WILMINGTON – As the calendar creeps toward spring and the weather heats up, so too does the NHL season.
Points are at a premium and every game is crucial to the playoff structure.
The Bruins know that well. They have played six games over the last 10 days and, after a Saturday matinee against the New York Islanders, will head out on the road for a three-game trip on the West Coast.
Add in the fact that the Black & Gold have played four consecutive overtime games and it's clear that the grind of the stretch run is setting in.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey, we’ve played every second night for a long time,” Brett Connolly said following Friday morning’s practice at Ristuccia Arena.
“It’s just a matter of preparing. For us, every team is going through the same thing. Teams are playing a lot of games in not a lot of nights, [we] just have to prepare and obviously try to look after our bodies as much as we can.
“Those overtime games do wear you down a little bit but I don’t think we’re going to use that as an excuse.”
With so many teams battling for playoff positioning, there is an expectation that there will be an uptick in not only the intensity of the games, but also the competitiveness.
“It’s that time of year,” said Adam McQuaid. “Coming down the stretch run, every game is tight and that’s what you’re going to see this time of year and going into the playoffs. It’s the reason for so many overtime games.”
With Thursday night’s OT loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Bruins were able to salvage a point that propelled them into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division for the first time this season.
Being in that position so close to the end of the regular season is in stark contrast to last year at this time, when the Bruins were fighting throughout the final weeks to move into the playoff picture.
“We’re obviously in a better position – though we’re not out of the woods – but it’s one of the situations where we know right now we’re controlling our own destiny,” said head coach Claude Julien.
“We’re in a much better position than we were at this time last year. I think that makes a big difference confidence-wise, and also determination, and we’ve got an opportunity here to maybe gain some home-ice advantage in the playoffs.”
With the Islanders in town Saturday, the Bruins won’t have to wait long to attempt to improve their standing.
“It would be nice to give a good effort at home, feel good about playing at home before being out on the road for a while here,” said McQuaid. “Continue to get points, move ourselves up and push other teams down, just play good hockey that we can feel good about ourselves.”
Earning A Spot
It has been just six games since Noel Acciari joined the Bruins for his first taste of the NHL. But in that short period of time, the Rhode Island native has earned a spot as the team’s fourth-line center, while also providing Julien with another penalty-killing option.
“There’s no fear in his game,” said Julien. “He plays hard, he plays smart, he’s helped us on the penalty kill. And I think he’s fitting in pretty well and getting more and more comfortable with the game at this level.
“Just got to let him find his way a little bit and get some experience. That’s something I can’t teach, it takes time. He’s a pretty smart player to start with, he reads the play well.”
It helps that Acciari is already 24 years old, with the experience of helping to lead Providence College to a National Championship last season on his resume.
“He’s pretty mature already, he’s been through a lot and it shows,” said Julien. “It shows when a guy is a little bit older, a little bit more mature, [he] catches on a lot quicker.”
Acciari, along with Brett Connolly and Landon Ferraro, has helped solidify the fourth line, one Julien can trust in multiple situations.
“He’s come right in and played hard,” said Connolly. “He’s good on face-offs, and even the goal I scored in Florida, he was the main reason why I got that chance.
“He’s a guy who’s good on the penalty kill, he’s smart, he’s always in the right positions. It’s been a good start for us.”
Friday morning’s practice combinations
Loui Eriksson – David Krejci – David Pastrnak
Brad Marchand – Tyler Randell – Lee Stempniak
Matt Beleskey – Ryan Spooner – Jimmy Hayes
Landon Ferraro – Noel Acciari – Brett Connolly
Zdeno Chara – John-Michael Liles
Joe Morrow – Dennis Seidenberg
Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid
Kevan Miller – Zach Trotman
Patrice Bergeron was the lone Bruin to miss practice, though Julien said after the session that it was just a maintenance day. Julien also said that he had no update on the status of Miller and that the situation would be revisited before Saturday’s game.