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Bruins Ready for 'Game 7' Atmosphere vs. Panthers

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

SUNRISE — After David Krejci got off the ice following Saturday’s morning skate in Sunrise, he felt good — but he still wasn’t willing to guess whether or not he’d be in the lineup for that night’s critical matchup against the Panthers.

“Today, I made another step forward,” he said. “[I] did some battle drills, so I’ll talk to the trainers, and we’ll see.”

Friday marked the four-week anniversary of the game in which Krejci partially tore his MCL. At the time, he was projected to miss 4-6 weeks, but at the beginning of this week, Head Coach Claude Julien said that Krejci would accompany the team on its three-game swing through Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay in the hopes that he would be able to return to the lineup at some point.

Following Friday’s practice, Julien said Krejci was still a possibility to return on Saturday night. Following Saturday’s morning skate, he reiterated it again.

“He’s day-to-day,” Julien said. “I think there’s a discussion that has to take place from here on in. As we speak, there is no decision made yet.

“I think the most important thing is, is the player ready? I don’t think we’re in a position right now to kind of sugarcoat that. So if he’s ready, we’d love to have him back, obviously. If he’s not, then we can’t play him him. Simple as that.”

During Saturday’s skate, Krejci engaged did some battling and engaged in other drills he had not yet done since he began skating a couple of weeks ago, calling it another “step forward.” After the team stretched following the skate, Krejci remained on the ice for about 30 minutes and “tested” his knee.

In the past, Krejci has said he wanted to be as close to 100 percent as possible when he did return so that he would not run the risk of having to leave the lineup again due to a reoccurrence of the injury. Given the nature of this injury, however, he isn’t as concerned about a setback as he was earlier in the season, when he missed 17 games with an undisclosed injury.

“This has been a tough season,” he said. “Early on, it happened to me, I came back once, re-injured it, came back again, re-injured it, so of course it’s going to be in my head. Some part of it is mental as well — once I feel good, I’ve got to make sure my head feels good. Whether I play today or not, it’s going to be on my mind a little bit.

“[I’m] just trying to be back, trying to be in a good enough shape to play. I think [with] this injury, once you feel good, then it’s good. I don’t think it’s anything like the one before, that you can re-injure it. I’m sure anything can happen, but that’s why you have to make sure that you’re ready to go.”

Krejci is well aware that his teammates find themselves in a somewhat precarious position at the moment. Though they currently claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, there are several teams lingering right behind them — including Florida (five points back) and Ottawa, which is just two points back.

The playoff picture, however — or the pressure that accompanies it — doesn’t add any additional fuel to Krejci’s desire to return as soon as possible. He already wants to return bad enough, no extra motivation required.

“You always want to be back. If you’re winning, if you’re losing — it’s not fun to watch either way,” he said. “Obviously, I know where we’re at. It’s a tough situation, but I believe in this group of guys. As far as I know, we’re still eighth, second spot in the wild card. I know Ottawa’s got a game in hand, but who cares? If we’re winning games…

“We’ve just got to go about our business and try to do our best.”

Bouncing Back

On Thursday night in Ottawa, the Bruins had an opportunity. They had the chance to put some much-needed distance between themselves and the Senators in the wild card race.

After suffering a 6-4 loss, it was abundantly clear that they had wasted that opportunity.

“I’m disappointed — I said that — and the easiest thing is to criticize and all that stuff,” Julien said. “At the same time, you try and take into account how much we’ve played, how much we’ve traveled, and there’s a fatigue factor, but at the same time, we need to push ourselves past that and not use excuses.”

Still, it is a simple fact that the Bruins’ recent schedule has been punishing. A constant series of three games in four nights, plus near constant travel and a handful of back-to-backs, obviously take their toll toward the end of the season, and perhaps the Bruins are feeling the effects of that now.

But this weekend’s back-to-back against Florida and Tampa Bay gives the Bruins another prime opportunity to once again gain ground in the playoff race.

“As a coach, you look at that and say, we’re starting to look a little tired, and that’s why our skates have been shorter. We’re trying to keep our guys as fresh as possible,” Julien said. “We’re going to finish 11 [games] in 18 [days] this weekend, and you know what? Anybody’s going to tell you how tough that is. So if we can pull these next two games out, it will have been a pretty good stretch.”

There was plenty about Thursday night’s effort in Ottawa that the Bruins didn’t like. They didn’t like their compete level, their apparent passivity, their mental lapses, particularly in their own end. On Saturday night, it will be imperative for them to correct those mistakes.

“I think our structure is probably the most important thing heading into tonight’s game,” said forward Milan Lucic. “Obviously, you see when we’re loose and not being assertive, we give up five goals like we did against Ottawa. So you look at [Florida’s] lineup, and the firepower that they have up front and the speed that they have up front — you’ve got to put a little extra emphasis on your defensive game and the structure within our game.”

Given the implications on the playoff race, both sides expect tonight’s game to feel like the postseason has already started. That notion doesn’t intimidate the Bruins; in fact, it excites them.

“I think from here on out, they’re all going to be playoff-type games,” Lucic said. “They’re playing for their lives, too, to try and make the playoffs, and so are we. I think it’s a real fun time of year. I think this is the type of games that you want to be in, and the type of games that you want to raise your level of play, and show what kind of character you have as an individual and as a team.

“So it’s up to us to rise to the occasion when the games are big like this, and like I said, lots to look forward to tonight.”

Boston finds itself in a bit of a unique situation at the moment: With 11 games remaining in the regular season, they will face the Panthers three more times — twice on the road and once at home. That makes Saturday’s game all the more significant. The Panthers, with a win, essentially keep themselves in the running for a playoff spot.

The Bruins know that if they win, though, they give themselves just a little bit more breathing room heading into this final stretch.

“We know this team’s been chasing us for a while now,” said defenseman Dougie Hamilton. “We know, too, that we play them a couple more times, so it’s a big game right now to try to push them away and keep trying to hold that spot.

“It’s 11 games left; I think it’s obvious that we need that urgency. I think everyone’s obviously going to bring it. Right now, it’s time to bear down and get the wins and get points and get into the playoffs.”

Most importantly, though, Julien wants to see his team simply want it more than the opponent. Following Thursday’s game, he said it was clear that the Senators wanted the W more, and in a back-and-forth game, that is what ultimately carried them to victory. On Saturday, facing an equally desperate team in the Panthers, the Bruins have to show that same desire.

“We know we need to start winning some hockey games, here,” Julien said. “We’ve let three games slide by here, and we need to turn it around. If you expect to be in the playoffs, you can’t prolong these losing streaks.”

Familiar Faces

When the Bruins take the ice on Saturday night at BB&T Center, they will see not one, but two familiar faces on the opposite bench.

That wasn’t the case the last time these two teams faced off back on Nov. 4. Back then, Shawn Thornton was making his debut as a Panther against his former team. This time, Jaromir Jagr — whom the Panthers acquired from New Jersey on Feb. 26 — will be going up against his former team as well.

“I’ve been around the Boston team — I played there for four months [in 2013],” Jagr said. “I know how good they are, and how much experience they’ve got and all the veteran players — they’ve been in the Final, they won the Cup.

“So it’s a big experience for us, for our team — we’ve got a lot of young guys. But to get better, you have to play those kind of games because it’s like a Game 7 for us. We lose tonight, the chances of making the playoffs are going to be very small. We all understand how important it is. We also understand how tough it’s going to be because Boston is a very good team. It’s up to us.”

Julien, who coached Jagr during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, said he is not at all surprised to see Jagr playing so well, even at the age of 43.

“For him, it’s not necessarily about speed — it’s about strength,” Julien said. “He still has good strength, and he’s so good at protecting the puck, he’s good at taking the space that’s given to him, and he’s still dangerous all the time. He’s a guy who’s always kept himself in unbelievable shape, and that’s allowed him to continue to be a pretty good player.

“If you look at his early career, you could see a guy who could skate pretty well. Also — and it’s a normal thing past 40 — you would think that a guy slows down a little bit, but the rest of his game is still there. He’s adapted well to his situation and continues to make the most of it.”

Florida Head Coach Gerard Gallant is equally unsurprised by the positive impact Jagr has had on his club.

“Since he’s gotten here, he hasn’t had a bad game — he’s played really well, and worked hard, and he’s playing about 16 or 17 minutes a night for us, and that’s a lot of hockey for a guy at that age,” Gallant said. “But he does it every day — he comes to the rink, he works out, he’s here first and he leaves late, and that’s the way he just been his whole career. So [his success] doesn’t surprise me.”

Another player who has adequately adapted to his new role with the Panthers is former Bruin Thornton.

“It’s been great,” Thornton said. “It’s been unbelievable. I walk into the rink with a smile every day. It’s been fun. Injuries kind of held me out of the lineup for a bit, then we had extra guys in and out of the lineup, but communication has been unbelievable. Coach is a great guy, and very straight-up, nice guy, and has good conversations with me, so great. I’m loving it.”

Gallant said that Thornton brings plenty of much-needed intangibles to Florida’s dressing room, as well as the grit and intensity that has come to be expected of him on the ice.

“[He brings] character, leadership — he’s been really good for our room,” Gallant said. “When Thorty plays, the other team knows he’s on the ice. He’s an important player for us, and it’s not about fighting and battling all the time — it’s about the presence he brings to our team, and he’s just a good character guy. He has fun every day, he comes to the rink and he’s always laughing. He’s a good person.”

Playing with a Florida team that is fueled by its plethora of young talent, though, is different from playing with the veteran Bruins. Thornton said it’s “no secret” that young players — particularly Calder Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad — have carried Florida to the position it finds itself in, and though a lack of experience certainly presents its challenges, he is happy with the way his team has performed down the stretch.

“I actually like the way we’ve been playing lately,” Thornton said. “We know we’re up against a pretty good team that’s fairly desperate over there, too, so it’s a big matchup, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Obviously, the postseason implications lend a bit more intensity to a game like this than it might normally have, and though Thornton still maintains friendships with many of the players who will be wearing Black & Gold on Saturday, he’s willing to put that aside for a few hours.

“I don’t know what’s going on over there — I haven’t asked them what’s going on in their locker room [because] I’ve got a locker room here I have to worry about,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the old locker room.

“Listen, they’re a good team over there. They’re right in it. I obviously would prefer they didn’t have success right now, because it means we have a chance, but personnel and stuff — I love those guys over there, so I’m hoping they do well. Just not here against us.”

Projected Lineup vs. Panthers

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronReilly Smith

Milan LucicRyan SpoonerDavid Pastrnak

Chris KellyCarl SoderbergLoui Eriksson

Daniel PailleGregory CampbellMax Talbot

Zdeno CharaDougie Hamilton

Dennis SeidenbergMatt Bartkowski

Torey KrugAdam McQuaid

Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg

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