WILMINGTON -- By taking stock of who was and wasn’t on the ice for Monday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena, it's clear coach Claude Julien is already beginning to toe the delicate line of resting players while going for the Northeast Division title.
The Bruins will play their remaining four regular-season games over the next six days and will finish with three games in four days. Included are a pair of makeups, against the Tampa Bay Lightning (Thursday, in a game postponed because of February's blizzard) and the Ottawa Senators (Sunday, in a game postponed because of the Boston Marathon attack).
They've already played one makeup game: Saturday against the Penguins, in a game postponed from Friday because of the lockdown in Boston. But the two postponements last week actually allowed the Bruins to catch their breath a little bit, and at least handed them a rest after the grueling schedule in March and April.
Now, with the end of the regular season at end, the schedule gets grueling again. Which is why Julien must balance a sprint for the division title, and the No. 2 seed in the East that goes with it, against the need to keep players healthy and rested heading into the postseason.
“We’re not too worried about the matchups or who we might play [in the playoffs]; we’re worried about where our game needs to be to have a successful playoff,” said Milan Lucic.
But after Lucic seemed to indicate the Bruins were more concerned with how they felt than where they finished, he added: “We want to do everything that we can to get into that No. 2 spot and win that division. We still have a lot to play for with the division title on the line. We’re not looking past these four games. We want to build our game before the playoffs start and it’s a good focus to have.”
And that's what Julien calls "the big challenge".
“You want to accomplish your goal and finish as high as you can, but at the same time you want to rest your players," said Julien. "A lot of this stuff we’ll see as the schedule progresses. There are other teams playing, and wherever those teams end up in wins and losses might end up helping us make some decisions.
“I can’t answer that right now because it depends on a lot of different things. It’ll depend on the day-by-day.”
The Bruins and the Canadiens each have 49 points, but Boston has a game in hand.
Julien and the coaching staff will be weighing the push for the No. 2 seed with resting key players, and getting everything lined up for the first round of the playoffs. That’s already started with the coaches rotating defenseman in and out of the lineup over the last couple of games, and it continued on Monday with Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin all missing from practice.
One could expect that at some point in the next four games -- just as was the case against the Ottawa Senators at the end of last season -- Zdeno Chara will be a healthy scratch for at least one game. And perhaps 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr will get a game off to gather up his energy for an anticipated long playoff run. One good thing: Both Bergeron and Marchand got some physical rest while sitting out with recent concussions that have subsequently healed, and should be as fresh as possible for another Cup run in Boston.
But for now it’s about loading up to play a Flyers team Tuesday night that’s finishing out the string at this point, and then moving on to three games in four days before the true sprint -- to the Cup -- begins.