BOSTON -- Even if it's only a 24-hour stay, there is significance to the Boston Bruins' moving into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division on Thursday.
"We haven't been there all year," defenseman Torey Krug said after Boston's 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes gave them the point they needed to move into first. "So whether it's a quick taste of it or not, to be there right now, it's a testimony to our group growing and sticking with it."
The Bruins have come a long way from being the team that lost its first three games of the season by a combined score of 16-7. At that point, it was fair to wonder about the future of coach Claude Julien and even question the offseason decisions made by general manager Don Sweeney.
The Bruins are 17-7-3 since Jan. 15, including 6-1-2 in their past nine games and 4-0-2 in their past six. That includes wins against the Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning as well as an overtime loss to the Washington Capitals.
Boston had as many wins as actual losses (21-16-5) through its first 42 games.
The Bruins have gotten better on the defensive end, minus lopsided losses to the Los Angeles Kings (9-2) on Feb. 9 and Anaheim Ducks (6-2) on Jan. 26. They're allowing an average of two goals per game in their past nine, including a 1-0 overtime win against the Lightning on Tuesday and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals last Saturday.
The defensive improvement has been necessary because the power play that carried Boston through the first 42 games (28.4 percent, 33-for-116) has gone ice cold in the past 27 games (10.9 percent, 9-for-82).
"After the tough start we had this year, to find ourselves in first place, that's pretty impressive," center David Krejci said of moving into first place.
It might be even more impressive if they can stay on top. There are a lot of factors playing against the Bruins.
Look no further than the number of games Boston has played (69). The Lightning and Panthers each trail Boston by one point and have two games in hand. Tampa Bay will leap the Bruins if it picks up one point in its home game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday.
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The only head-to-head game the Bruins have left with either contender is at home against Florida on March 24.
"It's such a tight, tight group there with the standings that you can't get caught staring at the standings really because one day you're in first place and the next day you're not," goalie Tuukka Rask said. "We just try to plug away."
That won't be so easy through their next six games. It's going to be feel like a steep uphill climb without an oxygen mask.
Boston plays at home, where it has struggled all season (15-16-5), against the New York Islanders on Saturday. The Bruins have beaten the Islanders twice this season, but haven't faced New York since Nov. 8. The Islanders are 11-2-2 in their past 15 games.
After that, the Bruins go to California for three games in five days against three teams that have owned them this season. They lost to the San Jose Sharks 5-4 on Nov. 17; they'd prefer to forget about the games at home against the Kings and Ducks.
As if that weren't tough enough, the Bruins come back east to play at the New York Rangers on March 23. They're 1-1-0 against the Rangers this season, with each game decided by one goal.
Just to make the gauntlet that much tougher, they come home the night after playing in New York to face the Panthers, who busted their slump with a 6-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.
"Man, it's not going to get any easier, that's for sure," Rask said.
But maybe the Bruins have proven in the past 27 games that they're ready for it, that they can handle stiff tests. They did just to get seven out of eight points in a stretch of four games against the Blackhawks, Capitals, Panthers and Lightning prior to Thursday.
Then again, they also felt somewhat lucky to salvage a point against the Hurricanes. It was a point that got them into first place, though. There is significance to that, at least for now.
"We should be a little bit proud I guess of the fact that we've come a long ways to get there," Julien said.