Haggerty: Stunning March run primes B's for playoffs

Haggerty: Stunning March run primes B's for playoffs
March 30, 2014, 10:15 pm
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PHILADELPHIA – The Bruins had been talking for months, both publicly and privately, about this season’s brutal schedule in March.

Boston’s key core players would have just returned from their Olympic duties in Sochi, and the schedule-makers had done them no favors. The Bruins were scheduled to play 17 games in 30 days in March, and had a stupefying eight back-to-back games shoehorned into what is already traditionally the busiest month of the season.

The fear was that the blustery month of March was going to be “make or break” for the Black and Gold, and there was every chance the fatigue, travel and difficult nature of the schedule would take them down a few notches.

That's not even close to what happened.

Instead, the Bruins crushed the month of March in every way imaginable now that it can be analyzed in the rear-view. They finished things off with an appropriately gritty 4-3 shootout win over the Flyers Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center. It’s unfailingly impressive that a team with seemingly nothing to gain from fighting for the extra shootout point continued to refuse to lose, and was too stubborn to hand anything over to the Flyers.

That bitter, sour hatred for losing is exactly what makes the Bruins such a great hockey team in the first place.

“It shows a lot for our character,” said Patrice Bergeron. “The guys that we have all pulled together and kept getting better. We established a goal after a tough first two games following the Olympics when we were a little tentative, and not playing our game. We just talked about going back to our system, and playing hard. The rest usually takes care of itself. Since [the beginning of March] we’ve been doing that, and we’ve been successful.”

So what’s left for the Bruins is some pretty impressive totals in the month of March: the Bruins went 15-1-1 in those grueling 17 games, reeled off a franchise-best nine-game winning streak on the road that’s still going, and hammered out their longest overall winning streak (12) in more than 40 years, dating to the prime of the Bobby Orr era (1971).

“It was an extremely busy month given the number of games and the travel. It wasn’t easy,” said Zdeno Chara, who will be in line for a well-deserved rest the next couple of weeks. “Every team had kind of a tough stretch with the travel and game, and you obviously have to look forward. But if you look back it was a pretty fun month for us as far as putting up wins together, and finding ways to win.

“We were a little bit heavier on the legs in the third [against the Flyers], but we managed to get the win," Chara said. "For sure it wasn’t easy and we probably could have made better plays to avoid them tying the game. But we’re just trying to focus on one game at a time on the road, or at home.”

More important, the Bruins used this regular-season gauntlet of a month to clinch the Atlantic Division, and pull away from the Pittsburgh Penguins for top spot in the Eastern Conference. The individual numbers are just as eye-popping for a team that’s taken points in 16 consecutive games over the past 31 days.

For the month, Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron combined for 24 goals. The Bruins outscored the opposition 59-27 over the 17 games in March. Tuukka Rask was 9-1-1 with a .944 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 games. Chad Johnson was 6-0-0 with a .951 save percentage and a 1.33 goals-against average, while giving Rask vital rest after the Olympics.

Clearly, the fatigued bodies, scattered brains and heavy legs caught up to them on Sunday as the Flyers outshot the Bruins by a 25-7 margin through the third period and overtime.

By all rights the Flyers should have won their seventh game in nine tries after tying it up with 25 seconds in the third on Vinny Lecavalier’s second goal of the contest.

Again, the Bruins scraped and clawed their way to a shootout win on the heels of Reilly Smith, who has more shootout game-winners (two) than goals over his past 23 games with the Black and Gold.

It’s gotten to the point where you almost assume, while watching the Bruins, that somebody is going to make a play to win the game and you assume that every single night.

“It’s been a really good month for us. If you check the schedule we’ve had a lot of back-to-back games, and that’s where I give the guys a lot of credit,” said Claude Julien. “There’s no doubt we were running on fumes there at the end [against Philadelphia], but we killed a 5-on-3 and our guys put it on the line. They did what they had to do.”

Clearly, the Bruins’ impressive run doesn’t amount to a bag of pucks if it doesn’t translate into postseason success, and nobody is overly impressed by the awesome destructive power of Boston in the regular season. It was certainly a nice run, but it will be about finishing the job, and that’s it.

The blessing and curse of this year’s Bruins team will be living up to the hype of being the NHL’s best team as they’re being dubbed now with only a couple of weeks to go until the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s not anything particularly daunting to a grizzled Bruins team that’s been to the Cup Finals twice the past three years.

Still, one thing this epic month of March did reveal is that the Bruins are still uniquely equipped to rise to the season’s big challenges and there is no big discernible weakness with a team at the top of virtually every NHL team statistical category. They have depth, they have offense, they have defense, they have top special teams and they have a goaltender that’s in line to win his first Vezina Trophy this season.

They also have a 36-year-old future Hall of Famer in Jarome Iginla that is desperate to hoist that Cup over his head, so the Bruins have their rallying Cup cry, despite having won one just three short years ago.

Stanley Cups aren’t won in March. The Bruins know that as well as anybody. But Claude Julien’s band of hockey players also seem to keep building evidence for a case that something special is on the way as they continue building toward their all-important playoff run.