On the final day of the year, though, they couldn’t manage to establish the kind of consistency they were looking for and dropped a shootout decision at the hands of the Leafs.
Obviously, things have changed since then. The Leafs have fallen far out of the playoff race, and the Bruins are desperate to keep winning in order to clinch a spot in it.
On Saturday night, Toronto’s mission is going to be making sure that doesn’t happen. Boston is prepared for that.
“Obviously, you’ve got to come out and play hard,” said forward Chris Kelly following Saturday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “Every game’s important for us, regardless of who our opponent is. I think right now, we’re trying to focus on ourselves as opposed to our opponents.
“Everyone we’re playing is playing good hockey right now, and that’s kind of the approach we’re taking: Every game is important, and we’ve got to focus on ourselves.”
The Maple Leafs, despite their record, will certainly pose a challenge at the Garden on Saturday night. Though they sit in seventh place in the Atlantic Division, they have won two of their last three — and those two wins came against Ottawa and Tampa Bay.
This is a team that certainly knows how to play spoiler.
“Obviously, this is Boston’s biggest game of the year, so we’re going to have to come prepared,” said Toronto forward Nazem Kadri. “They’re a resilient group — great goaltender, too. He’s made some timely saves for them to get back into games, so for teams that are struggling, sometimes that’s what you need, is someone to grab hold of the team, and definitely their back end’s done a good job.
“But we’re just going to have to stick to the fundamentals and make sure we take care of the puck tonight.”
The Leafs’ knack for knocking off the East’s top teams, on top of the fact that they have taken two of three from the Bruins thus far this season, should provide all the necessary evidence that Saturday’s matchup — Boston’s final home game of the season before embarking on a three-game road trip to finish — will be no cakewalk.
“This is an important game tonight,” said forward Reilly Smith. “With only one home game left, you have to make the best of it. It’s tough to win games on the road in this league, and especially coming down to the end of the season, every point is needed and every point is really valuable, so two points tonight is definitely good to kick off that road trip.”
For Maple Leafs Head Coach Peter Horachek, Saturday’s game — and the remaining three on Toronto’s schedule — are about more than playing spoiler.
“We want to give ourselves the respect of going out and playing hard all the way through,” Horachek said. “We’ve talked to ourselves about these last seven games being our playoffs, so if we took it in that context, we’re up two games to one. So this is an important game for us, and we want to play that way, and I think every individual player has something to prove, something to show. Every player’s a little different depending on their situation, but I think there are lots of things that are important tonight.”
At the moment, the Bruins are riding a hot streak. They have won their last four in a row and have taken nine of a possible 10 points out of their last five games. But they entered this recent winning streak — which began one week ago against the Rangers — on the heels of a six-game losing streak. During that streak, they got a first-hand look at what the consequences can be if you let your guard down at this time of year.
They refuse to fall into that trap again.
“Right now, we can't afford to take a night off, especially when you look at a team who isn't in a playoff race,” said forward Brad Marchand. “Sometimes, you kind of let your guard down a bit, but we can't do that tonight. We've got to make sure that we have to prepare for tonight, and every other game, as if it could be our last, and right now, with the way that Ottawa continues to win and Florida continues to win, the best thing that we can do is worry about winning every game.
“If we can do that, we don't have to worry about what they can do. It's in our control, and we want to make sure we control our destiny.”
More Line Changes Coming?
Prior to Thursday’s game at Detroit, Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien adjusted his lines to accommodate the addition of winger Brett Connolly, who skated in his first game with Boston since being acquired at the trade deadline.
Some of those adjustments included moving David Krejci back to center, and moving Reilly Smith back up to Patrice Bergeron’s line.
During Saturday’s morning skate, however, there were even more adjustments, all involving the right wings: Krejci moved back to Bergeron’s line, Connolly skated on Ryan Spooner’s right, Smith reunited with Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson and David Pastrnak moved down to the fourth line.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the combinations we will see when the puck drops on Saturday night, but still, Julien is willing to experiment in order to find optimal success, even with just four games remaining on the regular-season slate.
“it’s about finding the best combinations right now to win hockey games,” Julien said. “I’m not worried about the future; I’m worried about the present. The present is what’s important right now, and we’ve got to continue to win hockey games here and get ourselves into a playoff spot.
“I don’t think we should be sitting here taking anything for granted and start planning for the future because to me, it would be a big mistake.”
For his part, Smith welcomes a move to Soderberg’s line. Over the last few games, the chemistry there has been undeniable and was perhaps no better illustrated than by the goal that line scored to tie the game in Detroit on Thursday night.
“They’re great passers, and they go to the net pretty hard, so they’re two fun guys to play with,” Smith said of Soderberg and Eriksson. “They can make a lot of plays pretty much out of nothing, and we saw a couple of that in the last couple of games. It’s fun playing with them. They have a lot of energy, and it’s fun. It doesn’t change too much, playing with those two or Bergy and March because they’re both north-south players, and they get up and down the ice quickly. So it’s fun playing with them.”
Julien, too, was encouraged by what he saw from that line on Thursday, particularly after Eriksson and Soderberg struggled to develop chemistry with Krejci during the first period.
“I think those three have played well together,” he said. “You can see with Krech in the middle, it didn’t seem to be much chemistry as far as reading off each other. So it was important for me to get Smitty back with those guys.”
Though Krejci indicated before the game in Detroit that he was ready to move back to his natural position at center, he and Julien both insisted that he would continue to play on the wing as long as he needed to. If that is the case on Saturday night, then so be it.
“David doesn’t mind playing the wing with Bergy and Marchy,” Julien said. “He’s very comfortable there. He says he’s feeling better at that position, and we know he’s a good centerman as well. You deal with the situation the way it needs to be dealt [with] at the time. He’s been there, and to me, [whether] he’s producing, not producing, he’s making plays. His hands are still there. Him and Bergy seem to read off each other well, as far as interchanging.
“That’s been kind of a little blessing in disguise that that’s been the case.”
The point production hasn’t been there yet for the new-look Bergeron line, but Marchand is confident that he, Bergeron and Krejci will find it, given their skill and smarts.
“It's a little different, because [Krejci] has never played the wing before, but he's so talented,” Marchand said. “There were a few games our line could have easily had four or five goals. I know I had a breakaway one game, Bergy had a breakaway one game against New York and we had a few other real good looks, and they didn't go in.
“But Dave, when he keeps his speed, that's when he's really a dominant player. He’s able to work his way through the neutral zone, and that's one thing we've talked about, is trying to get a little more speed so that we're able to do that. But he's a great player to play with.”
Connolly’s return to the lineup this week meant more tough decisions for Julien. On Thursday, it meant Max Talbot was the odd man out. But given the position the Bruins were in at the beginning of March — when they were without Krejci and without Connolly, who fractured his finger in his second practice with the Bruins — Julien would rather have to make tough decisions than have those decisions made for him by injuries.
“It makes it harder, but it makes it better because now I have decisions to make, and when you have decisions to make and you have tough ones, it creates accountability amongst players,” Julien said. “If you want to be in the lineup or whatever the case is, there’s a lot more accountability, and that’s one of the things — a few things that the coaches have left to manage their team, is having those extra players and good players.
“Having good players have to sit out for different reasons — sometimes, it’s just rotation, sometimes it’s poor play, but no matter what, to me, I’d rather be in this position right now than be in the position I was a month ago. This is what I have.”
Key to the Game: Limiting Goals Against
In the eyes of those wearing the Spoked-B, the reason they have been successful in the last five games is simple: They have tightened up defensively, and that has translated into fewer goals against.
In their last four games, the Bruins have allowed two or fewer goals, and they have outscored opponents 12-7 — obviously not a vast margin, but it’s good enough when you’re not allowing much.
“[Goals] are down across the league,” Marchand said. “I mean, you can see the top scorer only has 80 points, which is pretty rare in this league, so I think it's just down. Scoring's down in the league right now, but the best thing that we can do — we haven't scored a ton this year, and we seem to be best when we're only allowing one or two goals and trying to win 2-1 or 3-2. That's always been our style.
“In past years, we might have scored a little bit more, but we've always been a defensive-first system, and when we play that way, we're a really good team.”
Part of Boston’s success has been due to goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has generally been lights out this year despite making 66 appearances, tied for the third-most in the league. But as a whole, the Bruins have established that they can win when they stick to their system, and that system revolves around sound defense.
“That’s what we discussed here when we went through that little stretch of losing games: We were giving up too many goals,” Julien said. “We’ve always been a team that, when we protect our end well, usually good things follow. We’re a team right now [where] we don’t have any 50-goal scorers. So it’s not about necessarily just playing defense; it’s about understanding what we have.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can score, but not at the rate of 50 goals, so we have to make sure we keep our goals-against down. Normally, when we do that, we win hockey games.”
On Thursday night, therefore, the B’s will be focused on sticking to what has been working — particularly against a team that has scored 11 goals on them in three games this year.
“We’ve been successful in our last six, seven games because we’ve held other teams to two or less goals, and [if] you give [Toronto] too many chances, they’ll make you pay for it,” Smith said. “They’re a good power play team, and they have a lot of shooters, so it’s going to be important to not sit on our heels and impose our game plan.
“Not too much changes for us. They’re a team that can definitely come in here and kind of ruin the night, so we have to do the job from the get-go and throw pucks in deep and stick to our game plan — not try to change too much.”
Projected Lineup Saturday vs. Toronto
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — David Krejci
Milan Lucic — Ryan Spooner — Brett Connolly
Reilly Smith — Carl Soderberg — Loui Eriksson
Chris Kelly — Gregory Campbell — David Pastrnak
Zdeno Chara — Zach Trotman
Torey Krug — Dennis Seidenberg
Matt Bartkowski — Adam McQuaid
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg