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Bruins Improving, But Still Work to be Done as All-Star Break Looms

by Staff Writer / Boston Bruins

WILMINGTON — Just about three minutes into the second period of Thursday night’s eventual 3-0 win over New York, Torey Krug had the puck at the offensive blue line. He saw David Krejci waiting on the edge of the crease while David Pastrnak screened in front, and that was all he needed to see.

He sent a perfect slap pass to Krejci, who tapped it past Cam Talbot back-door to give the Bruins some insurance en route to victory.

“Well, you always want to contribute to the winning ways of your team,” Krug said following Friday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena. “For me — personally, individually as a player — I need to make sure I'm taking care of the defensive zone first and foremost, and it seems that whenever I'm playing well defensively, the offensive side of things comes together.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of some great plays by some other players, but it's always nice to contribute to the team and when you're doing that, it's a good feeling.”

That play is one of many that serves as evidence of the strides Krug has made from the beginning of last season until now. He has always been an offensive weapon, but his vision, his playmaking skills and his patience with the puck have turned him into even more of a threat with the puck.

Krug assisted on Krejci’s goal and, later, on Loui Eriksson’s, extending his recent point streak to a career-high five games.

“I think the experience is what’s made the real big difference with him,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “We’re still seeing a player who can make some great plays, and moves the puck well offensively, shoots the puck well. On the Krejci goal — just great vision, there, seeing him on the side of the net.

“He continues to evolve, but also, when he first came here, it was about getting used to playing against bigger and stronger guys, and how do you overcome that as a defenseman — he’s getting smarter. Our main thing with him is he can come up with the puck, but he doesn’t have to be physical — he just has to be smart, and I think he’s catching on to that as well.”

Prior to Thursday’s game, Krug’s fellow blueliner Dennis Seidenberg talked about the importance of every player on the ice doing his job at both ends of the ice. When everyone does his job, Seidenberg said, it prevents holes from opening up and providing opportunities for opponents.

It also helps to create offensive opportunities like the ones Krug found himself with on Thursday night.

“I think good teams have that ability to get offense from the back end and to make those plays,” Krug said. “There are certain players that are expected to make those plays, and you take pride in that, and being one of those players, the team looks to you to do things like that.

“And like I said, good teams always have the ability to start offense from the back end, and we have a really solid group when it comes to that. Guys push the puck forward well and get shots through, and it helps our team.”

Cunningham Solidifying His Spot

Boston’s fourth line, which has served as a constant in recent years, has gone through more than a few evolutions this season. Gregory Campbell has largely been the only constant, with players like Simon Gagne and Matt Fraser — both no longer in Black and Gold — filling in at times. Daniel Paille was a constant for a while, too, until he moved up to Patrice Bergeron’s line during a Jan. 7 matchup at Pittsburgh, and he’s been up and down ever since.

Over the last few weeks, though, another constant has emerged in the form of Craig Cunningham.

Since he was recalled on Dec. 10, Cunningham has carved out a niche for himself on the fourth line. Whenever he has been asked, Julien contended that Cunningham provides precisely the type of energy, and the physical presence, that the line needs in order to be effective. All in all, Cunningham has emerged as the type of grinder Julien had in mind to fill that fourth-line spot.

“He’s been good,” Julien said. “He’s a guy that we can rely on for faceoffs, and he plays center as well. He’s a hard worker. He comes to play every game, plays hard, practices hard all the time.

“He’s a character person, and I think we need his energy, we need his enthusiasm, and not only that, but he’s a smart player. I think he makes a lot of really smart decisions out there.”

Cunningham has been one of several Providence call ups who has transitioned seamlessly into Boston’s system after developing in P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy system, which is extremely similar to Boston's. Not only does that familiarity make it easier for the player to make the leap from the AHL to the NHL — it also makes coaching those players a lot simpler once they make the jump.

“I’ve said that for most of the players that have come up — it’s refreshing when players come up and you talk to them, [and] a lot of it is very similar to what they do there,” Julien said. “I think that’s a little bit by design. I’ve said it before — I think you don’t want to force a coach to coach a different way than what he’s comfortable in, but I think [Cassidy] is one of those guys that sees things a lot the same way that we do.

“It’s a real good fit, and it ends up being a real good asset here for developing young players.”

Three Games Left Till the All-Star Break

Thursday’s shutout of the Rangers gave Boston its second five-game winning streak of the season and served as further proof that this group of Bruins is beginning to settle in. There were struggles in November and December, but now, with injuries to key players in the rearview mirror, consistency seems to be much easier to come by.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons [for the turnaround] — obviously, giving our lineup a chance to be together,” Julien said. “It wasn’t going to happen overnight, but also, we have to realize we have some players that have really picked up their games as well. Guys that weren’t injured and were healthy are maybe playing better also, and whether that’s attributed to being put in better areas or having different players playing with — all that stuff, I think, is the reason we’ve played better.

“So I really can’t pinpoint the one main reason because I really don’t think there is one.”

Earlier in the season, particularly in the aftermath of losses, the Bruins insisted that they understood the game plan but often had trouble executing it. That is no longer the case. The Black and Gold have settled into their system, the defensive layers that have been characteristic of this team are there once again, and they have managed to complement Tuukka Rask’s stellar goaltending by creating offensive opportunities for themselves and, most importantly, capitalizing on them.

With Thursday’s win, the Bruins climbed into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, but while it marks progress, it’s still not enough to satisfy them. Not even close.

“We're obviously in a good place right now, but I think everyone in this locker room still understands there's a lot of work to be done,” Krug said. “We're still on the edge of a playoff spot. We're working, we're going to continue to work, and that's how we got out of that funk, was that the guys in this room came together and decided to put our work boots on, and that's what we've been doing.

“So we’re going to continue to do that. That's the mentality we're going to need [Saturday]. We face a team that's working hard, and they're very good on the power play, so we've got to be disciplined and we've got to make sure we're bringing that competitive edge to our game.”

On Saturday, the Bruins will face Columbus for the third time this season. The first time out, Boston eked out a shootout victory. The second game is one Boston would probably like to forget: They lost 6-2 in their first test following the Christmas break.

“It sure was ugly,” Krug said. “It’s nothing that the guys in this room are proud of, but after that, we decided to take a look at ourselves and try and get back to doing what Bruins hockey does, and that's playing with that competitive edge and being a hard team to play against and being solid and sound defensively.

“So that was a game that was way out of hand. It wasn't who we are, and we weren't happy with that.”

The Bruins that enter Saturday’s game have a much different complexion than the team that faced the Blue Jackets back on Dec. 27. Back then, the Bruins couldn’t seem to string together a few wins in a row, and they couldn’t seem to to close out a game in regulation. Their offense was there some nights; others, it was elusive.

They were trying to achieve consistency, and it wasn’t there yet. Now, perhaps, the Bruins still aren’t exactly where they want to be, but they are certainly closer than they were the last time they suited up against Columbus.

“It's kind of a tough time for the All-Star Break to come,” Krug said. “We’re starting to get our game back, and that competitive edge to become a tough team to play against, so that goal — in the short term — is to collect the last of the points that are available and go into that break playing well and happy with our game and confident, and then we'll pick it up from there.”

Marchand Due for Hearing on Friday

On Friday, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced via Twitter that forward Brad Marchand would have a phone hearing for a slew-foot on New York’s Derick Brassard that occurred during Thursday night’s game.

After Friday’s practice, Julien declined to comment on the play or on the hearing.

“[We’ll] see what they have to say first,” Julien said, “and go from there.”

Friday’s Practice Lineup

White Jerseys: Milan Lucic, David Krejci, David Pastrnak

Gold Jerseys: Brad Marchand/Daniel Paille, Patrice Bergeron, Reilly Smith

Gray Jerseys: Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson

Burgundy Jerseys: Jordan Caron, Gregory Campbell, Craig Cunningham

Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg, Kevan Miller, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski

Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Niklas Svedberg

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