One week later, the case remains exactly the same.
“This time of year is pretty exciting for fans, obviously — it’s exciting for teams, too, and players, to have the opportunities to play those games,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien following his team’s optional morning skate in Ottawa on Thursday morning. “It’s not just about the playoffs; it’s about getting there, and you’ve got two teams right now that are fighting for one of those spots, and tonight means obviously a lot to both.”
Things can change in the span of the week. Heading into that game, the Senators were looking for a win that would keep them in the thick of the playoff race, and the Bruins were looking to keep the postseason out of reach for Ottawa.
Since that game, the Senators have reeled off four consecutive wins, and they have more than kept themselves in the playoff picture. In fact, they sit just four points behind Boston for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with a game in hand.
The pressure is on, for both sides — which, according to Senators Head Coach Dave Cameron, is a good thing.
“It’s part of the learning curve; you have to go through it,” he said on Thursday morning. “You can’t practice pressure. Pressure’s good. You have to learn to deal with it to be good, and it’s a chance for us to get used to it.”
For Boston, the pressure is on to set the Senators a little bit further back. They were able to do just that nine days ago, earning a 3-1 victory at the Canadian Tire Centre in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
Now, with the stakes just a little bit higher, they will have to do just the same in the first game of a three-game road trip, and the first game of yet another set of three games in four nights.
“It's a big game for both teams,” said forward Chris Kelly. “We know where they sit, we know where we sit in the standings, and it's a big game. Like I said, it's that playoff-type atmosphere today, and you're going to see both teams working hard.
“They shouldn't be any more desperate than we are. This is just as important to us as it is to them. We need to go out and show that.”
Of course, there are improvements that can be made despite Boston’s win the last time out against the Sens. Though they took a 3-0 lead in the second period, the Bruins did not play their best game. They required a spectacular performance out of goaltender Tuukka Rask, who was forced to make 39 saves on 40 shots. They gave up too many chances and weren’t as defensively sound as they wanted to be.
The Senators perhaps outplayed the Bruins during that matchup, but the Bruins were the ones who walked away with a victory.
“I think they, for the most part, had us on our heels, and we got away from our game and had a hard time finding it,” Julien saids. “Tonight, [we are] probably looking for more of a 60-minute effort, obviously.”
In Cameron’s eyes, that shouldn’t be something the Bruins have a difficult time finding. It never is.
“The thing about Boston — they’re as good a team in the league at just sticking with it through the 60 minutes,” he said. “They’re well-coached, they’re well-structured, and what we have to do today is we have to match that, which, when we’re on our game, we do. We just can’t force anything.
“So for us, it’s just staying within our structure and make the simple play. That may lead to a lot of what we call 50-50 shifts, where if nobody’s giving anything up, that’s fine. Don’t try and force it. Don’t try and take something that’s not there, because they sit on that, and that’s when they get their opportunities.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, will be focused on getting off to a good start, just as they did nine days ago against these Sens, and making sure they capitalize on those opportunities as early and often as possible.
“It's a great opportunity for us to show what we're made of, and we're going to continue to play like we have been, and we're going to get some good results if we continue to do that,” said defenseman Torey Krug. “We understand the implications of this game, so it's a just a focused group, confident and excited to play.
“We've got to make sure we know they're playing in front of their home crowd, and they're going to come out flying, and we've got to match that. We don't want to just weather the storm; we need to make sure we have the ability to push back, and make our push early rather than later.”
As it stands right now, the Bruins still lay claim to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. It is up to them to make sure they hold on to it for the next three weeks, and that quest begins anew on Thursday.
“It's in our hands,” said forward Patrice Bergeron. “We definitely have to take advantage of that, and make sure we worry about what's in this dressing room and go out there and stick to our game, stick to our system. That's when we're successful.”
Puck luck hasn’t been on Boston’s side in the last couple of games.
Against the Washington Capitals on Sunday night, they peppered Braden Holtby with 32 shots but weren’t able to find the back of the net once. Against the Sabres on Tuesday night at TD Garden, the Bruins were even better — they tested Anders Lindback with a whopping 45 shots — but they were only able to beat him once, and ultimately, they fell 2-1 in a shootout.
A barrage of shots won’t be enough for the Bruins on Thursday night, especially against the 11-0-1 Andrew Hammond. On Thursday night, it is imperative that somehow, some way, they find the back of the net.
“A little bit of luck could certainly help because the chances are there, and [it’s about] bearing down on your opportunities,” Julien said. “All of those things are really important. You get those games once in a while — we’ve had a few of them already this year — and we’ve turned around. We had that situation in St. Louis, and then came back and scored, I think, six against Chicago. So those are situations that I think every team goes through at some point. You hate going through them at this time of year, that’s all.”
During the course of a five-game winning streak to kick off the month of March, offense was not a problem for Boston, even without the help of playmaking center David Krejci, who has missed almost a month with a partially torn MCL. During that five-game stretch earlier this month, the Bruins scored 16 times and allowed just eight goals.
In order to keep the Senators at bay on Thursday night, the Bruins know they are going to have to revert back to what was working during that span: getting to the front of the net and burying those dirty goals.
“I just think we need to keep at it and keep our confidence,” Kelly said. “Obviously last game, there was lots of chances, but we weren't able to get more than one past him. I think we did a lot of good things, and I think we've got to continue to work hard and work for our goals.
“Some nights, they come easier than others, but if we're continuing to work and be in the right spot and do the right things, the goals will come.”
All Eyes on the Hamburglar
After Thursday’s morning skate, the scrum of reporters surrounding Senators goaltender Andrew Hammond was so big that the teammates with lockers in the vicinity had to vacate the premises .
That’s what happens when you begin your professional career with a 11-0-1 record.
“He's obviously playing well, and his record speaks for itself,” Krug said. “The way that their team's playing in front of him is remarkable, too, so we've just got to make sure we stick to what we do best, and hopefully those things take care of itself.
“He's battling, and he's fighting, and I see some of the highlight reel saves that he makes, and it's impressive.”
In his most recent game — a 2-1 overtime win over Carolina — Hammond tied Bruins Hall of Famer Frank Brimsek’s record, set in the 1938-39 season, of allowing two goals or less in 12 consecutive games since his debut.
“It's been a fun ride for me, my family, everyone involved,” Hammond said on Thursday. “The team's on a great roll right now, so I think a lot of people are enjoying this.”
Obviously, Hammond has an opportunity to break Brimsek’s record on Thursday against Boston, but that is something he is trying not to focus on. In his eyes, Thursday is just another game, and another opportunity to creep closer to the playoffs.
“Since I started [the streak], we've had to win games to stay in the playoff race, and tonight's no different,” Hammond said. “Whether that's must-win or not, who knows, but it's something where we just need to keep approaching every game as if it is a must-win.”
Hammond did not start in net against the Bruins last week because starter Craig Anderson, who had missed significant time with a hand injury, had returned and was due to make his second consecutive appearance. This time around, Anderson finds himself injured again, but even before he reaggravated the hand injury, Cameron had already turned to Hammond.
“I obviously saw [the Bruins] last week, and they're one of the top teams every year, and they're a team that we're right behind right now,” Hammond said. “We need a game to make up some ground, here. We expect a similar thing as last game — kind of a tight-checking, hard-fought game. It’s more so just about us and bringing our A-game.”
As difficult as it may be on Thursday night — the first 10,000 fans in attendance at the Canadian Tire Centre will be receive a “Hamburglar” mask — the Bruins won’t be focused on Ottawa’s goaltender. They will be focused on the Senators as a whole, and they will be focused on finding a way to score some goals.
“If you think too much about what the goaltender's going to do — and I've fallen in the trap before — it's not fun to be in that,” Krug said. “You've just got to rely on your instincts and make sure you do what you normally do. And he's playing well — he's seeing the puck — and hopefully, we can find a way to change that.”
Updates on Pastrnak, Krejci
Thursday’s skate was an optional one, so while there was no news about potential line combinations that could be seen when the puck drops on Thursday night, there were still a couple of good signs out on the ice.
Krejci skated with his teammates for the third consecutive day, and though he won’t be available on Thursday night, Julien said that nothing had changed in terms of his prognosis — which means he could still be a go on Saturday against the Panthers, or on Sunday against the Lightning.
David Pastrnak, who took a maintenance day on Wednesday and was not on the ice for practice in Wilmington, did skate on Thursday morning.
“He’s fine; he’s good,” Julien said. “I know he’s played a lot of hockey, obviously, with Providence, and also the World Juniors, but he’s holding up OK. [Wednesday] was a maintenance day — no different than any other player would have in those kinds of situations.”
All forwards except Brad Marchand, Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson and Milan Lucic were on the ice on Thursday. Zdeno Chara was the sole defenseman to take his option, and Niklas Svedberg and Jeremy Smith handled the goaltending load in Rask’s stead.
Projected Lineup vs. Senators
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Reilly Smith
Milan Lucic — Ryan Spooner — David Pastrnak
Chris Kelly — Carl Soderberg — Loui Eriksson
Daniel Paille — Gregory Campbell — Max Talbot
Zdeno Chara — Dougie Hamilton
Dennis Seidenberg — Matt Bartkowski
Torey Krug — Adam McQuaid
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg
Scratches: Brian Ferlin, Jeremy Smith