The first half of the season has gone as well as the Boston Bruins could have imagined, but there's no question the club is happy to see it end.
The banged-up Bruins will use the All-Star break to get healthier, but first they'll visit Toronto on Wednesday hoping to avoid going into the long weekend on their first three-game losing streak since October.
Boston (33-8-5) spent much of the first half on a torrid run to the top of the Eastern Conference, going 24-2-1 from Nov. 1 through Jan. 1 while averaging more than four goals and allowing fewer than two per game over that span. The club's rise earned coach Claude Julien the spot as the East's coach at Sunday's All-Star game.
But with injuries adding up and slowing the Boston's once-potent offense, the Bruins are just 4-3-1 in their last eight games, averaging 2.9 goals and losing three of six at home on the heels of a 14-game home winning streak.
While Marco Sturm is out for the season following knee surgery and Phil Kessel remains out with mononucleosis, four Boston skaters are close to returning from their injuries. Forwards Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic and defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference are all day-to-day.
The sextet has combined for 47 goals and 63 assists this season.
"The reality is right now we can't be the same team that people have seen since the beginning of the year - not with that many injuries," Julien told his team's official Web site. "We just have to look at our lineup, and I think it's important that people know that we've got to grind it out a little more like we did last year."
After a 2-1 loss at Washington on Saturday, the Bruins squandered a point late in Monday's 5-4 shootout loss to St. Louis.
Boston took a 4-2 lead by scoring three goals in a two-minute span during the third period, but the Blues tied the game with a pair of goals in the final 1:20, including one in the final second to force overtime.
The Bruins haven't lost three straight games since going 0-1-2 from Oct. 20-23, with the Maple Leafs handing them their third defeat 4-2 in Boston. Toronto is 0-3-0 against Boston since, with struggling Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala getting pulled from the most recent meeting after giving up four goals on 11 shots in an 8-5 loss on Dec. 18.
Toronto (17-22-7) ranks 28th in the league with a 3.48 team goals-against average, and the swooning Leafs have also been victimized by a sputtering offense recently, scoring two or fewer goals five times in their last seven games and dropping six of them.
They were blanked for the second time in four games Monday, losing 2-0 at home to Carolina and hearing some disapproval from the Air Canada Centre crowd. They had also been shut out in their previous home game, a 2-0 loss to Nashville last Tuesday.
"Every game you go out there, you try and score that first goal and get a lead, play with a lead. On home ice we just haven't been able to do that," Leafs forward Matt Stajan said. "I don't know why. ... We've got to just find a way."
One of the problems has been Nik Antropov's drought. Antropov led the team with 13 goals on Dec. 20, but he's gone 14 straight games without lighting the lamp.