The first test comes on Monday night in Sunrise against the Panthers, who have a game in hand on the Bruins, and are just one point above them with 80 points. The next test will come on Tuesday night, when the Bruins face off against the Lightning, who lead the division with 82 points.
“I think it’s an exciting game for both teams, because there’s a lot at stake,” Head Coach Claude Julien said following the Bruins’ pregame skate at BB&T Center. “I think one team wants to stay there, and the other team would like to move ahead, so when you look at a game like this at this time of year, it certainly creates some excitement for fans and also for players and teams.”
“This road trip’s a big one for us,” said Matt Beleskey. “Right now, everything’s so tight obviously, so tonight’s a big game and to be able to jump a team in the standings is huge for us.”
These two teams last met on Dec. 12 in Boston, with the Bruins earning a 3-1 decision. The Black & Gold have won both games of the season series so far, also picking up a 3-1 win on Oct. 30 in Sunrise.
Florida is coming off a tough end to a five-game road trip, with a 3-2 loss in Colorado and a 5-1 loss in Arizona, but this is a team the rattled off 12 straight wins through December and January, and is just seven wins away from tying their franchise record for wins in a season (43, 1999-2000).
“They’ve become a real competitive team and good balance everywhere, and I think Lu [Robert Luongo] in net has given them a lot of stability,” said Julien. “The rest of their team, highly skilled and definitely heading in the right direction, so we know what we’re up against and it’s just a matter of — for us — continuing to worry about our game and how we can play.”
The Panthers added pieces at the trade deadline that will help them down the stretch and into the playoffs, including forwards Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell and defenseman Jakub Kindl. All three are expected to make their home debuts on Monday night at the BB&T Center.
“They made some good moves at the deadline and they’re a young team that’s kind of finding their way right now,” said Beleskey. “So it’s going to be a good game tonight.”
“They have a lot of skill,” said Ryan Spooner. “It’s a team that we need to keep to the outside and I think if we can do that, we should be fine.”
Hudler and Purcell should add offensive punch to the Panthers, who have been led this season by the age-less Jarmoir Jagr, who leads the team in points (48) and goals (21) and has 1,850 career NHL points. With Jagr’s next point, he will pass Gordie Howe for third all-time in points.
“I mean, I don’t know how he does it,” smiled Spooner. “He’s been in the league for 24 years or something like that, and you see him and he still has the speed and the skill and the strength and he’s just a fun guy to watch out there.”
While Florida will look to get back on track and start a three-game homestead strong, the Bruins will look to draw on their recent outings against Washington and Chicago, having picked up three of four points against two of the NHL’s top teams.
“Down the stretch, every game means so much, so we’ve got to be ready to go,” said Beleskey. “We’ve got to play a full 60 minutes, and I think our team’s prepared for that.”
Miller Labeled Day-to-Day
Defenseman Kevan Miller left Saturday night’s game against Washington in the second period, after a heavy hit from behind by Alex Ovechkin, who was assessed a five-minute major for the hit.
He did not return to the game and has been labeled day-to-day with an upper-body injury. The blueliner did not travel with the team to Florida.
“Day-to-day. He’s been evaluated as day-to-day,” Julien said. “He’s not on this trip, but I think nobody anticipated anything after that incident, what it was, and we said that the other day after the game, we didn’t know [his status] and since [Sunday], he’s been evaluated as day-to-day.”
With Miller out, Zach Trotman could be slotting back into the lineup on Monday night after eight games as a healthy scratch. He last played on Feb. 18 in Nashville.
“Moving my feet just leads to me playing better all around,” Trotman said of his focus. “If I’m in tonight, that’s going to be my thing — is moving my feet and playing with some composure.”
Julien on Verge of Passing Art Ross
Julien’s next win will make him the all-time leader in regular season coaching victories in franchise history. He is currently tied with Art Ross at 387 wins.
Beleskey has only had Julien as his head coach for one season, but he’s seen firsthand what has contributed to the bench boss’ longevity in Boston.
“He’s a straightforward guy. He’s going to let you know how he thinks you’re playing and how he wants you to play and I think that’s huge for players,” said Beleksey. “Usually, you just want to know what you’re supposed to do and he’s been great with me.”
“Obviously, it shows with his chance to become most winningest coach tonight.”
Line Rushes During Pregame Skate 3/7
Brad Marchand—Patrice Bergeron—Lee Stempniak
Matt Beleskey—David Krejci—David Pastrnak
Loui Eriksson—Ryan Spooner—Jimmy Hayes
Landon Ferraro—Noel Acciari—Brett Connolly
Defense Pairs During Pregame Skate 3/7*
Torey Krug—Dennis Seidenberg
John-Michael Liles—Adam McQuaid
Joe Morrow—Zach Trotman
Expected Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask** // Backup: Jonas Gustavsson
*Zdeno Chara was not on the ice for pregame skate, but it expected to be in the lineup against Florida (as confirmed after pregame skate by Julien).
**Tuukka Rask was the first goalie off the ice at pregame skate, denoting that he is expected to start in goal.