The Boston Bruins began the final quarter of the 2013-14 regular season by docking the Tampa Bay Lightning’s dwindling hopes for first place in the Atlantic Division. By seizing the shootout after a 3-3 regulation tie Saturday night, they opened a 13-point gap ahead of the Bolts.
Tampa is in a gridlock with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, all in the 70-point range. As of Sunday morning, the second-place Canadiens were trailing Boston by a double-digit margin.
This comes a week after the difference sat at four points last Sunday morning, March 2. At that time, the third-place Lightning trailed by six points, the fourth-place Maple Leafs by seven.
Hard to deny the timeliness of these developments from a Boston standpoint, considering a venture to Montreal this Wednesday is next on the agenda. If nothing else, the Bruins are not acting self-assured, which is as vital as pulling away from their pursuant foes.
With the ongoing tear, they have also invigorated the notion that they could pole-vault over the Pittsburgh Penguins for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. At each club’s 63-game mark, the Pens had a one-point lead, 88-87. Sunday’s win gives Boston an 89-88 edge, but Pittsburgh has a game in hand.
Naturally, that will only matter if the two black and gold bands muster a meeting in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Boston can only lend relevance to home-ice advantage for that stage of the tournament by taking measures to outlast its divisional rivals.
Despite the cushion plugging the hole between first and second in the Atlantic, Wednesday’s visit to the Bell Centre packs a pivotal vibe. It entails the task of emboldening the claim to home ice as well as interrelated factors that can either strengthen or sap home ice’s importance.
The Habs will enter this matchup with a 12-point and two-game deficit glowering at them. It is virtually their last call to make the race for regality in the division, well, a race.
With that being said, they will be home with a chance to augment their advantage in the season series to 3-0. They wrested a 2-1 decision in December and pounced for a 4-1 victory at TD Garden in January.
For the Bruins, both Wednesday and a March 24 home date with the Habs mean more than inching closer to home ice through the divisional portion of the postseason. These are challenges to assert that there will be an advantage within that extra home date in a given best-of-seven bout.
With the second half of the season series coming post-trade deadline, Boston cannot afford to squander first or second impressions. The Canadiens will come bearing a dynamic new weapon in winger Thomas Vanek, whom they plucked from the struggling New York Islanders this past week.
The best the Bruins can elicit for a counterpoint is defenseman Andrej Meszaros, whose outlook coming into his Spoked-B tenure is iffy, at best.
With the addition of Vanek to its strike force and resurgent goaltender Carey Price returning from injury sooner or later, Montreal is projecting to be Boston’s chief threat in the first half of the 2014 playoffs. That alone should be enough motivation to deal a quick knockout biff in the bout for the best seeding.
Come what may, all current rosters essentially constitute everyone’s postseason scrolls. The Bruins need to make do to make an impression in advance of their matchups with any prospective first- and/or second-round adversaries. That goes for everyone, but Montreal in particular.
Even if one deletes the divisional implications, there would be a twofold benefit to getting the better of the Habs. It would help the Bruins keep pace with the Penguins and make an Eastern Conference Final appearance, Pittsburgh or not, look a little more feasible.
Granted, even the freshest regular-season results will not always serve as a harbinger for the playoffs when two teams renew acquaintances. But in the Claude Julien era, the Boston-Montreal saga has consistently hinted at a benefit in setting a tone down the stretch.
The 2007-08 Habs won all eight regular-season meetings before warding off an upset-minded Boston dog pack in a seven-game thriller. The next year, the rivals reversed their roles in another first-versus-eighth showdown. The 2008-09 Bruins presaged a four-game playoff sweep with a 5-0-1 finish to the regular-season series.
The 2011 docket drummed up more drama than its predecessors. Home ice went momentarily moot when the higher-seeded Bruins needed to hop out of a 2-0 hole with back-to-back wins at the Bell Centre. When they did, supportive crowds held sway for the balance of the series with a pair of overtime wins in Games 5 and 7 deciding the winner.
Before that, though, Boston claimed a key victory in a March 24 home tilt, the finale of its six-game season series with Montreal. The 7-0 drubbing that night bolstered the Bruins’ stranglehold on the Northeast Division, effectively ensuring their right to host Game 7 a month later.
All of that made it easy to forget the fact that the Canadiens had won four of the first five regular-season matches, including three in regulation and one at the Garden. That 2010-11 Boston team perked up when it counted the most, both head-to-head and overall.
To bring it all back to the present, wrapping up the regular-season division title should be a secondary objective for the Bruins. This Wednesday should revolve around reaping tangible evidence that this particular posse can pilfer a victory from the Bell Centre.
Conversely, two weeks from Monday should be about redressing the Jan. 30 setback and repressing the Canadiens’ confidence on Causeway. The odds are inherently against a rerun of 2011 with the visitor prevailing for the majority, let alone first four games, of the series.
In turn, Boston needs to foster a habit of protecting its domain with no flexibility while stealing a road win for good measure. Doing so will carry the concomitant benefit of challenging the Penguins for conference supremacy in case of a third-round encounter.
Yes, the Bruins took a grip on the 2013 conference final on Pittsburgh property and never relinquished their authority en route to a sweep. But like the 2011 Montreal matchup, they should not bank on bagging back-to-back road wins from the Penguins a second time.
Hypothetically, a split might suffice, but the more Gardening they can arrange, the better. Come playoff time, they will want to force any opponent to try stealing from their building earlier and more often than vice versa.
But even with the privilege of hosting an opener and, if necessary, a decider, the Bruins need to sculpt confidence in hostile venues against more desperate teams. Doing so could go a long way toward putting opponents away quicker, thus conserving energy en route to a longer run than a reigning Stanley Cup runner-up usually garners.
Points may suddenly appear to count less with this 12-point lead and two games in hand on the Habs. That does not mean the next 18 games, particularly this Wednesday, count any less in the buildup to the tournament.