection for when he could return, he is getting closer — by his own estimation, and by Julien’s.
“Obviously, you see him there in practice; it’s a matter now of getting the OK from the doctors, as I mentioned last week, and him feeling good enough and comfortable enough,” Julien said. “I think it’s a combination of those two making those decisions.”
Connolly is no longer wearing a plastic splint on his finger and is simply taping it, which, he said, allows him to get a better feel for his stick. That has certainly afforded him some encouragement as he has continued his recovery.
Connolly also accompanied his teammates on their quick trip to Carolina for the tail end of this past weekend’s back-to-back, and that, too, was a confidence-booster, as it marked his first road trip with his new team.
“I’m pretty confident, obviously,” Connolly said, adding, “[The finger] is getting better every day. Some days, it feels a lot better, so that’s encouraging, and for me, getting traded and then getting hurt right away, you’re not around the guys as much, so it was good to go on the road trip — the last one — and it will be good to get back into the lineup and get back in a groove.
“Obviously, it will be good to get into a couple of games before the end of the season so I’m ready for playoffs. So it’s exciting.”
Julien indicated that he won’t hesitate to deploy Connolly when he is able to return, despite the sudden excess of right wings at his disposal.
“I think when the time comes, we’ll definitely put him in,” Julien said. “He’s a good player. In my mind, there’s no doubt we missed him through this stretch. When the time comes, I’ll make that decision, but certainly not open to talking about it right now.”
Wednesday marks the four-week anniversary of Connolly’s injury. Although his official timeline for a return was set at six weeks, Connolly said on Tuesday that “4-6 weeks is kind of where I’m aiming for.”
Above all, though, he hopes to get into at least one game before the postseason begins so that in the event that the Bruins continue on to the second season, he’ll be ready.
“I’ve been watching a lot of games,” he said. “You kind of get how they play, and how hard they work, so it will be good to be in that atmosphere.”
New-Look Bergeron Line Still Working
Since being re-inserted into the lineup on March 26 following his recovery from a partial tear to the MCL in his left knee, David Krejci has been deployed at right wing alongside Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
It has been a transition for Krejci, who excels at center, but Julien said on Tuesday that Krejci will continue to see time on the right side until further notice.
“There’s no doubt David is probably a little more comfortable at center, but also, he’s just started,” Julien said. “He’s played [three] games. I don’t know that he would be that much more efficient at center right now. either. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, he doesn’t look comfortable there’; I don’t know if he’d look comfortable at center right now, either, having to do all that work.”
Julien indicated that whenever Connolly is ready to return to the lineup, that could provoke additional changes that will trickle through the lineup and could possibly affect Krejci.
“We’re being patient with that, and we’ll make a decision along the way. Connolly’s going to come back. He’s a right-winger, so we’ve got some tough decisions to make, and when the time comes, we’ll make those.”
After spending the bulk of the 2013-14 with Marchand and Smith, Bergeron has seen plenty of different linemates this year. Marchand has largely remained his left wing, but the right wings — up and down the lineup — have shuffled around for the better part of 2014-15.
Bergeron, for his part, as enjoyed some of the flexibility that has been afforded to his line at present, given that it boasts two natural centers.
“If [Krejci] is coming toward the middle, I’m going to take the wing, and vice versa,” Bergeron said. “So for the most part, I’ll be in the middle; that’s our position, that’s how the play’s going to unfold. But if it’s any different, I’m just going to try to read off of [Krejci], and he’s going to do the same thing.”
Marchand has shifted around the lineup plenty this year, and though his current line has yet to find its way onto the scoresheet, he has been encouraged by the opportunities it has generated.
“We haven't capitalized yet, but we easily could have had three or four goals versus New York [on Saturday], and we had a decent first [period] last game,” Marchand said. “But last game was a little different, I think, for everyone. I think we're good when we get down in the offensive zone. We can create plays, and I think we're definitely coming along.”
Part of the reason Julien isn’t ready to disband this new-look line is that he is still expecting Krejci to improve, given that he has played in just 41 games this season. There are several facets of his game — namely, his pace — that are still coming along, and as he continues to improve, so, too, will his line.
“Maybe people expected them to start scoring a lot of goals because Dave was back — but Dave has missed half a season, and I can’t keep saying enough about that,” Julien said. “He’s still making those nice little plays — his hands are still good — but I think the pace of the game is what a player really has to work hard to catch up with at this time of the year, and when you’ve been out for half the season, don’t expect a guy to come back and all of a sudden have the pace of the game.
“We know how David plays. He does like to slow down the pace, so it’s a bit of a challenge for him to get up to par right now with the rest of the group, but I like what he’s doing. He’s been reliable, he’s making good plays, he’s coming around. We’ll take that line the way it is, for now.”
Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo — who held the Bruins to a single score on March 21 in Sunrise — reportedly re-aggravated an upper body injury this past Saturday in Montreal. After getting the day off on Sunday in Ottawa, Gallant expects Luongo to resume his post between the pipes against the Bruins on Tuesday.
“He was out there this morning; he looked good,” Gallant said. “He’s playing.”
With a win on Tuesday, Luongo could earn the 400th NHL victory of his career. His opponent is expected to be Tuukka Rask, making his career-high 65th appearance of the season.
Projected Lineup vs. Panthers
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — David Krejci
Milan Lucic — Ryan Spooner — David Pastrnak
Reilly Smith — Carl Soderberg — Loui Eriksson
Chris Kelly — Gregory Campbell — Max Talbot
Zdeno Chara — Zach Trotman
Torey Krug — Dennis Seidenberg
Matt Bartkowski — Adam McQuaid
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg