The Boston Bruins are battle-tested in the wake of a dense Western Conference slate through the first three weeks of January. The final week of the month will yield their turn to switch to the role of a battle-tester as they return to a predominantly Eastern Conference schedule.
Eight of the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins’ first nine games in January were against nonconference foes. Five of their last seven have seen them confront a team that boasted a better record than they had before puck drop, those being Anaheim, Los Angeles (twice), San Jose and Chicago.
They began that stretch on a bumbling note, losing two straight in Southern California but have since ironed out their wrinkles to regain a contender’s persona. They most recently rewarded their answer to the challenge of facing the Blackhawks and Kings in back-to-back matinees with three out of four possible points.
They earned those points, in part, through a refined defense and goaltending guild that confined the opposition to a single goal or less per period. It also did not hurt them to have a blazing Brad Marchand (four goals) and a reawakened power play that went one of four on Monday.
Now they must take their upgraded form, preserve it through a hard-earned, four-day break and apply the same competitiveness in a slew of confrontations with Eastern chasers. It is a task that is easy enough to preach but will require a different form of diligence to exercise.
The break between their last game Monday and their next engagement Saturday may, in fact, serve the Bruins better mentally than it will physically. That is especially the case for such young skaters as Matt Bartkowski and rookies Torey Krug, Kevan Miller and Ryan Spooner.
With the switch from incessant nonconference activity to intraconference action comes an equally dramatic shift in expectation. The balance of January’s itinerary bears a multitude of ostensibly more winnable games than when Boston was battling the better part of a disproportionately affluent Western Conference.
The “winnable” status of those matchups, however, can evaporate if too many Bruins, especially their younger and unripe defensemen, let excess confidence from recent success bear them down.
Therefore, the rest of this week will be good for digesting the gains from the recent rigor and stepping back to take only what is worth building on as more desperate opponents approach. In addition, those who have been less offensively productive of late should be honing an appetite to finish more of their chances and not leave it all to Marchand's line.
The Blackhawks, Ducks, Kings and Sharks are all time-tested powerhouses running away with playoff qualification as best as one can at this stage of the NHL season. The Bruins are approaching a similar stature on the Atlantic and Eastern leaderboard, and it may be no accident that they suffered a couple of losses before picking up points in those titanic tangles.
Now they must be ready to switch positions around the measuring stick and to ward off subconscious complacency. Their next four adversaries from Philadelphia, Long Island, Florida and Montreal will have every reason to set their eyes on traction when they face Boston between now and next Thursday.
The Flyers, who will host the Bruins this Saturday, are in the upper echelon of a logjam between second and eighth place in the Metropolitan Division standings. They entered their Wednesday night clash with Carolina third in the division with 56 points, only one behind the second-place New York Rangers.
In one respect, while they do not boast quite the same contender’s certificate as Los Angeles, the Flyers figure to issue a similar challenge. Besides being another traditionally gritty, physical team, their divisional posture going into their Boston matchup cannot be overlooked.
Like the Kings in the Pacific, Philadelphia is jockeying for the right to at least claim home-ice advantage in the first round of the newly formatted Stanley Cup playoffs. That will come with a second-place finish in the division, and they can set a tone for the decisive homestretch by beating the Bruins and leap-frogging the Rangers this weekend.
Entering Wednesday’s NHL action, the Rangers were six slots, but only eight points, ahead of the crosstown rival Islanders, who vanquished the Blueshirts on Tuesday, 5-3. The Isles are 9-3-0 in their last 12 games, winning the last two after deleting two-goal deficits, and have rapidly replenished the rhythm that earned them a playoff berth last year.
By the time they host the Bruins this Monday, the Islanders will be on the heels of facing two other established bigwigs in the Penguins and Blues. In addition, they will have a chance to sweep their three-game season series with Boston, having claimed a 3-1 decision Nov. 2 and a 5-3 win Dec. 31.
The visit to Nassau Coliseum will constitute the first half of a back-to-back set for Boston, culminating with a return home to face the Panthers.
As is the case with the Islanders, it is not quite time to write Florida off yet. Or, at least, that is the message the Panthers have conveyed with their inspired play of late. They are seventh in the Atlantic with 47 points and 30 games remaining but are coming off two consecutive wins and are 5-3-2 in their last 10.
On Monday, the regal Penguins, owners of the only record in the Eastern Conference better than Boston’s, learned the hard way what can happen when one lets the starving Cats hang around for too long. In their case, it was a 5-1 mortifier in front of their own fans at the Consol Energy Center, where they had previously won 13 in a row.
While the Panthers are in a more dire need of wins to salvage any lingering playoff hopes, another upcoming divisional rival in Montreal still has a chance to lasso the Bruins at the top of the Atlantic.
There is no telling how much might change in the week between now and next Thursday’s Montreal matchup at the TD Garden. In all likelihood, though, there will be a negligible change to the current six-point gap between first and third place.
Any reduction in that margin going into their meeting could offer the Canadiens a chance to lunge right at Boston’s heels with a regulation win.
Conversely, by next Thursday’s final horn, the Bruins will have a game in hand on the Habs, having 29 still to work with versus Montreal’s 28. Depending on the structure of the standings going in, a Boston regulation victory that evening could spell a valuable forward leap toward distancing a prospective challenger for first place and/or postseason home ice.
Even without those implications, the second installment of the season series will be Boston’s chance for direct redress after its fall-from-ahead, 2-1 falter at the Bell Centre in December.
The Bruins should be used to second chances in marquee matchups by now. They showed as much over the course of their already finished season series with Pittsburgh, where they lost on the road before winning two straight meetings at home.
And they just reiterated that notion with the same basic road-loss, home-win pattern against Los Angeles. That is where they have left off until extramural Eastern Conference activity resumes this weekend.
All statistics for this report were found via NHL.com