By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON With four regular-season games left until the playoff intensity starts percolating like water bubbling at a boil, an assorted group of Bruins players are making important final impressions.
With 7 wins in their last 10 games and the Northeast Division title in their back pocket after Saturday's 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers at TD Garden, the Bruins now have bigger items on their agenda.
They still have a shot at the Eastern Conference top spot. The B's are three points behind the second-place Flyers and four points (with a game in hand) behind the first-place Capitals, and first place overall -- with home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs -- is nothing to sneeze at. It would be the clearest path possible for the Bruins to make their drive toward the Stanley Cup, which has eluded them since the days of the Bobby Orr rock star Bs of 1972.
Thats why there is never any Korbel champagne popped in hockey dressing rooms after clinching division titles.
I dont know why there wasn't a bigger celebration. I really dont know," said Mark Recchi, who opened up Bostons scoring with his 14th goal of the season in the first period. "I guess its because we have another big game on Monday in New York against the Rangers. We still have things ahead of us. We know we still have some things to accomplish. We want to try and continue this thing.
We have four games left and want to make sure we play well. We are excited about it but hopefully we still have a few more months of hockey. Its the ultimate goal for all of us.
With the postseason approaching, some Bruins players are starting to feel the roster pinch while stepping up their games. Nobody wants to be the healthy scratch in the playoffs, and it would appear that Michael Ryder, Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton and Tyler Seguin are all battling to avoid being that lone Bruin out.
Provided theyre all healthy and Thorntons head wound has sufficiently healed by the third week in April, one of those four players will be in the press box wearing an Armani suit when the postseason begins.
So its no surprise that several of them have had their hockey alarm clocks start blaring as of late.
After a sluggish start in his first training camp with the Bruins, Paille has come on strong down the stretch while skating on the fourth line with Gregory Campbell and serving as one of Bostons chief penalty killers.
That continued in the closing minutes of the second period Saturday with the Bs down 2-1 and attempting to kill off a penalty. Paille stepped up and made a play to secure Bostons 11th shorthanded goal of the regular season.
He intercepted a lazy Zach Bogosian pass thrown in front of the Atlanta net, and roofed a laser wrist shot from the left circle before either Bogosian or Dustin Byfuglien could converge on him.
It was Pailles third point in his last four games, and the speedy fourth liner knows the grit and PK performances are the valued areas that will be his calling cards if hes tapped for the postseason.
I feel great. I think I feel faster and just more patient on a lot of plays, said Paille. I feel really happy with my play right now.
I focus on the penalty kill more than anything else. Coach Claude Julien trusts me out there, so I do whatever I can to not get scored against. Hopefully that continues as we keep moving on here.
Ryder hasnt put together such a solid recent body of work as Paille, but Saturday afternoon was undoubtedly the bounce-back game critics had been waiting for from the streaky winger after he was scratched for a pair of games headed into this week.
The 12-game goal-scoring drought and measly four shots in five games werent really screaming out urgency or desperation in Ryders game, but it finally started to come out against Thrashers.
Ryder finished with only a single shot on net, but he also made the play that served as the difference between clinching the Northeast Division or simply shrugging shoulders and muttering well get them next time.
That play was another steal from Bogosian near the blue line that resulted in a solo breakaway before he was hauled down from behind and awarded a rate penalty shot at TD Garden.
Where Ryder completely missed the net on the exact same shootout attempt two nights earlier in the loss to the Maple Leafs, this time he snapped a wrist shot just under the right side of the crossbar and gave the Bs their needed game-winning goal midway through the third period.
Ryder has played two games with the Bs energy line since Thornton suffered the 40-stitch slice above his right eye, and said the trio is collectively looking to make a big impression on Julien and the coaching staff with the playoffs looming around the corner.
One thing Ryder isnt worried about is anybody on the outside bashing him with perceptions about his effort or his skimpy production this season.
I dont pay attention to stuff like that. People always talk and say things like that when you arent producing the way you should and stuff, said Ryder. You just block it out. I know what I have to do to succeed and help this team out. I just need to make sure I do that night in and night out.
You have to go out and show the coaches that you want to be there and you want to help the team. Its what Ive got to do playing with Campbell and Paille right now. I thought we had a pretty good game out there. Anything we can do to help the team is good. Paille scored shorthanded and I got the penalty shot. But we talked as a line and said weve just got to try and make strong plays out there and show that we can help.
Recent big and helpful performances from Paille and Ryder will make Juliens job that much tougher with an enforcer like Thornton sometimes seen as something of a luxury on a playoff roster.
Thorntons toughness and leadership, along with Seguins power-play capabilities and game-breaking potential, should make them players worthy of playoff roster spots at the end of the day.
With four games left there is still plenty of time for any of the Bs quartet to make or break their chances of remaining in the lineup when the postseason dance begins, so let the competitive games begin.
And let the best Bruins win.