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Pregame Notebook: Bruins Going Back to Basics to Solve Home Woes vs. Penguins

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — The Bruins know they have to play better at home.

They also know they can play better at home. They have it in them. They have shown it consistently on the road.

But for some reason, when they get back to TD Garden, their game changes. There have been flashes of that simplified road style, but the B’s have been unable to be that team night in and night out on the home front.

Their quest to rectify that begins once again against the Penguins on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to keep it simple,” said forward David Krejci following Boston’s morning skate. “Just got to pay attention to the little details, and if we do that, then we’re going to have a good chance to get two points tonight.”

Many of Krejci’s teammates echoed that sentiment — the need to pay attention to the little things, the need to simplify at home. That is what they focused on in Wednesday’s pre-skate meetings.

“Obviously, we looked at some stuff today on the way we are out on the road and how we play at home, and we’ve got to bring those two games together,” said forward Matt Beleskey. “ I think it just comes down to the little details, and hopefully we can do that tonight.

“Shift length, goals for and against, and I think maybe on the road, we just have a little better focus on keeping it simple. I think that’s something we’ve got to bring in our game and just keep it simple, keep doing the small, little things that come out with two points. That’s what we need.”

On the road, the B’s have shown a tendency to stick to the system and play to their strengths. They have relied upon clean breakouts, a strong forecheck and a focused and determined defensive effort to lead them to victory. That approach has worked.

But why haven’t they been able to replicate it at home?

“I don’t know why we can’t really play the same way as we do on the road, but one thing we addressed this morning is paying attention to little details,” Krejci said. “Kind of play road hockey, and don’t try to be too cute. We know there’s 18,000 people behind us, so just kind of use them and their energy and don’t go out there and just try to put on a show.

“Just play the same way as we do on the road, and we’ll be fine.”

This is uncharted territory for many of those in Black & Gold. Normally, teams that struggle at home usually struggle away from it, too. Rarely do teams perform significantly better in hostile environments than they do within the friendly confines of the home rink.

“It’s the first time for me that it’s been like this,” said forward Ryan Spooner. “Most teams I’ve played on, we’ve been a lot better at home than we have been on the road. It’s just one of those things. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I think the more that we think about it, it’s not going to help.

“So I think we’ve just got to put it behind us, just go out there and play.”

Following Monday’s 6-4 loss to Columbus, Head Coach Claude Julien was asked once again to articulate the reason why his team struggles at home. On Wednesday, when that question was posed to him once again, he responded the same way he did two nights earlier.

“Definitely, we have to play better — there’s no doubt there,” he began. “We can discuss it, hopefully, after this game tonight, and hopefully, we respond better.”

Much-Needed Rest Day

The Bruins were not interested in making excuses for their struggles on Monday against the Blue Jackets, but they didn’t exactly deny that they were perhaps a bit fatigued.

Monday marked their first home game in nearly two weeks, and it came less than 48 hours after they returned from a season-long 11-day road trip. They touched down in Boston in the early morning hours on Sunday and didn’t have much time to rest before returning to the rink for Monday’s pregame skate.

“The fact is, like I said, we got in at 4 in the morning on Sunday, and that doesn’t really give you much of a day off, as far as getting some rest there,” Julien said. “So I really felt also our team looked tired in the execution there last game — losing races stuff like that. So I felt it was better to give [Tuesday] off so we could get our rest and get some energy here because it’s not only for tonight — [we have] three games in five nights. So we have to get ready for that stretch as well.”

For the remaining few weeks of the regular season, Boston’s schedule will look very similar to the way it looks right now — lots of games squeezed into very few days, and in most cases, a game every other night for weeks at a time.

Rest, therefore, has never been more important than it is now.

“Those are big days, and things we appreciate,” Beleskey said. “We’ve got to come out and show we earned it.”

Following Wednesday’s game, the B’s will head right back out on the road on Thursday — this time, to face Carolina for the first time this season. They play again on Sunday at TD Garden. It is a grind at this time of year, and it is a delicate balance between getting enough practice time and getting enough time away from the rink.

But the question remains: How will the B’s respond to the extra rest?

“We’ll find out tonight,” Krejci said.

Resurgent Penguins

The Penguins team the Bruins expect to see on Wednesday night isn’t necessarily the same one they saw twice before in 2015-16.

Back in December, the B’s went 2-0 in a home-and-home against Pittsburgh, outscoring the Penguins 9-2.

But back then, the Penguins were vulnerable. They got off to a bad start, they were three games into a coaching change and were reeling from a series of injuries to key players, including goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Since then, the Penguins have responded. In their last 10 games, they have gone 6-3-1, and they have pulled into playoff position as the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference.

With a win at TD Garden on Wednesday, they can pull even with the Bruins for seventh.

“I think we’re kind of playing to our identity a little bit more consistently,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think that at the start of the season, you’re always kind of looking for that and need to go through certain things sometimes to find it, and we had some games we really had to stick with it — we were down in games — and just kind of stuck with the way we need to play, and I think when you see with that and you see the good results, you build confidence.

“I think that’s been just a big change. We’ve been more consistent and playing to our game.”

Doubtlessly, much of that resurgence has been a product of Marshfield native Mike Sullivan, who took over on Dec. 12, replacing Mike Johnston behind the bench. At the time, Sullivan was in the midst of his first season at the helm of Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

“I asked myself how I could have the most immediate impact, and I think when a a coaching change is made, usually it’s under difficult circumstances,” Sullivan said. “Expectations aren’t met, and so decisions are made.

“It’s not an easy experience for anyone to go to work in, whether you’re a coach, player, manager. And so what I tried to do was take the focus off of the circumstance, so to speak, and to try to shift that focus to just the process of trying to get better every day. Just, let’s be focused on hockey. Let’s come to the rink every single day and let’s work. Let’s work to get better. We’ll give you some ideas tactically as far as how we think we can become more efficient. We’ll try to establish an identity right away, and we talked to that identity.

“But from when I first took the team over, we played a lot of games in a very short period of times. There was not a lot of practice time. What I didn’t want to do was come in and confuse people. We wanted to have a clear, distinct message, but I think the most important thing was just the mindset, and try to free some of these guys up so they can play and act on their instincts.”

Clearly, Sullivan’s approach has resonated with a star-studded roster headlined by the likes of Crosby, Phil Kessel, newly-acquired Carl Hagelin and more. The Pens are close to getting Evgeni Malkin back in the mix — he started skating with the team earlier this week and is due for an imminent return from a lower body injury.

The Bruins know, therefore, that the Pens are dangerous, and they’re encroaching.

“They weren’t playing their best at the beginning of the season, and they’ve been playing a lot better as of late,” Spooner said. “So they’re a skilled team and they’re fast, and I think for us, if we keep them to the outside, I think it should be good.”

The Bruins are aware of the picture painted by the standings. They know they need two points at home on Wednesday in order to keep Pittsburgh at bay.

“It’s a big game tonight,” Krejci said. “They’re behind us in the standings, and if you want to be climbing, we have to beat teams like that, not just teams above or really on the bottom of the standings, but teams like that, where they’re actually trying to catch us. So this is a big two points for us.”

But as much as the Bruins are cognizant of what’s at stake on Wednesday, they’re not paying much attention to it. These two points are worth the same amount as any other two points against any other team. And the Bruins need points every night from here on out, regardless of the opponent.

“We need to get two points,” Beleskey said. “Down the stretch here, we need to win every single night, and it doesn’t really matter where the standings are. If you’re not winning games, things aren’t going to work out. We’re focused on playing a full 60 minutes and having a good outcome tonight.”

Morrow Impressing

It has been difficult for Joe Morrow to maintain his spot in Boston’s lineup this season. This year, Boston’s defensive corps has featured a rotating cast of characters, and for the most part, that rotation has been among Morrow, Zach Trotman and Colin Miller.

It has been a numbers game all season long, and the B’s don’t have enough spots for everyone to play every night. So when an opportunity comes, it must be seized.

That has been Morrow’s mentality all season.

“It’s tough — it puts a little pressure on you, but pressure’s never a bad thing,” he said. “You can always use that to your advantage and not take it as a negative, as long as you can just push yourself to overcome the pressure and put it on your back and run with it. That’s all I try and do.”

Though Morrow has been in and out of the lineup, his play hasn’t dipped. He has gone weeks at a time watching from press level, but as soon as he slots back in, he seems to pick up right where he left off — never an easy feat for any player.

“I would just say [it’s] kind of preparation — learn from the other guys who have been doing it for a long time, and solidify the spot here, and just ask questions, and see what they do to prepare for games,” Morrow said. “You’ve just got to bring that excitement of playing in the NHL every single night, and if you can keep that in the back of your mind, it should be enough.”

Of course, it helps that he’s been helping out offensively of late, too. For the first time in his career, Morrow has registered consecutive multipoint games, tallying two assists against Dallas on Feb. 20 and adding another two on Monday against Columbus.

But although offense helps, Morrow isn’t going to rely on it to keep him in the lineup. In this system, he knows he can’t.

“I feel like defensemen can make an impact without bringing offense to the table,” he said. “As you’ve seen, this organization kind of prides itself on defense and things like that, so the offense is just kind of a bonus, and if I can start bringing that more as of late, than it’s kind of just another feather in your hat, I guess.

“So that’s all I try and do, and hopefully it can be a part of my career in the future, to be more offensive and be a little bit more valuable.”

Projected Lineup Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronBrett Connolly

Loui ErikssonDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak

Matt BeleskeyRyan SpoonerJimmy Hayes

Zac RinaldoJoonas KemppainenLandon Ferraro

Zdeno CharaKevan Miller

Joe MorrowDennis Seidenberg

Torey KrugAdam McQuaid

Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Jonas Gustavsson

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