It had been a while. The last time they skated as a team was one week ago in Denver, against the Avalanche. They were supposed to practice on Tuesday, the day the All-Star Break officially ended, but Juno had other plans.
On Wednesday, though, it was business as usual.
“Obviously, the break was nice,” said forward David Krejci following a practice at Ristuccia Arena. “I thought we were finding our game just before the break, so unfortunately, we didn't have practice [Tuesday], but I thought we did a pretty good job today. So yeah, we've got to start where we left off, and now we have to get back in a playoff position and try to climb up the standings.”
As it stands, the Bruins are seven points ahead of Florida for the second and final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s good to be in the playoff picture, but it’s not good enough for the Bruins, who have their sights set on a higher spot in the standings.
“I think we were definitely happy with how we finished going into the break,” said forward Brad Marchand. “We were playing much better hockey and winning a lot more games, which was really nice, but a break can be good or bad, depending on how you treat it. Sometimes, you come in and you're rejuvenated and you're playing really well, but sometimes you can take a step back.
“So the biggest thing is that we realize the situation we're still in. We’re not secure in a playoff spot yet, so we want to make sure that we come back and continue to get better.”
In that sense, the All-Star Break came at a bad time for the Bruins. They were just starting to find their game again, and then they were forced to take five days off. The break doesn’t have to disrupt their rhythm, though; the B’s just had to practice hard on Wednesday, and then they have to skate hard on Thursday morning and ensure they are mentally prepared for what the Islanders will bring on Thursday evening.
“The break was nice, but when the team's doing well, you kind of hope that the break would be [at] a different time,” Krejci said. “But it is what it is, so we're where we're at right now, and I think we're at the [eighth] spot, so we've got to keep winning games. [They’re] must-wins every game. We’re not going to get all the wins, but we have to play the same way every single night, and if we do that — if we play our game — then we'll come out on top most nights.”
Of course, in some ways, the break can be good. The 82-game NHL slate is grueling, and any time off is beneficial as long as it is treated properly.
“I think it’s taking advantage of those days for your best benefit,” said defenseman Zdeno Chara. “I think that we all knew that we were going to be away from the ice, but I think that we’re pretty aware of where we are in the standings, and you have to maintain yourselves during those days and be ready when you come to play.
“Obviously the weather is something you can’t control; it does happen, and we didn’t skate [Tuesday], but we had a good practice today and you’ve just got to have a good morning skate tomorrow and be ready for the Islanders.”
The first half of the season did not go the way the Bruins wanted it to — that much has been well-documented. But there is no denying that they began to right the ship just before the break came, partly because players that had been missing for much of the first half of the season — namely, Chara and David Krejci — had had enough time to settle in and regain their strides.
“It was a lot different early on, having Zee and Krech out of the lineup — so two of our big leaders, and two of our best players,” Marchand said. “When you lose guys like that, you can't replace them, and you can't replace the leadership in the room, you can't replace it on the ice and you can't replace their abilities. So the fact that those two guys are back — our team is just such a good team because we're well-balanced, and when you take guys out of the lineup, it completely messes everything up.
“So having guys back and healthy, it allows us to play our game, play our system, and I think that's why we've been much better lately. So I think mentally, we realize that and we're getting stronger with that sense and hopefully we continue to build.”
In the two games leading up to the break, it was clear that the Bruins had found their game again. Against a fast, offensively-skilled team in Dallas, they were strong defensively — and were particularly stingy on the penalty kill — and set off with a decisive win. Against Colorado one night later, some uncharacteristic mistakes in the final minutes of the first and third periods hurt them, but they went into the break taking three of a possible four points from a road back-to-back.
Now, their mission is eliminating those last remaining lapses as they push through the final couple of months of the season.
“We’re not hiding behind the fact that we had our struggles in the first half; that’s there, it’s in the past, and for different reasons, there were struggles,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “But what we had to do here was find a solution, and I think we were working on it, and we tried to stay positive, and it started coming around. Now it’s a matter of keeping it going.
“I think right now, you’ve got to stay positive, got to stay focused on your jobs and what you have to do, and finish strong, and that’s what you can control right now. There’s no denying the first half, but there’s a lot that we can accomplish in the second half, and I think that’s what we have to focus on.”
Chara Feeling It
It seems like it was several seasons ago that Chara suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in a loss to the Islanders.
In reality, though, it was just over three months ago.
Since then, the Bruins have fallen out of the playoff picture and then pushed themselves back into it. Chara missed 19 games before returning to action in early December, but even then, it took him some time to regain his timing and his rhythm on the ice.
“I think he really — I wouldn’t say struggled, but I think he really wanted to come back and help this team,” Julien said. “Sometimes, when you try and do too much, and you haven’t got your game there yet — I think those two combined made it tough for him. But once he found his game — and you’ve seen probably him at his best lately — he continues to do all the great things that our organization, our team, expects from him.
“[He’s] hard to beat, he defends well, moves the puck well, and his offense is coming right now from his shot or from net-front. But he’s been good for us, and when you’ve got a guy like that as your captain, you need some good leadership, and he’s certainly given us that.”
Chara admitted that it took him some time to get back to where he wants to be — and that is to be expected with any serious injury — but now, he feels as though he is settling into a groove.
“I feel better; I feel obviously like I’ve got my stride back,” Chara said. “It’s something that when you’re coming back from an injury, it’s not something that you can just have back right away in a few games. You’re still making adjustments those first few games as far as your game, and yourself, and finding that comfort.
“But after a few games, you start feeling better and better.”
Bergy Returns from All-Star Game
Boston’s representative to the All-Star Game returned to Boston before the snowstorm took its toll on the city, and on Wednesday, his teammates were happy to see him back in Black & Gold as they prepare for the second half.
They were also waiting with their congratulations for his five-point performance in the NHL’s superstar showcase. Bergeron helped Team Toews to a 17-12 victory.
“I wasn't able to watch it, but I did hear about it, obviously,” said Marchand, Bergeron’s longtime linemate. “It just shows that he continues to fly under the radar a bit, so people hopefully recognize how great of a player he is. I think he would have been in the All-Star Game the last couple years if they would have had one, but obviously I think he'd much rather be in the Olympics.
“So it's just great that he continues to showcase his talent and abilities, and yeah, he deserves every bit of it.”
Winter Classic Coming to Boston
Wednesday’s practice marked the Bruins’ first since the league announced All-Star Weekend that Boston is slated to host the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium against the Montreal Canadiens.
Some of the players on the current roster participated in the 2010 Winter Classic, when the Bruins beat the Flyers 2-1 in overtime at Fenway Park. One year from now, the location may be different than it was the first time around, but the excitement remains the same.
“It is good news,” Julien said. “At the same time, it’s a long ways away. But it is good news. I think everybody enjoys watching those games, and it’s something different for teams to go through — the concept of practicing outdoors, not knowing what kind of weather you’re going to get on game day. There’s a lot of question marks, but I guess it creates the excitement that goes for everybody — fans, players, everybody.
“I remember the experiences that we’ve had. Guys have always had fun with it, and I think that’s a good thing.”
The league also announced that the World Cup of Hockey is slated to return in 2016 and will likely take place in the fall, around the time NHL teams begin to prepare for training camp.
Julien said the prospect of seeing the very best of the world’s hockey players compete against each other is exciting in any format, whether or not it interferes with the beginning of the NHL schedule.
“I’ve heard that for a little while there, that that was in the works,” he said. “But I think people have enjoyed it in the past. I think it makes for interesting hockey. And I guess it’s kind of like the Olympics: They’ve got the best players of every country playing against each other, so I think it’s exciting.
“We always talk about how exciting it is to see the best players play for their countries, and how exciting those games are, so the World Cup brings that as well.”
Wednesday’s Practice Lineup
Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Reilly Smith
Milan Lucic - David Krejci - David Pastrnak
Chris Kelly - Carl Soderberg - Loui Eriksson
Daniel Paille - Gregory Campbell - Craig Cunningham/Jordan Caron
Zdeno Chara - Dougie Hamilton
Dennis Seidenberg - Adam McQuaid
Torey Krug - Kevan Miller
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Niklas Svedberg