Haggerty: First-place Bruins ready for the road

Haggerty: First-place Bruins ready for the road
December 3, 2013, 10:45 am
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Two months into the NHL, the Bruins are exactly where they wanted to be. With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, the Black and Gold are tops in the newly-constructed Atlantic Division, and also, more importantly, in the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Claude Julien’s crew finds itself firmly ensconced into a playoff spot that should be protected for the rest of the season barring any ridiculously long losing streak, and they’ve turned games at TD Garden into a genuine home-ice advantage. Now the Bruins get a few well-deserved days off while looking back over a month of November that was overwhelmingly successful (10-3-2 in 15 games).

Despite a glowing November and an unbeaten streak of 9-0-2 on the TD Garden ice dating back to Oct. 26, the Bruins know they can be even better. They've been able to summon emotion when it's most important, but they can be more consistent offensively.

“We’ve never had a problem playing at home, but I think this year we’ve become a really good home team thriving off our crowd and playing well in our building,” said Milan Lucic. “We’ve been playing well, but I know we also talk about being able to play better. Getting into December after a good November, you want to keep things going and go about doing things the right way.

“There is still a long time until the postseason and all of that stuff, so now is the right time when you keep building in the right direction. I’ve always felt like December is when you get that first third of the season out of the way, and you start getting into the groove of things.”

Starting Tuesday, the Bruins will be looking forward to the new challenges that await them. Boston certainly had it tough with 15 games in 30 days during the month of November, but 10 of them were on home ice. The Bruins will walk into the belly of the beast on Montreal to face the Habs for the first time this season on Thursday night, and they finally embark on their first West Coast trip through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver next week.

That will include Jarome Iginla’s first return to Calgary since he was memorably traded to Pittsburgh last spring, and Boston’s first game against the Canucks in Vancouver since winning Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final there three years ago. For a Vancouver boy like Lucic, that’s pretty exciting stuff.

“That’s when [the schedule] gets really tough, but we’ve also always been a really good road team,” said Lucic. “We’ve never let the opposing crowd intimidate. We’ll be going into some loud building with some tough crowds, so it will be fun. It’ll be our first time in Western Canada since 2011, so it will be fun.

“A lot of games coming up with a lot of travel, so we’ll see what kind of team we are with our first real road trip coming up.”

The Bruins are the last Atlantic Division team to make the West Coast trip, and have played five fewer games against the dominant Western Conference than any of their other divisional foes. So there could be some very challenging times ahead for a Bruins team that’s enjoyed a pretty advantageous schedule over the first few months of the season.

On top of that, the Western Conference has rolled up a dominant 102-43-12 record against Eastern Conference teams through a lopsided first couple of months.

But at the same time, most hockey players will tell you that the long road trips are sometimes the healthiest activities for a hockey team.

“The schedule has us going on the road, and we’ll be spending a little more time together as a team,” said Julien. “To face some of those challenges and the travel that comes with it, it’s a great opportunity to do this right now. We’ve had a really good homestand, and now it’s time to have it carry over to the road.

“We’ve been home a lot. That means guys are with their families a lot, and that’s great. But it’s not a bad thing for the guys to be a little more together on the road, have some meals together and bond a little bit more on the road. It’s probably a good thing. The players will also tell you it’s a good thing so they can get some of their Christmas shopping done while they’re on the road.”

Eight of the Bruins' 13 games during December will be on the road, and the B's will be looking at another West Coast trip through California a month from now against some teams playing extremely good hockey. The Bruins have held their own with a 2-1-2 record in five home games against the West this season, but now comes the true test vs. the West.

It all starts with a Thursday night tilt against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre and one more game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a couple of good warm-up acts for the long, emotional road swing.

“We’ve been at home for almost the whole month of November. It’s not like you wanted to be on the road, but you have no choice that you’re going on the road at some point,” said Julien. “This is probably as good as any time for it.”

The Bruins will know in a couple of weeks whether it was truly a good time for it, but they’re certainly in a pretty good spot as they prepare for the Western Conference gauntlet.