For one, both teams play a heavy game and are anchored by strong goaltending. Both teams have won a Stanley Cup within the last few years.
“If you look at both of us, I think we’re built kind of the same way,” said goalie Tuukka Rask. “There was a lot of talk, when we won in 2011, they tried to model after us, and it’s brought them some success now. They’re a heavy, good-skating team, skilled team — they have it all. Same kind of matchup.”
And both teams have fought adversity this season and have had to fight to stay in the playoff race.
The Kings, at present, are dealing with what the Bruins encountered earlier this season — particularly in December, when they had trouble stringing together consecutive victories and maintaining consistency in their game. The Kings’ most recent 4-3 win over Chicago snapped a four-game losing streak, and they have won just two of their last nine games.
Still, Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien expects nothing short of a hard-fought matchup on Saturday night at TD Garden, regardless of what recent statistics might say.
“I don’t care where they are in the standings; they’re still Stanley Cup champions,” Julien said following Saturday’s morning skate. “They still have a lot of the same team, it’s just a matter of time for them to turn that around as well. We expect a big, heavy game [Saturday night], as we always do against them. Not dirty, but heavy.
“It’s going to be a battle of will and strength and determination. To me, this is a good test for us because this is the kind of team we like playing. This is the kind of team we feel we are as well. So it will be a good measuring stick for both teams, at the end.”
The Bruins, of late, have managed to find that consistency they spent much of the first few months of the season searching for, and they have points in 12 of their last 13 games to show for it. It’s a substantially different story from the last time the B’s encountered the Kings back on Dec. 2, when they were in the midst of a rough four-game road trip through the West Coast and ended up dropping a 2-0 decision at the Staples Center.
“When we were out there, I don’t think we had [David] Krejci or [Zdeno] Chara — two pretty major contributors to our hockey club,” Julien recalled. “But yet having said that, I look back at the game that we played in L.A. I thought it was a real good game — it really was. What’s changed, I think, is the outcome at the end, as there’s a little bit more depth and stuff like that, and players are in the right places.
“We seem to be on the good side of the equation, if I can put it that way. … To me, it was a real good game in L.A., so I don’t think I’m going to say [there’s] a big difference besides the personnel. We’re a little deeper right now.”
Another welcome side effect of Boston’s recent success has been an uptick in confidence.
“I think we have confidence in our game right now, with obviously how we’re playing and our results and everything,” said defenseman Dougie Hamilton. “I think we’re having more fun around the room and everything, so just [have] to try to keep it going and keep playing well and try to keep playing that 60-minute effort we always talk about.”
In their first game back from the All-Star Break on Thursday night at Long Island, the Bruins started strong and finished strong against the Islanders, leaving with a 5-2 victory. There was plenty to like about that effort, but the Bruins are reluctant to say they are where they want to be. There is still plenty for them to improve, as always.
“I don’t think anyone’s really comfortable; I think we obviously know we can play better, so that’s the good thing,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think anyone will tell you we’re playing our best hockey right now, and I think that’s something that we can look ahead at and think that we’re going to get better and hopefully peak in the playoffs.
“We just have to keep focusing on the little things and keep trying to improve.”
Earlier this season, when the Bruins sometimes struggled to establish consistency as they attempted to right the ship, perhaps because they got too comfortable after getting back in the win column. Now, that is no longer the case. Now, they refuse to get complacent, and as a result, the team continues to get stronger.
“The one thing we can’t afford to do, obviously, is not get comfortable, and the reason I’m saying that is certainly not because of the cliché, but more about [the fact that] I still see a lot of areas where we have to continue to improve to become a better team,” Julien said. “Just because you’re winning doesn’t mean you’re at your best.
“We’ve been playing much better, but yet there’s still a lot — we watch video after games and show things to players, and there’s always the areas there that I think we can improve on. That allows us not to get comfortable.”
It’s no coincidence that Boston’s recent string of success has coincided with goaltender Tuukka Rask’s strongest stretch of the season.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has just one regulation loss in his last eight starts, and during that span, he has gone 6-1-1, he has allowed more than two goals just once, and he has allowed one goal or fewer three times.
Rask has always been dependable in net, but as of late, he has elevated his game to a new level, often putting the team on his back for periods, or even for games, at a time in order to propel the B’s to victory.
“We’re executing plays, we’re having fun out there, we’re focusing on working hard,” Rask said. “All of the things we always talked about giving us success — we’re doing that now. It’s good. Obviously, we’re not getting too comfortable out there. It’s a good balance to work hard and have fun.
“I feel good out there. I’ve felt pretty good all year, but obviously now, the luck has been on our side a little bit more, too, and I feel more confident out there.”
Rask has never been the type of player to question his own abilities, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t accountable when he knows he is not at his best. By the same token, when he knows he’s at his best, his confidence soars to a point that renders him nearly unbeatable.
And when Rask is playing as well as he is right now, it can be difficult for Julien to fathom the idea of sitting him. Fortunately, he’s confident that Rask can handle a substantial workload.
“I look around the league, and I look at other goaltenders, and they’ve had the same workloads, a lot of them,” Julien said. “At the same time, I think — except for a couple of stretches where we’ve had some tight games — he’s had some breaks, and we had six days off [for the All-Star Break]. He’s played a game, had another day in between, he plays tonight, and we’ve got another three days before the next game.
“It’s not like he being overworked with back-to-backs. or five-in-eight, where he’s played all five games. When that comes, we’ll manage that, but right now, I think he’s doing fine. From my end, I keep checking with him, asking how he’s feeling, making sure if he’s tired, then I got to make a decision there.
“When a goaltender is hot, you have a tendency to want to ride him.”
Rask, for his part, is more than comfortable with his current workload. He has started all but 12 of Boston’s 49 games thus far, and he has often said that he’d play in every game if he could.
“I think whenever you’re not feeling as comfortable out there, you kind of want to get those games and get that feeling, and then whenever you’re feeling comfortable, you want to keep going,” Rask said. “I don’t mind [workload]; obviously, you can’t play every game, but I like playing, and that’s what they pay me for. So no complaints there.”
Miller Faces the Home Team
For the second time this season, defenseman Kevan Miller will face his hometown team. But as it turns out, the Los Angeles native grew up rooting for a different California club.
“To be honest with you, I was a Sharks fan,” Miller said with a grin. “That was my first hockey team, was the Sharks. But I was still a Kings fan because they were so close. But it was kind of split between those two.”
Miller enters Saturday night’s game on the heels of a strong effort versus Long Island, in which he tallied the game-winning goal with 3.4 seconds remaining in the second period.
Though he missed 12 games earlier in the season with a dislocated shoulder, Miller has settled into a groove lately, playing like the reliable, composed defenseman he was last season, when he carved out a role for himself on Boston’s blue line after being called up from Providence due to injury.
Since then, it seems, Miller has never looked back.
“I think he’s been a real good surprise, as far as how quickly he came around, and how good he’s been for us,” Julien said. “He brings an element that our team really likes a lot, and that’s defensively reliable. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s tough and yet he still has good composure with the puck.
“When I saw him in the minors in his first year I guess personally I didn’t think he was going to become this good, this quickly. I saw, again, the big, strong guy, but [thought he would] have to do some work with the puck, as far as management and passing and everything else.
“Again, he’s a player that’s not going to be flashy, but as coaches say, he’s very effective, and that’s what Millsy is.”
It took some time for Miller to get comfortable again after missing those 12 games, and though he admitted that his shoulder will probably require offseason surgery, he said that he and the training staff have managed his situation effectively up to this point.
As his game has come around, Julien has rewarded him with more ice time — particularly on the penalty kill as well ask in the final minutes of periods. That trust from the coaching staff, Miller said, is what he thrives on.
“I mean, that’s my game,” he said. “That’s part of my game. That’s my power play, I guess, if you want to say. That’s my job, and I take pride in that, for sure.”
Lineup Switches Holding
Early in Boston’s victory over the Islanders on Thursday night, Julien made some tweaks to the lineup, and those tweaks have stuck ever since.
During Friday’s practice, right winger Reilly Smith remained on Krejci’s line, while Loui Eriksson stayed put alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. David Pastrnak continued to skate on the third line with Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly, and those combinations are expected to stick for Saturday night’s game.
Projected Lineup vs. Kings
Milan Lucic — David Krejci — Reilly Smith
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Loui Eriksson
Chris Kelly — Carl Soderberg — David Pastrnak
Daniel Paille — Gregory Campbell — Jordan Caron/Craig Cunningham**
Zdeno Chara — Dougie Hamilton
Dennis Seidenberg — Adam McQuaid
Torey Krug — Kevan Miller
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Malcolm Subban
**Caron slotted in for first rushes on the fourth line during Saturday’s morning skate and thus could get into the lineup for the first time since Jan. 20.