Haggerty: Canucks providing concentration test for B's

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Haggerty: Canucks providing concentration test for B's

WILMINGTON, Mass. The Bruins are entering the grind portion of their schedule, so a simple philosophy is going to benefit them greatly: simply put their heads down and start pushing forward.

After a cushy first three months the Bs will play 12 games in 18 days starting Wednesday night in New Jersey against the Devils. Theyll have three back-to-back games in that span, and fatigue is going to become a very real factor while focus is going to wane for some.

The road tilt against the Devils will be followed Thursday night by their one and only meeting of the season against the Calgary Flames on the Garden ice, and that will be a challenge by itself. The Devils are cranking at playoff-level efficiency this season, and the Flames will be desperate to finish off a seven-game road trip strongly after going 2-3-1 through their East Coast swing thus far.

The collective Black and Gold eyes should be trained solely on each of those individual games, but theres one problem. Theres also a flopping, biting, tire-pumping gorilla in the room distracting the Bruins as they strengthen their focus on two midweek games against the Devils and Flames.

Thats right.

The Vancouver Canucks invade Causeway Street on Saturday for a much-anticipated rematch of last years Stanley Cup Finals. The Saturday matinee at TD Garden represents the only time Vancouver and Boston will face each other unless they both make it to the Finals again in June.

Oh, its going to be interesting, admitted Brad Marchand. I know that the fans and everybody else are going to be into it. Itll be good to get it over with. I dont think Ive ever even talked about it once this year, though.

Its just another game in our minds, though. I havent heard any of the guys even talking about it once yet. We both realize nothing is going to change what happened last year. It doesnt matter how they come in and play. Its only one game.

Alex Burrows will get his comeuppance for biting Patrice Bergerons finger, Roberto Luongo will undoubtedly face entire sections of Bs fans furiously waving tire pumps and the Sedin Twins will be entering the same unmerciful no respect zone they found so intimidating in last years seven game series.

It will essentially come down to a 60-minute chance for players on both teams to right whatever wronged them last spring when a retaliation penalty might have been the difference between winning and losing.

The Bruins will have plenty of motivation headed into that game after the bad blood built up over those seven hate-filled games, and the Canucks should be looking for payback. Its not really in their team fabric to cause too much trouble and its really not in their best interest to beat Boston at their own game.

But it will be fun to see how things play out. Theres no love lost for Marchand in the Vancouver dressing room after he used one of the Sedins as a boxing speed bag during the Finals. A whole group of Bruins would clearly love a piece of Burrows after he targeted one of the NHLs classiest players in Patrice Bergeron with his biting antics.

Those are just the obvious ones. Perhaps Mason Raymond still wants a piece of Johnny Boychuk after the hit that knocked him out of the Finals last season, or maybe the entire Bruins roster wants to take their shot at Maxim Lapierre.

Well, actually the last one is a stone-cold definite.

Vancouver really lost some respect in the eyes of the other teams around the NHL with behavior unbecoming of an NHL team during the Finals, and perhaps they see Saturdays game against the Bruins as a chance to win some of that back. It was Vancouver that was rag-dolled around the ice and Mark Recchi labeled the Canucks the most arrogant team hed ever played against following his retirement from hockey after a 20-year Hall of Fame career.

But all of that speaks to just how easily the Bruins could get sucked into the hype leading up to Saturdays game rather than the challenge at hand in New Jersey and Calgary. Their head coach doesnt see potential distraction as an issue at this point with two games coming up in two days.

I havent heard any of the guys talking about. We havent talked about it. Weve become accustomed to focusing on the next game in front of us, and for us its about bouncing back from a game where we didnt like the way we played, said Claude Julien. We need to focus on getting our own game back where it needs to be rather than putting the focus on any of that stuff.

Its vital to get the train back on the tracks after dropping a stink-bomb in Dallas for one of their most uninspiring losses of the season.

That cant happen if their minds are wandering toward jacking up Burrows rather than getting the next available two points.

Weve really matured and had success as of late because were really not looking past the next game, said Marchand. We make sure the focus is where it needs to be on New Jersey tomorrow night, and then after that it will be on Calgary. Well worry about that game when its here.

The Bs have uncovered some newfound maturity this season while defending their Cup championship, and nowhere has been that more evident than taking things one game at a time during an 82-game marathon. Theyve been able to focus game-to-game all season, but a looming battle with the Canucks will put that dedication and patience to the test in the next few days.

It all starts when the Bruins get back to work in New Jersey.

Capitals acquire defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from Blues

Capitals acquire defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from Blues

WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals have acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade with the St. Louis Blues.

Washington sent a 2017 first-round pick, conditional 2018 second-round pick, forward Zach Sanford and minor leaguer Brad Malone to St. Louis in the deal that also sent former Capitals goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley to the Blues.

The teams announced the deal Monday night.

Shattenkirk, 28, is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has 42 points on 11 goals and 31 assists this season and has 66 goals and 218 assists in 471 NHL games

He counts $4.25 million against the salary cap this season. The Blues retained 39 percent of his salary.

Shattenkirk is a right-handed-shooting defenseman who adds more depth and offense to the Capitals' blue line.

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

The Bruins are going to snap their two-year drought and get into the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. 

Sure, it’s going to be a tight race. And it'll come down to the last few games, befitting a team that's lived on the Atlantic Division bubble over the last three years. But in the seven games under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins have shown they have the goods to get into the postseason. There's every reason to believe they’ll sustain their winning ways over the final two months of the regular season. 

There's a long way to go, of course, but a third-place (or higher) finish would ensure the B's a berth in the Atlantic Division playoff bracket, and they could conceivably advance a round or two based solely on the poor quality of clubs in their division. With 20 games to play, the Bruins are now third in the division and have a one-point cushion (70-69) over fourth-place Toronto, though the Leafs have a game in hand. If Toronto passes them, they currently have a two-point lead over the Islanders (70-68) for the eighth and final spot in the conference playoffs, though the Isles also have a game in hand. 

And that's not to say Boston couldn't climb higher. The B's are only four points behind the first-place but spinning-their-wheels Canadiens (20-20-7 since their 13-1-1 start), and they're even with the Habs in games played. They trail second-place Ottawa by two points, but the Senators have two games in hand.

All that, however, is another story for another day (even if it is a reason for Boston adding, rather than subtracting, at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline),

So how can we so stridently state that the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, and assure that this seven-game run isn’t just a flash in the pan?

Clearly they're playing with more urgency, higher compete levels, and a consistent focus that wasn’t there in the first 55 games under Claude Julien. They've now scored first-period goals in nine straight games and scored first in each of the four games on the highly successful Western swing through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Dallas over the last week. 

To put that in perspective, the B's had gone 1-8 in California over the previous three seasons, when those late-in-the-year road trips spelled the beginning of the end for Boston.

But even more convincing is a simple look at the numbers, the production and the reasons behind the surge forward. 

The Bruins have long needed their two franchise centers operating at a high level at both ends of the ice, and consistently playing the 200-foot game that can cause major problems against teams not blessed with frontline talent in the middle. That wasn’t the case under Julien this year, but things have changed. 

David Krejci has three goals and eight points along with an even plus/minus rating in seven games under Cassidy. Patrice Bergeron posted three goals and nine points along with a plus-7 over that same span of games. With those two big-money, big-ceiling players operating at their highest levels, the rest of the team has shown its true potential . . . and the talent level is considerably higher than many thought.

It wasn’t long ago that many Bruins fans, and some major Julien apologists in the media, would have had you believe that Claude was keeping together a substandard NHL roster with a MacGyver-like combination of duct tape, chewing gum and an offensive system that only a dump-and-chase, trappist wonk could love. Now we’re seeing there's offensive talent on a group that’s been given the green light to create and produce. 

To wit, the Bruins' third line is now winning games for them after serving as a liability for the first half of the season. Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano have combined for 6 goals, 15 points and a plus-11 in the seven games under Cassidy after never getting a chance to work together under Julien because they weren’t in his defensive circle of trust.

There's also the elevated level of production -- across the board -- from Boston’s defensemen. Not to mention Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak continuing to produce offense at elite levels. Marchand just set a career-high with his 64th point on Sunday afternoon, and still has another 20 games left in attempting to become the B's first point-per-game player since Marc Savard (88 points in 82 games in  2008-09).

All of it amounts to a Bruins offense that’s now choosing quality shots over quantity: Boston is scoring 1.5 more goals per game under Cassidy while averaging a significant 4.5 fewer shots per game. The Bruins have finally ditched the weak perimeter attack that so entralled the Corsi crowd -- it was putting up 40-plus shots per game, yet only about 2.5 goals -- and are instead honing in their offensive chances between the dots and in closer to the net .

Should people still be wondering if this current B’s run of entertaining, winning hockey is sustainable? They certainly can if they want to wait until the season is over to decide, but the jury is in for this humble hockey writer.

Bruins fans should take the cue and start lining up for their postseason tickets. 

Because there is going to be playoff hockey in Boston this spring. Remember, you heard it here first.