FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time in eight years.
General manager Don Sweeney has overhauled the Boston roster since he was hired May 20 to replace Peter Chiarelli. The Bruins signed unrestricted free agent forward Matt Beleskey, traded for forward Jimmy Hayes, traded away forward Milan Lucic and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and let several role players leave as free agents.
It will take some time for chemistry to develop, and all of the players will have to become acclimated with the style of play Sweeney and coach Claude Julien want to implement.
The Bruins are going to be in a state of flux, but they're also going to be in the spotlight because they're scheduled to host the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL's New England Patriots, on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
Although nothing will tarnish the buzz surrounding the event, given the venue and the longstanding rivalry between the Bruins and Canadiens, neither wants to be in the midst of a lackluster season when New Year's Day rolls around.
So for three months leading up to the NHL Winter Classic, Boston will have added motivation to make sure it's playing well enough to be considered one of the elite teams in the NHL.
"You never want to be behind the eight ball right away, so you want to have a good start of the season," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said at the stadium Wednesday. "That's definitely the plan and the goal. This game is definitely something we're all looking forward to."
Bergeron knows all about playing in the NHL Winter Classic and dealing with the lead-up to one of the NHL's marquee events; in 2010, the Bruins hosted the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park. Boston won when Bergeron set up Marco Sturm's overtime goal at 1:57. The Bruins tied the score on a Mark Recchi power-play goal with 2:18 remaining in the third period.
"With the memories of 2010, it was very special and it was a lot of fun," Bergeron said. "And the way that the game ended was even more memorable. But I think we're definitely … that's the goal: to be in the race and to have a good team and be right there with all the teams, obviously."
Prior to the 2010 NHL Winter Classic, the Bruins faced postseason-level media scrutiny four months before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They managed to focus on the task at hand, winning four of their five games prior to the NHL Winter Classic, including 4-0 against the Atlanta Thrashers two nights before playing at Fenway.
Bergeron, one of Boston's alternate captains, will have to pass on some wisdom to make sure the Bruins don't get sidetracked before they host the Canadiens outdoors.
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"You can't think about it. You have to make sure you kind of set yourself a goal, say those last three games, kind of have a short-term goal and not think about that game," Bergeron said. "And once you're there, that's when you start kind of worrying about it. Obviously, all the ticket requests and all of that stuff is definitely going to be crazy, but you have to think about all the games are important, they're all two points, even though this one is more talked about. So you need to make sure you worry about all the games."
The Bruins finished in fifth place, 14 points behind the first-place Canadiens, in the Atlantic Division last season. Boston was two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
If the Bruins' plans for a turnaround come to fruition, the two points up for grabs at the NHL Winter Classic will be crucial. The magnitude of the event could make those points the toughest ones to earn all season. Not only will there be distractions, but the venom of the Boston-Montreal rivalry will increase tenfold because each team will want to cap the occasion with a victory.
"I like it. I'm excited about it," Bergeron said. "I've said that at Fenway. It's the same thing here. I've grown up playing pond hockey and outside hockey. It's definitely special every time you get a chance to do that. Even more so when it's a venue like Gillette or Fenway. I like it, I'm up for it. I think it's a great challenge and I guess it breaks down a little bit of the season as well, kind of being midway through. It's great."