ANAHEIM, CA The Bruins went to California with an aching in their hearts last week, and theyre returning with equal parts meaning and identity after taking four out of six points on the three-game trip.
Even the 2-1 loss to San Jose opening the Pacific Division trip wasnt a complete washout given some of the factors at work there, but Boston has to be heartened after winning four of their last five games while finding the tried-and-true formula for Bruins success.
Its always come down to defense, goaltending and opportunistic scoring from all lines for the reigning Cup champs, and it did again on the West Coast.
Our guys respected the game plan well and we got the results we wanted, said Claude Julien, who was describing Sundays win over the Ducks but might well have been speaking about their body of work since a tipping point home win over the Flyers. We still feel we have some work to do because weve been struggling the last few months. Weve won four of our last five games and were starting to turn the corner, so that bodes well.
There is plenty to like about the way the Black and Gold are playing now with seven games remaining on their schedule. But theres even more to like with the knowledge the Ottawa Senators are finally abating as a threat in the Northeast Division, and still trail by three points with Boston holding two games in hand.
But this has always been much more about the "Spoked B" tribe than those divisional pretenders surrounding them in orbit.
The Bruins once again look like themselves, and its arrived in time for the postseason run.
It starts, of course, with their bedrock players. Both Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas again appear like their elite-level selves while pushing, pulling and cajoling the team to victory.
The Bruins goaltenders including a needed show of competence from Marty Turco finally started stopping pucks again with swagger and an air of dominance. Thomas and Turco posted a .948 save percentage over the three games despite getting outshot in each of the three West Coast games, and thats actually a normal hallmark of the Claude Julien defensive system when its adhered to correctly.
The defense in front of both goaltenders has locked down with a weak link named Corvo removed from the chain.
In fact, Greg Zanon has stepped in and proven himself to be a Black and Gold-style player with the Mark Stuart-style habit of crushing at least one opponent in every game that hes played. But the defense starts, begins and ends with one of the strongest men on the planet as Marty Turco called Zdeno Chara, and the Bs captain has reenergized by hitting his 1,000th NHL game milestone.
The iconic moment from the entire road trip had to be Chara dropping to one knee with little more than a minute to go against the Kings while protecting a one-goal lead, and then making a street goalie kick save to block a puck from reaching the net.
With Thomas and Chara once again in full working order which they most definitely had not been during the hairy parts of February and March everything has fallen into place as best it will for the Black and Gold.
But that also speaks to just how hard the 35-year-old Chara and the 37-year-old Thomas have had to work to get the Bs train back on the tracks. Chara is hustling, working hard and posting big ice time totals paired with Dennis Seidenberg, and has seemingly been in playoff mode since the beginning of March.
Thomas has played in 21 of the last 24 games including 16 straight appearances: he looks good now but nobody knows what kind of effect that will have once the Bruins burrow deep into their playoff bunker.
One sign of concern: the key players like Thomas and Chara are already taking on the gaunt, haggard appearance of players already in the middle of a playoff run and April hasnt even started.
One has to wonder how much the Bruins will actually have in the gas tank when things really start to matter in the playoffs, and thats been the same thats been asked since they began this years journey to repeat. It could all catch up to the Bruins when they have to dig down deep against a quality Eastern opponent like the Penguins or Rangers in the second round.
But thats a story for another day. On this day the Bruins beer mug looks half full and theyre once again rolling.
Rich Peverley returned to the fold Sunday and was in the middle of a couple of scoring chances in his first game back, and the winger provides Claude Julien with a hammer that will keep all his forwards playing hard.
After all its no coincidence Peverleys return to good health seemed to arrive simultaneously with the rise of a trio of third-line forwards that dont want to be throwing back popcorn in the press box once the playoff music starts playing.
The third line scoring and the overwhelming depth is so reminiscent of last years Bs team when coupled with goaltending and defense running at full efficiency that many of the Bruins players are understandably feeling dj vu.
After watching solid wins over the Flyers, Maple Leafs, Kings and Ducks over the last two weeks, the Bruins of yesteryear should start getting everybody optimistic.
Weve matured as a team and gained that killer instinct when games are won or lost, said Milan Lucic. Its feeling more like our game and we really got back to our style of playing in that home stand against Philly and Toronto. This Pacific road swing was a challenge and we were up for it. We need to keep this going. Thats for sure.
For the newcomers, theyre recognizing something special starting to build with the Bruins, and perhaps some new light has been shed on exactly how the Bs were able to run all the way to the Cup.
Its harder than ever to win the Cup and as the playoffs are fast approaching you can tell that the team is thinking along those tracks, said Marty Turco. The minds are curious in recalling how hard it was last year: winning three Game 7s, the big saves by Timmy and the big goals scored in the playoffs.
We all thought watching last year the Bruins were the best team. But its even harder to do it again. Thats why it hasnt been done in such a long time. But the leadership on this group and its starting with Zdeno to see the way he plays, the way he leads and the way he talks to these guys. You just follow in his footsteps and then you have Timmy playing the way he is. I think they can win again and Id be more than happy if they did.
It wont be easy and the Bruins have shown signs of wear all season, but theyre also starting to show that perhaps they have what it takes for another prolonged run of springtime hockey.