BOSTON - Things are about to rachet up a notch for the Boston Bruins.
While the Black & Gold's level of competition has already been quite stiff through the season's first six games, the schedule is set to get even tougher over the next week as the team prepares for showdowns with division rivals Tampa Bay and Toronto and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis.
"They're big games, especially the first time you see them in a season you want to set the tone," Torey Krug said following Wednesday's practice at Warrior Ice Arena. "It's a rivalry game…guys that we've seen in the playoffs over the last couple of years. You get excited for all these matchups."
It all starts on Thursday night with a visit from the Lightning, last season's Presidents' Trophy winners, before a home-and-home with the Maple Leafs - the B's first matchups with Toronto since last spring's first-round playoff series - on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena and Tuesday back at TD Garden.
"It's not hard to get up for those games," said Charlie Coyle. "They mean a little bit more - they're a great team and they're gonna be there when the season comes to an end and the playoffs start, and you know they're a top team. That means a little more…you're more focused I think."
While the Bruins (5-1-0, 10 points) are currently atop that crop of Atlantic Division contenders - though one point behind division-leading Buffalo - they know that facing off against the Lightning (3-2-1, 7 points) and Maple Leafs (4-2-1, 9 points) will provide a better idea of how well their game stacks up at this point of the season.
"It is early on and teams are still kind of finding their groove," said Coyle. "I don't think teams really hit their groove until a little more of a while in here. We want to see how we measure up against these guys and how they play and how we play.
"I think it's gonna be a great test. It's two great teams. We want to take it one game at a time, but, yeah, it will be a pretty good test for us."
And with crucial divisional points up for grabs, the results of the next three games could certainly have implications down the line as the teams jockey for position.
"I'm sure [the intensity level will] amp up," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "I know it will on our side, our group is a competitive group…I would like to think that we'll be better over 60 minutes for the next three games just because of what's at stake, divisional rival, the familiarity, [and] the energy level going up."
After playing just under five minutes in Monday's win over Anaheim, David Krejci skated with the group - donning a normal white practice jersey - for the first half of Wednesday's session. Cassidy said the center is "nursing an upper-body injury" and is considered "day-to-day." Krejci has not been ruled out for Thursday's tilt with Tampa Bay.
Kevan Miller, still recovering from knee surgery, skated with Krejci before Wednesday's practice and is "on schedule" in his rehabilitation, per Cassidy. Miller has not played since April 4 of last season.
"I don't know if it's two [days] on, one off, or what they've got him on," said Cassidy. "But he's getting closer. Until he's with the team, it's hard to project [a return date]. Let's get him with the team, get him in a normal sweater, get some contact and I'll probably have a better timeline of when he can return. So far so good, he's working hard on the drills he's been given."
Stuck in the Middle
The Bruins boast a 5-1-0 record through six games, but one major area of concern has been the team's play in the second period. While those dips have not necessarily translated to the scoresheet (Boston has outscored its opponents, 4-3, in second periods this season), they would certainly like to shore things up.
"Just be sharper mentally," Krug said of how to fix the problem. "No matter what it is or no matter the reason for our second periods being kind of crappy, as an older group the veterans have to come out and be sharper mentally. We lead the way for the younger guys and they can follow suit.
"Whether it's because we come out well and we have leads in the first and the other team's just pushing back, it doesn't matter. We've got to go out there and play the right way."
Cassidy, who called the team's second period during a 4-2 win over Anaheim on Monday "exceptionally poor," joked that falling behind could be the answer to finding more urgency, "but I don't want to go down that road."
The Bruins have tallied 10 of their 16 goals in the first period (while allowing just three), but have been outscored, 7-6, across the second and third periods this season.
One problem the Bruins certainly do not have is finding a goaltender that can get the job done. Through six games, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak both rank in at least the top six of every major statistical category.
Goals against average: Rask, 1.33 (2nd); Halak, 1.69, (6th)
Save percentage: Rask, .957 (2nd); Halak, .951 (4th)
Wins: Rask, 3 (T-2nd); Halak, 2 (T-3rd)
Shutouts: Rask and Halak, 1 (T-1st)
The efforts of their two netminders to this point have the Bruins tied for first in the NHL (with Anaheim) in goals against per game (1.67), having surrendered just 10 on the season. As such, Cassidy has had the luxury of rotating his goalies every other game thus far.
"There's no issues either way with either player, injuries or anything," said Cassidy. "They're both getting their starts right now. We got into a rotation early on, we'll see where that goes from here. But it seems like both of them are getting reasonable amount of work.
"That's the biggest thing…right now, we don't have a problem with either. I've got more time to worry about other things is correct."