There has always been pressure, but now, there’s more of it.
“I think everyone’s trying to be precise, and you want to make plays, even in practice, because everyone’s watching,” said forward Brian Ferlin, who is competing in his second training camp with the Bruins. “You want to be ready to go every day when you step on the ice. So I think that’s kind of the mentality from the beginning of camp, but definitely as it’s getting chopped down here a little bit closer [to the regular season], definitely more precision and everyone’s ready to go out there.”
The urgency was evident even in the midst of Tuesday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena.
“We’re getting near the end, here, and I think there’s a lot at stake for a lot of guys,” said Head Coach Claude Julien. “So it’s important for everybody to be at their best. It makes for some interesting and good practices.”
Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the Red Wings marked Boston’s first loss of the preseason. Nobody will ever put much stock in a preseason record, and for good reason, but still, those wins matter.
Max Talbot would know. He has been through plenty of exhibition campaigns throughout the course of his 10-year career.
“I think it’s been a very good camp for everybody,” Talbot said. “We’re working hard, we’re winning some games, and I think it’s important to win those games as well. I’ve been with some teams back in the day where we kind of had a tougher preseason, and then it was tough to turn the switch on.
“So we’re working on a couple different things. Guys got to camp in very good shape, which allowed us just to work on the system, and now we’re fine-tuning, pushing the pace a little bit more as well, and I think it’s been good.”
The preseason games have been a good test — for the staff, for the management, and of course, for the players. They have afforded Julien an opportunity to experiment with his lines. They have afforded management an opportunity to gauge the readiness of some of the younger players trying to break into the lineup.
And the games have allowed the players the opportunity to get back into the flow of game action.
“I got in the last four or five games last year, so I think by the fourth game, I had it figured out,” said forward Brett Connolly, who arrived in Boston via trade on March 1 but missed about a month right off the bat with a fractured finger. “Then, we didn’t make the playoffs, so the season’s over, and then you kind of forget a little bit. But a couple of practices in, you figure it out pretty quick.
“I’ve played in three preseason games now, so it’s been a good adjustment. The coaches have been good with me to help me get on board with that, and I think a couple more preseason games, I’ll have it and it will be second nature. So I’m looking forward to the next two games here.”
For a player like Ferlin, who spent seven games with the big club at the end of last season, the games have been critical in helping him get back into the flow.
“It definitely comes back quick,” he said. “You kind of get your feet moving and starting to get back into it. I felt really good the second game, and hopefully just keep building off that.”
Talbot has had a variety of linemates during this year’s camp. He’s skated with veterans like Chris Kelly and rookies like Frank Vatrano. Both players bring different strengths to the table, but Talbot can say with certainty that some of the rookies at this year’s camp have benefitted everyone around them.
“As a team, you look at the practice we just had this morning — it’s a practice where we pushed the pace a little bit more,” Talbot said. “We know that the season is coming — there’s only two preseason games [left] — and guys are pushing to get better and pushing to get into that regular season form, and I think it’s going to be good.
“I think as a team, we have the philosophy that everyone’s working hard and pushing themselves. I think the future’s bright in this organization with all of the prospects pushing. Guys are super close, even if they have limited experience in the minors or different things; there’s a lot of very good players in this organization.”
And rookies and veterans alike will all enter the final two games of preseason action with the same intention.
“My goal is obviously to push for a spot with the big club,” Ferlin said. “I think I got a taste of it last year, and that’s where you want to be, so my goal in the summer was just to work on the things I needed to get better at and just come in here with a fresh mindset and work hard and try to push for a spot.”
Spooner Line Continuing to Work
No line combinations are set by any means, but throughout the vast majority of this year’s camp, Connolly, Ryan Spooner and Jimmy Hayes have been linemates.
Connolly didn’t play in Tuesday night’s game against Detroit — instead, rookie Vatrano skated in his spot — but in Tuesday’s practice, the line was reunited and it continues to find its way.
“I think for me and my line, we’ve just been trying to obviously gain a little bit of confidence, trying to learn the system,” Connolly said. “I obviously didn’t play a lot last year, so just getting used to the systems, kind of get your legs under you, try to learn your teammates’ tendencies … I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far. We’re just looking to get better, here.”
This line is interesting because it features three relative newcomers, in one way or another, to the organization. Spooner got a good taste of NHL action last season, but he still has just 56 games of NHL experience. Connolly is still getting a feel for the system since arriving in March 2015. And Hayes is entering his first season in Black & Gold after coming over via trade on July 1.
Not only are they learning how to play together, but all three of them are still learning the Bruins way. The more confidence they can generate in the preseason, therefore, the better they will be when the games start to count.
“We’re learning each other a little bit in practice,” Connolly said. “I thought we had a good practice today, making a little bit better plays. For the most part, it’s been getting better every day.”
Last year, Spooner had some success playing on a line with David Pastrnak and Milan Lucic. Spooner and Pastrnak brought the speed and the skill, and Lucic brought the brawn.
There is hope that Hayes will have a similar effect in order to complement both Spooner and Connolly.
“I think me and Jimmy like to play a north-south game, and Spoons is up the middle,” Connolly said. “I think for me and Jimmy, we’re looking to do the same thing to kind of help Spoons — obviously, when Spoons has the puck, he can make plays for us to shoot the puck on net, and I think for Jimmy, he’s trying to find out kind of our tendencies, too.
“So we’ve been getting better. He’s been getting better, too, as the camp’s gone on, and we’re looking forward to hopefully staying together for a while here.”
Of the three players on this line, Spooner — despite having never played more than 30 games for the big club in a single season — is the most experienced Bruins player. One year ago at this time, he was still a young hopeful gunning for a full-time role with the team, but after a successful late-season run with the club in 2014-15, he is more comfortable. He is more confident. It’s obvious.
“I think he’s learning the responsibilities that comes with the game at this level, and he’s just getting better about it,” Julien said. “He wants to get better at it as well. So just keeps working at it and that doesn’t come overnight. There’s still some improvement to be made. But he’s a lot better than he was at the beginning, and that’s what we want to see from those kinds of players.”
Of course, like every other player in the lineup, there is room to grow — particularly in his play without the puck.
“Supporting down low in our D-zone and being in the right position to backcheck and stay on the guys and those kinds of things,” Julien said. “He excels with the puck, so we like that about his game — we always have. But in order to play in this league, you have to be at least decent in other areas. You can’t just do one thing right and think you’re going to play in this league.
“He’s gotten better in the area without the puck, and as I said before, that’s what we want to see. And if he continues to improve, he’s only going to get better.”
Gustavsson in on Wednesday; Chara Skating
During this preseason, Jonas Gustavsson has yet to get an opportunity to play a full game. He left training camp briefly last week in order to be home in Detroit for the birth of his daughter, but now that he is back with the team, his opportunity will come on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Julien said Gustavsson — who played the first 30 minutes of Boston’s first preseason game against New Jersey on Sept. 20 — will start against the Rangers.
After being forced for rely too heavily on Tuukka Rask down the stretch last season, Julien has emphasized throughout camp that it is a priority to settle on a backup goaltender who can properly support the starter.
“This year, you want to have a goaltender that you hopefully can put in there a decent amount of times so that Tuukka gets his rest,” Julien said.
Julien also confirmed that Zdeno Chara, who has been hampered by an undisclosed upper body injury since Sept. 22, has been skating on his own prior to team practices.
“[He’s] day-to-day, and every day he keeps getting better,” Julien said. “It’s encouraging. Is he playing [on Wednesday]? No. I can tell you that. I think you guys know that. But he’s still day-to-day, and it’s encouraging news for us, as I’ve said all along.
“He continues to skate on his own, so hopefully we’ll see him with our group there soon.”
Julien did not rule out Chara for Friday’s preseason finale at Washington.
On Tuesday afternoon, General Manager Don Sweeney announced that forwards Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano as well as defensemen Chris Casto and Linus Arnesson have been assigned to Providence and will report to Providence's training camp.
You can read the full release here.
Tuesday’s Practice Lineup
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Loui Eriksson
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Jimmy Hayes — Ryan Spooner — Brett Connolly
Anton Blidh — Chris Kelly/Alex Khokhlachev — Max Talbot
Torey Krug — Adam McQuaid
Matt Irwin — Kevan Miller
Joe Morrow — Zach Trotman
Tommy Cross — Colin Miller
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Jonas Gustavsson, Jeremy Smith