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Pressure Mounting for Bruins Hopefuls as Camp Comes Down to the Wire

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — There is no overstating the importance of the next few days for the players at Bruins training camp who find themselves battling for open roster spots.

“We still [have] too many players. These will be deciding games here for us to make our last decisions,” said Head Coach Claude Julien following Thursday’s practice at TD Garden. “It’s got to be done before [Opening Night], obviously. For a lot of those players,it’s an opportunity to give it a last shot. Then, it’s up to them to show they belong here. And maybe they don’t.

“We’re going to have to make some cuts, and some guys are going to end up going to Providence, and that’s what we’re up against right now.”

Following four roster transactions on Wednesday that saw Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, Alexander Khokhlachev and Jeremy Smith sent to Providence’s training camp, the Bruins are left with a handful of hopefuls gunning for a projected two open spots on Boston’s Opening Night roster — three, if you count the vacancy left by injured forward Gregory Campbell, who is “doubtful” for the season opener, according to Julien.

Throughout the course of training camp, players like Simon Gagne, Matt Fraser, Bobby Robins and Craig Cunningham have done their best to leave their mark. They have done their best to prove that they have something — a skill, a shot, even an energy — that the big club needs. Now, with two preseason games remaining, is their opportunity to make one last push.

But even as their chances of making the team grow stronger, their focus remain the same.

“It hasn’t changed from Day 1 — for me, it’s still a tryout,” Fraser said. “It’s still making this team, making an impression and showing these guys on the team that I want to be here and that I can bring something to the table. This whole year, if I am in the NHL, is going to be a tryout for me. That’s the way I approach it every day, and that’s the way I’ve always approached it.

“As soon as I get complacent is when things start to fall apart. This is the highest level that you can play, and you’ve worked so hard to get here, and that’s the last thing that you want to do is let it go.”

It is no secret that as the season opener gets closer, the pressure mounts. By Oct. 8, the B’s will be required to cut their roster down to the requisite 23 bodies.

The players still competing at Boston’s training camp have survived a handful of cuts. They are so close to making it. It’s hard to avoid thinking about what is at stake.

“Obviously, there’s always pressure,” Cunningham said. “I think every guy in this room will tell you that the most pressure that there is, is the pressure you put on yourself. We’re all accountable, and we all are competitive guys and want that last job.

“[It’s] right down to the wire here, and everyone’s putting pressure on themselves. We’re all fighting against each other and fighting with each other, so it’s kind of a unique situation. But there’s only two games left, and hopefully you got to make them count.”

Some of these players already have NHL experience — some have lots, some have very little. Some of them have none at all. Fraser got a big dose of it last May, when he joined Boston for its second-round playoff series against Montreal. He’ll never forget what it was like to score that game winner at the Bell Centre in Game 3, and he wants to have more of those moments — in Boston — in 2014-15.

“For me, I’ve said it 100 times — I got to bring all my cards to the table and show them what I got, and show them an element of the game that they either need or they want,” he said. “So far, I think it’s been going well. I think there’s definitely areas to improve on, for sure, but I think for me, it’s just being consistent with playing with that jam in my game and getting to the front of the net. It’s not so much about the offensive side as just being good in all three zones.”

Every player still competing for one of those open spots has obviously done something right thus far. They all, at one point or another, have impressed Julien, General Manager Peter Chiarelli and the scouts. They all have stood out.

Heading into the final weekend of camp, the name of the game is continuing to stand out as the competition ramps up — not only from within the organization, but from other teams as well.

“I’ve got two more games left, and it’s not done — I have to show them what I can do in the back-to-back games,” said camp invite Simon Gagne. “Lineups [are] getting close to the real lineup, not only here, but for the other teams, too — so games will be at the same level as the regular season. This is where I think [management is] going to try to look not only at myself, but the other guys here, and we got two more days to show what we can do.”

Robins, a three-year Providence veteran, showed exactly what he can do on Tuesday in a 5-3 loss to the Islanders. Even when the Bruins had trouble generating chances offensively, the bruising winger made his presence loud and clear, registering seven bone-rattling hits and, in the process, energizing his teammates.

But his willingness to put his body at risk and be that overbearing physical presence is only part of what has kept him at this camp. The Bruins demand excellence from their players in all three zones, and right now, Robins is focused on continuing to prove that he can be the kind of complete two-way player the Bruins covet.

“[The fighting] just part of it — the bigger part is just being an effective hockey player and a dependable hockey player, and that’s what I’m working on,” Robins said. “I think I’ve improved every year that I’ve been in this organization. I’ve really learned from the coaches and fit well into the system, and I just keep sticking to that formula of working hard and learning every day and getting better as a hockey player.

"All that stuff with fighting — that’s always there. That’s always in my back pocket. The organization knows I’ll do that any time they want — I’ll do that every day if I have to — but the game’s gotten away from that, and pretty much now every day, you just have to show up and play good hockey.”

This is no time to reinvent the wheel. These players are still in contention for roster spots for a reason. While they know that the search for areas of improvement is neverending, they also know that they need to keep it simple and continue showing the Bruins brass more of what they have already seen and liked.

“Just [need to] go out there and play your game — keep it simple, follow the system, follow the plan that Claude’s asked us to do before the game,” Gagne said. “There’s always, I think, a couple points every game — different points that you want us to see get better at and see what we can do with what he asks us.

"You try to focus on that, and by just focusing on that, you can forget about that pressure. When you go on the ice, you don’t think too much about [the pressure] — maybe a little bit before the game, maybe today, but when you get the jersey on and you go and play, you just go out there and play your game.”

And that, in the end, is what it comes down to: Playing your game. Playing within the system. Understanding what is at stake and what is being asked of you. Doing your best to combat the pressure and interpret it as fuel rather than fear.

And knowing, at the end of the day, that no matter what happens, it all will be OK.

“At the end of the day — I mean, to me, I have the best job in the world, and it’s something I’ve worked at for a very long time,” Fraser said. “You just got to enjoy the moments and enjoy being in the room with guys like [Milan Lucic] and [Zdeno Chara] and [Patrice Bergeron]. It’s fun, and it’s exciting, and I think being a younger guy, you can inject a little life into your game just by those reasons alone.

“For myself, it’s just enjoying it. Not many bad days in the NHL.”

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