Their most recent win — a 2-1 shootout victory over New Jersey on Sunday night — made that possible.
How have they stayed focused during their 11-1-3 run?
“Maybe by doing what I did today — barking at them a little bit,” Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said with a smirk following Monday’s skate at Ristuccia Arena. “Making sure we don’t get comfortable.”
“Part of a coach and coaching staff’s job is to make sure we keep the guys sharp. It’s also part of our job and their job to not get complacent or satisfied, and it’s also all of our jobs to remain hungry and that’s what we’re trying to do with this group.”
The Bruins will play three of their next four games at TD Garden. They host the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night in their final game before the three-day break around Christmas.
This is no time to ease up.
“When we started in the beginning of the year, and obviously where we are now, it’s nice to see we’ve made some progress,” said Captain Zdeno Chara. “But at the same time, we haven’t accomplished anything.”
“We just want to keep pushing ourselves, keep working hard and being better in certain areas and we want to finish strong before the Christmas break, that’s for sure.”
“You know, it’s easy to be feeling comfortable,” Chara continued. “It’s easy to be feeling complacent at this point, but that would be the biggest mistake we can make. We’ve just got to look at it as one game at a time, no matter what’s happening. We’re getting results, that’s nice to see, but it’s our job to be winning and doing the job.”
The Bruins’ defensive game — backed by strong goaltending — is now beyond the point of a turnaround. It has been consistently strong now for a month, apart from a 5-4 loss to Calgary in early December.
Through their past eight games, the Bruins have allowed just 20 goals.
“We’re better than we were at the start of the season — It sometimes takes quicker, and sometimes it takes time,” said Chara. “But I think that we try to make everybody really comfortable and aware of the situation that we’re in and how we want to play, how we want to improve and it takes 24 guys to buy into it and follow that plan.”
Before the season began, the Bruins tried to be reasonable with their expectations. They knew they would improve. They couldn’t be sure at what rate.
“I see us really improving throughout the course of the year,” President Cam Neely had preached. “With the group that we have that’s new and the group that we have that’s returning, I think I’m excited to see us get going in the regular season, but I really believe that we’re going to improve as the season goes along.”
The Black & Gold have certainly improved, but there is still more potential for this club.
“What I like is that we’ve adapted to the games and kind of done the right things to find ways to win,” said Julien. “Whether it was [Sunday] night’s slow start and finishing strong, or whether it’s been a real physical game and just matching that and whether it’s been a situation, where we had to bring some physicality early on to set the tone, I think we’ve done a decent job of that.”
Steadily, they have crept up the standings and have made the lead-up to the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against Montreal all the more interesting.
“When you look at how the season started and we saw a team [in the Canadiens] that was just running away from everybody, you know, I expected we’d probably be fighting for the next two or three spots, if anything,” sid Julien. “But it’s been interesting the way it’s gone right now. There’s a bunch of us all in that same group all fighting for the top spot, so again, there’s lots of hockey left, so no reason for us to get comfortable.”
Spooner Finding Stride
Ryan Spooner scored the shootout winner on Sunday night in the Bruins’ 2-1 win over New Jersey, following up his four-assist night in Pittsburgh on Friday, which set a new single game career high. The center assisted on all of his left winger Frank Vatrano’s three goals.
Not only has Spooner been producing (he has points in five of his past seven games, with three goals and seven assists), but he has been reliable. His line has been tasked with at times with giving Boston’s top players a rest, especially after the penalty kill.
His shootout skills in practice also made it easier for Julien to give him the nod to go first in the shootout, even against Cory Schneider.
“Probably 10 games ago, I would say that I didn’t deserve to be out there, but I feel like in the last little bit, I’ve shown that I did a little bit more, committed to my own end, faceoffs and everything,” said Spooner, who mentioned postgame on Sunday that Julien told him to just have confidence in his shot, like he does in practice.
“I don’t think he needs to be reminded — I think it’s more about he needs to be encouraged at times to do that,” said the bench boss. “Because we know he’s a good player, he can make a lot of good things happen there and he just seems to be becoming more and more confident as a player. You’re seeing it in games right now, where he’s more involved in more areas than he has in the past, so I like the progress that he’s made lately.”
Chara also praised Spooner’s play, but more so for what he has noticed from the young forward beyond points on the score sheet.
“I think we all know the team identity is to battle hard, and win the battles and races for pucks, and he’s obviously proven that area as well,” said Chara.
Rinaldo Returns to Practice
Zac Rinaldo returned to practice on Monday and skated with the group for the first time since he was placed on Injured Reserve with an upper-body injury. The forward has missed the past three games with the injury.
He suffered the injury at the end of a fight with Edmonton Oilers forward Matt Hendricks on Dec. 14 when the pair wrestled to the ice with a referee also trying to break them up.
“Just a strain in my upper body. It was after the fight against Hendricks,” said Rinaldo, who added it was good to get back on the ice with the team.
“We have a good training staff, they did a great job trying to get me back in the lineup as soon as I could,” said Rinaldo. “It’s just one of those things that I needed some time to get better, so I did that and now I’m ready to go.”
Confidence Brewing on Penalty Kill
The Bruins’ penalty kill has gained more confidence along with the entire team’s play. Through their past six games, they have now made 21 straight kills.
“The beginning of the year was frustrating for everybody and maybe a little fragile every time you saw a puck going in, you’d kind of hang your head a little bit, but right now there’s a lot of confidence there,” said Julien. “And there’s a lot of determination in continuing to keep that penalty killing going in the right direction.”
Practice Lineup 12/21
Matt Beleskey—David Krejci—Loui Eriksson
Brad Marchand—Patrice Bergeron—Brett Connolly
Frank Vatrano—Ryan Spooner—Jimmy Hayes
Landon Ferraro—Zac Rinaldo—Max Talbot—Tyler Randell
Zdeno Chara—Adam McQuaid
Dennis Seidenberg—Colin Miller
Torey Krug—Kevan Miller
Joe Morrow—Zach Trotman
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Jonas Gustavsson