Haggerty: Bruins in a good spot for the stretch run

Haggerty: Bruins in a good spot for the stretch run
February 26, 2014, 12:15 am
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BOSTON – Most of the NHL regular season’s hard work has already been done by the Boston Bruins.

The Black and Gold finished off the pre-Olympic break portion of the schedule with an 8-1-2 record in the final 11 games, and played their best brand of hockey to date through the season. The elongated stretch of quality all-around hockey pushed the Bruins out to a seven-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are battling through injuries to goaltender Ben Bishop and Valtteri Filppula to remain in the race behind a healthy, robust group of Bruins.

Further back in the standings both the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are eight points behind the B’s with Boston holding at least two games in hand against both of their Original Six rivals.

So the division looks pretty well in hand for the Bruins with 25 games remaining on the schedule. Boston sits five points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand, and may or may not catch up the Penguins for the top spot. Either way Boston is high up in the East standings, and has afforded itself the chance to start preparing for the playoffs in April.

“Going down the stretch we want to play our best hockey, but we end up where we end up,” said Brad Marchand. “Hopefully it’s closer to the top. I think our confidence is pretty good, and that’s a huge aspect to the game.”

Clearly they want to play quality Bruins hockey and keep the foot down on the pedal, but Boston also won’t be looking to empty the tank during a tough month of March with 17 games in 31 days.

“I don’t think I have to squeeze them or push them. What we want to have right now is what I like to call consistency,” said Claude Julien. “We don’t want the bad game, and then the great game. We want consistency, and we want things at a certain level.

“Every time you play you have an opportunity to win, and we want to keep our good habits. We don’t want bad habits to start creeping in. That’s my main concern right now. We don’t want to let those things happen. The two weeks certainly didn’t do [the players] any harm, especially with the 17 games coming up in March. Our guys are a lot better shape now than they were coming out of the lockout, so I think we’re in a good place now.”

It sounds like Julien has officially put last year’s production of “Jekyll and Hyde” to bed with that pronouncement.

Clearly the Bruins coaching staff is taking the long view by leaving Tuukka Rask behind in Boston. The Bronze Medal-winning goalie will rest while his teammates travel to Buffalo for Wednesday night’s game at the First Niagara Center. Chad Johnson will get the starting nod against the Sabres, and that should be the case plenty of nights over the next six weeks as there are still eight sets of back-to-back games among the 25 regular season tilts.

The six weeks left on the schedule will be about Boston maintaining their current position, potentially adding to the lineup by dealing for a veteran defenseman and making certain Zdeno Chara is rested enough for a full playoff workload without partner Dennis Seidenberg along for the ride.

Chara and David Krejci both admitted they were fighting through some fatigue early this week, and that’s understandable given the nine-hour time zone difference, and the long flight back from Sochi that simply screams out jet lag. But Julien was taking a different tack to the Olympic experience after coming back with a gold medal worth of memories behind the bench for Team Canada.

“If anything, to be honest with you, the competition was so good and refreshing that I’ve come back here energized,” said Julien. “I’m not tired. I’m ready to go, and I’m looking forward to getting back with my team and getting into games.

“Whether it’s different three or four from now, maybe I’ll let you know. Right now I feel no effects. If anything the excitement over there [in Sochi] really energized me coming back, and I’m looking to accomplish the same thing with this Bruins team.”

One thing the Bruins don’t want to do: ease up too much on the gas pedal given their relative stability in the standings. As it stands right now, the Penguins and the Bruins are the class teams in the Eastern Conference.

Both hockey clubs are so comfortably entrenched that there isn’t likely to be much that truly pushes them until the playoffs begin in the middle of April. That kind of scenario can provide a rude awakening for conference top dogs against hungry teams that have been forced to play for their postseason lives down the stretch.

It’s exactly the kind of situation that could take down the Bruins in the early rounds if they’re not too careful, and that goes doubly so given the likelihood they’ll be facing young, quick teams like the Maple Leafs and Canadiens in the first couple rounds of the playoffs.

Both could spell trouble for the Black and Gold if they don’t keep their claws razor sharp in the final quarter sprint in the regular season. But that’s another narrative for another day when it comes to the Bruins.

For now it’s about the B’s resting, preparing and working toward hitting their peak stride in six weeks while taking the long view through the rest of the season. Some desperate NHL teams need to get into their sprinting speed now while fighting for a playoff foothold, but the Bruins are very happily not one of them.