Back then, it might have been hard to predict that the Islanders, coming out of the All-Star Break, would find themselves atop the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. By the same token, it might have been hard to predict that the Bruins would find themselves in eighth place in the conference, fighting to climb the standings.
When these two teams first met back on Oct. 23, the Islanders were just beginning to assert themselves as one of the conference’s top teams. Now that they have held tight to that billing through the first half of the season, it is clear that the Bruins have their work cut out for them on Thursday night.
“It’s still a one-game-at-a-time kind of mindset, which is a little cliche, but it’s really been the staple of our club this year,” said Islanders captain John Tavares following Thursday’s morning skate. “It’s brought us success, and I think we understand that there’s a lot still to be accomplished. We haven’t done a whole lot yet, but we’ve put ourselves in a good position.”
And after stumbling a bit through the months of November and December, the Bruins, too, have put themselves in a better position. They now have some breathing room as they cling to the final Wild Card spot in the East, and just two points separate the B’s, the Rangers and the Capitals in the final three playoff spots.
Heading into the All-Star Break, the Bruins’ game was trending upward. They won six of eight games during that stretch, and now, as they hit the ice for their first game post-All-Star Break, they are focused on keeping it going.
“I think we’re being a little more consistent in our play,” said forward Chris Kelly. “We’re doing a lot of the little things properly that we weren’t doing at the start of the year, and I think we’re getting back to our identity — being a north-south hockey team and working to our strengths.
“I think it’s more of a team game. Everyone is contributing, everybody is playing the system, everybody is going out there and playing the same way. We’re kind of grinding teams down and winning that way.”
Back when these two teams faced off in October, this team’s identity had started to take shape. Now, finally, it is starting to hold.
“I thought we really simplified things and really dumbed the game down,” said defenseman Torey Krug. “I think that’s important with our group. The more simple we are, the more layers we have on defense, the better chance at success we have.”
Particularly in the stretch leading up to the break, Krug saw this group put its words into action. It focused on playing solid defense and ensuring that those defensive layers, a trademark of Claude Julien’s system, didn’t disappear.
“I thought our defensive effort has been a lot better in those 10 games, and that’s something that we continue to focus on,” he said. “We always talk about those layers, but it’s something we continue to enforce.”
Part of the reason the Bruins were able to forge a strong stand heading into the break was simple: confidence. It was elusive for the Bruins during a tough month of December, partly because of lineup shuffles that came as a result of rampant injuries. Now, though, the Bruins are healthy, and they have adjusted to personnel changes, and they have recommitted to the game plan.
And of course, as the wins have started to come more easily, their confidence has grown. Now, they are committed to making sure they don’t lose it.
“Since the last time we played this team, it’s been kind of a roller coaster — ups and downs — and we’ve really been able to, over the past 10-plus games or so, really rebuild and get back to the basics of what our team identity is,” Krug said. “So I think confidence plays a big part in that, and we’re going to try to recapture that tonight.”
There have been times this season when the Bruins have seemed to have it all figured out, only to find themselves taking a step backward as soon as they thought they were in the clear. Now, the Bruins have adopted the mantra that they are never in the clear. They are never out of the woods, and every game from here on out is a must-win.
“I think we want to keep building,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we want to take any steps backward. I think we’re heading in the right direction with our system, with our play, with our focus. We just want to keep building on things like that.”
That no-steps-backward perspective is the one the B’s have dedicated themselves to with crunch time looming not too far off in the future.
“That’s always the goal — always move forward, don’t take any steps backward,” Krug said. “But we have that mold that we understand what works, and if we continue to do those things, then we’ll be able to keep improving.
“That’s really important for our group: to make sure we understand what works for us. If we’re not focusing on those things, then that’s where we get in trouble.”
Of course, something that is top of mind for every player in Black & Gold as they prepare to face the Islanders for the second time this season is who they will be seeing on the opposing blue line.
Johnny Boychuk, who was traded to the Islanders during the final weekend of training camp, has become one of the staples of New York’s defensive corps over his first 47 games of this season. He has registered four goals and 20 assists for 24 points — 13 of which have come on the power play — with a plus-17 rating.
The last time Boychuk faced his former team, he had only been an Islander for a couple of weeks, and when asked what he remembers seeing from this Bruins team back then, he smiled.
“The first game back, it was kind of a blur,” he said. “It’s more [about] playing against your old team and being in the building — it was emotional, but playing against them, it’s hard. So I don’t really remember the game.”
Now, though, Boychuk has settled in.
“[I’m] just playing well defensively and getting an opportunity to play certain roles that I didn’t get to play in Boston,” he said. “I learned a lot from there and brought it here, and [I’m] trying to teach some of the younger guys different things.”
Of course, one of the things he is imparting to the younger players on the Islanders, without question, is leadership. It’s something he was known for in Boston, and something he has become known for on Long Island.
“The way he handles himself every day, win or lose, [when] things are going well, [when] things aren’t going well — [it’s] just the way he comes and plays hard and does his job and certainly enjoys being around the rink,” Tavares said. “And his personality is so good, just fitting in with our group, being a younger team, and just having a lot of fun.
“He’s a guy that can’t really sit still, so he’s certainly fit in great and been a big part of our team.”
Boychuk was reluctant to give himself too much credit for becoming a leader on the Islanders — perhaps because it just comes naturally to him, wherever he is.
“There’s a time to be loose, and there’s a time to be focused,” he said simply. “I think showing that side of me helps out in the dressing room.”
Tavares mentioned the one-game-at-a-time approach that has brought the Isles so much success this year. Boychuk is one of the players who has been key in implementing that philosophy.
“[You have to] just to take it one game at a time,” Boychuk said. “You’re always going to lose a game in hockey, but just to put it behind you and learn from it and move forward, and look forward to the next one.”
It’s a philosophy that has clearly paid off for these Islanders. Though their success may have come as a surprise to some, it wasn’t to Boychuk — at least once he had a chance to see what they were capable of.
“It was in the first two practices that I knew what kind of team we had, and how good we actually were,” he said. “After the first couple of games, then you really knew how good we were, and we established that.”
When pressed on whether he thinks the Islanders can contend for a Stanley Cup this season, Boychuk said he sees some similarities between his current team and the team he suited up for back in 2011.
“We’ve been playing well, and we have skilled, speedy forwards, and top forwards,” he said. “So you see a lot of similarities in what we had back when we did win. We have good goaltending and good defense.
“There’s always a chance, and we’ve been playing consistent through this year, and we have to continue to do so.”
Projected Lineup vs. Islanders
Milan Lucic — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Reilly Smith
Chris Kelly — Carl Soderberg — Loui Eriksson
Daniel Paille — Gregory Campbell — Craig Cunningham
Zdeno Chara — Dougie Hamilton
Dennis Seidenberg — Adam McQuaid
Torey Krug — Kevan Miller
Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Niklas Svedberg