The Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators each hope that their pre-holiday statements do not grow stale over the NHL’s Christmas respite of 90-odd hours. Their endeavors to prove as much will conflict, as their schedules resume with a home-and-home series this Friday and Saturday.
When the divisional cohabitants convene at TD Garden to commence the two-game series, the Bruins will be striving to build on Monday’s 6-2 lashing of the Predators. The Senators, meanwhile, hope to follow up on a 5-0 drubbing over the Eastern Conference’s other divisional leader, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite their 15-point, five-spot discrepancy in the Atlantic Division standings―or maybe even because of it―the contesting parties figure to engage in a pivotal pair of bouts on the cusp of the season’s midway point. Because of that, and because of who they are facing in back-to-back virtual four-point battles, it is one of their more notable chances to build and/or maintain momentum.
By Saturday’s final horn at Scotiabank Place, the Senators will have reached the exact halfway mark of their 82-game schedule. So far in 2013-14, it is fair to say they have underachieved. They entered the break two games under .500 and trailing Toronto by four points for fifth in the Atlantic, the seed that would constitute the last Eastern Conference playoff spot at this rate.
In terms of their status in the standings, the Sens shall be nothing new to the Bruins given the recent schedule. For the better part of the last two weeks, Boston has been living up to logic by battering bottom-feeders who can afford to spill points the least of almost any teams.
A key element of intrigue in the Predators game, though, was the way they pillaged on the power play, a rarity in recent years. As it happens, the Sens bolstered themselves against the Pens with the help of effective penalty killing, good and plenty.
After helping his skating mates fend off seven Pittsburgh power plays over 12 cumulative minutes en route to a 27-save shutout, goaltender Craig Anderson told nhl.com’s Sean Farrell, “They got some momentum in the second but our (penalty) killers did a great job…When you get an opportunity to clear and you don’t clear, that’s when teams usually punish you and they make you pay, so we really focused on that.”
As the Senators seek to duplicate that kind of defensive performance this weekend, it will percolate a new challenge for Boston’s man-advantage brigade. The Bruins buried all three of their chances, including a five-on-three, against the Predators to help push Monday’s contest out of reach.
Reilly Smith has had a hand in three of his team’s last four power-play conversions. As the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa recently highlighted, that is partially a product of Smith’s knack for utilizing open ice.
As Shinzawa wrote in Monday’s paper, “Smith is smart. He’s slippery. Smith is the Bruins’ version of Matt Moulson — a clever, left-shot wing with a GPS programmed to home in on vacant patches of ice.”
On top of his game, Smith has joined the likes of the towering Zdeno Chara, playmaking pivot David Krejci and point-based slinger Torey Krug as Boston’s most dependable man-up attackers. If all of those elements are in commission this weekend, it should make for at least a handful of fascinating, potentially game-changing segments against the Senators.
It is one thing to reap momentum at a divisional rival’s expense, let alone by breaking off the better half of a two-game weekend wishbone. It is another to do so by virtue of topping the adversary in question on special teams. What better way to sculpt a midseason foundation than by fostering a hot streak in one of the sport’s most vital aspects?
Either way, the Bruins ought to be ready to match the hunger of an increasingly desperate Senators team. In their last two Atlantic Division contests, they settled for a split in a home-and-home with the dead-last, deadbeat Buffalo Sabres.
On top of that, a little more than a month ago, they brooked a fall-from-ahead 4-2 falter in their season series opener with Ottawa. This weekend will be their chance to achieve a sense of redress from both losses with a couple of wins that should be harder earned than the standings might indicate.
Both teams are entitled to confidence—the Senators somewhat more so—with their latest results. Whether trying to bustle into the playoff picture or retain one’s position at or near the top, one cannot request a much better test than from an intra-divisional opponent that is in a similarly fresh state of conviction.
From an Ottawa standpoint, nothing could be timelier entering the second half of its schedule than to bookend this week with solid showings and tangible rewards against Pittsburgh and Boston. Because of that, the Bruins automatically have something substantial to gain if they can get the better of the Sens and thus stifle a salivating pack of underdogs.
Ottawa could likely be content with a straight split of the minimum four points at stake. Conversely, Boston would sense unfinished business if it were to whiff on another regulation swing, let alone fail to land a “W” twice in 24 hours against this ostensibly inferior adversary.
Appreciating the notion that the Senators can still gel their group into a more competitive persona for the next 40-odd games will be crucial on the Bruins’ part.
Granted, this is only the first full calendar week to follow the Winter Solstice. However, Boston can get a jumpstart on honing that ever-decisive postseason variety of “killer instinct” by dealing an early blow to a divisional rival’s recovery project.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com