By Joe Haggerty
WILMINGTON A word of caution to the Boston Bruins: Those Montreal Canadiens in their rear-view mirror are much closer than they might appear.
With the Habs crushing the Minnesota Wild, 8-1, Sunday afternoon, Montreal is only a point behind the Bs in the Northeast Division.
Boston still has a pair of games in hand on the Canadiens, but the hated Habs also come in for a gigantic visit to the TD Garden Thursday night thats going to be enormous on many levels given the rivalry, the standings, and the Zdeno CharaMax Pacioretty soap opera playing out over the last couple of weeks.
In many ways the Bruins simply havent been the same team since they were pounded at the Bell Centre and branded as the new Legion of Doom after Charas hockey play on Pacioretty in the treacherous stanchion area between the benches. Chara has certainly been a shadow of himself after getting cast as the mustache-twirling villain.
The NHL refs called a handful of questionable penalties on Boston in the first game after CharaPacioretty, and assorted NHL officials have awarded nearly twice as many power plays to Bostons opponents as to the Bruins (22-13) in the five games since the incident.
The quick whistles against the Bruins and the hesitation to bestow power plays with zero production when they actually do get penalties called in their favor -- on the new incarnation of the Big Bad Bruins has taken some of the teeth away from a Bs bunch that relies on physicality.
Lately there have been way too many scenes like the end of the first period Saturday night, when Milan Lucic was barking at ref Frederick LEcuyer on an uncalled high stick against the Maple Leafs.
But thats not the only factor.
The Bruins exhibited signs of mental and physical fatigue after embarking on the highly successful undefeated six-game road trip, and Saturdays listless loss to the Leafs capped off a stretch in which Boston played 12 road games out of 16 total games in February and March.
If you look at our travel over the last month-and-a-half, it hasnt been the easiest, said Mark Recchi. Weve been away a lot, on the road a lot, traveling late at night a couple of times and getting in really late. Eventually that is going to take a toll on your team.
Were over that now and we have a great opportunity here. We came out of it with a little bit of struggles, but at the same time we know we have a lot to build on. Were hitting the stretch drive, and I know we have the talent to do it.
While the Bruins have played their best hockey on the road this season, there is a limit to how long a team can sustain their legs, their fighting spirit and their compete level when long road trips pile up on one another.
The good news: the Bruins play 8 of their remaining 11 regular-season games at home and only embark on a quick one-day trip in their own time zone for each of their final three road games in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.
We need to make sure by the time the playoffs start that were flying at full gear, said Mark Recchi. Every team goes through stuff like this, and were glad that were going through it now so we have 11 games to correct it. We take pride in our goals against and playing well defensively, and its almost like were trying to do too much.
"Were going to be fine. Everybody believes in each other in here, and everybody goes through these stretches. If you look at our 10-game segments, we havent gone through a single one under .500 this year. Weve got 11 games to build things up again with three big games at home.
Whether it was the road weariness or the misplaced nerve, the Bruins dont have a choice now this late into the regular season. Its the middle of March and every NHL team no matter how good or terrible has gone through epic streaks and slumps in the roller-coaster regular season. But the Bruins need to pull themselves out of their currentfunk before the hard-charging Canadiens pass them by, and drop theminto the bottom half of Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Coach Claude Julien has made his commitment to whip the team back into shape, and do whatever possible to calm some of the mental gaffes and communication problems taking place between the defensemen and goaltenders. Tuukka Rask apologizing to Dennis Seidenberg was a good first step after going berserk on the Bruins defenseman following a screen on Saturday night, but it revealed a defensive unit that isnt all on the same page.
Itll be about how we respond in this coming week; thats what is important, said Julien. It has to start from here on in where we find our consistency. When you see us playing the way we are, I dont think that were mentally ready to play. If you assume everything is going to be okay then youre going to miss the boat. Theres a lot of work to be done from here to the end of the regular season to be prepared and to be a good playoff team.
At times during the year you have to trust that your players are professionals, and when you give them a day of rest then theyll be ready to get back to work. If the players arent doing it, then its up to the coach to start making adjustments. Thats what were doing, starting now.
Coming to the rink mentally prepared and willing to compete is the bare minimum for the Bruins, but theyre expected to bring a lot more starting this week as they skate for their very playoff lives in a suddenly life-or-death situation.
The real Bruins team will stand up for these last 11 games for better or worse in a season they have to make count. It all starts Tuesday night against the surprisingly hot New Jersey Devils at TD Garden, when the Big Bad Bruins had better show up.