BOSTON – When an undermanned Bruins team limped back from a successful road swing through Western Canada, they were able to collect their breath and train their focus on a favorable section of the NHL season.
That’s because it kicked off a three-week, nine-game stretch of games against .500 or worse hockey teams. The Flames, Sabres, Predators, Islanders and Senators have all been among the NHL’s weak sisters over the first three months. It was expected the Bruins, beset by injuries, could still fatten up their point total against them.
Consider it the soft cream filling on the inside of the NHL regular-season Twinkie.
Things started out well as the Black and Gold won four of the first five. They outscored the opposition 19-7 in those five games, while thriving with AHL injury replacements such as Ryan Spooner, Nick Johnson, Craig Cunningham and David Warsofsky in the lineup.
They’ve since dropped back-to-back games to the Senators and Islanders while giving up a bloated nine goals, and watching their top-10 special teams units both crap out against the Isles. Tuukka Rask was pulled in the second period against Ottawa, and gave up a pair of soft goals to John Tavares in the decisive third period against the Islanders.
“It’s obviously not us,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We could be a lot better, everyone, on the ice and we all take a lot of pride in our PK. We have to look at videos, compete and be a lot better.”
They are now 4-3 in that stretch of nine incredibly winnable games, and have just two left with the Nashville Predators on Thursday and an afternoon date with the Winnipeg Jets scheduled for this weekend. A couple of losses could leave the Bruins an unthinkable 4-5 in that three-week stretch that was initially considered a piece of hockey cake going in, and set the B’s up for a nightmarish West Coast trip through the NHL iron in Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose next week.
“We’ve got two home games left before we head out to California, and I think we all know that those California teams right now are pretty good,” said coach Claude Julien. “It will be a tough week next week. So if we don’t get some wins here in the next two games, there is going to be a lot of pressure on us going to California.
“We need to think about the present, but we also need to think about what’s ahead and the urgency of getting a bounce-back win tomorrow.”
The Bruins should be brimming with confidence heading into their home game with Nashville after chasing Carter Hutton out of the game against the Predators last week, prior to the Christmas break. Still, it had better be the hard-working, focused, confident team closer to their full lineup, with Dougie Hamilton and Carl Soderberg returning, that shows up, rather than the overconfident B’s bunch that put things into cruise control once they got a two-goal lead against the Islanders that eventually crumbled away.
Good hockey teams take care of business against lesser teams in the NHL, and the Bruins have customarily done that over the last few years as one of the elite teams in the league. Bad hockey teams will play down to their competition and fumble away chances to stockpile points early in the year before an Olympic break and a congested second-half schedule become very roadblocks to a strong finish to the season.
The Bruins have their chance to take six wins out of nine games against a beatable bunch of opponents that the NHL schedule-makers kindly set them up with around the holiday season. All that is required is typically strong performances against a Predators team they put a season-high six spot on the last time the two teams played, and a Winnipeg team that’s actually riding a three-game winning streak borne out of desperation.
That is the mission for the Black and Gold, should they choose to accept it, and it doesn’t sound like they have much choice piecing through the message from their coach.