WILMINGTON — The Bruins have faced multiple challenges this season. There was the condensed schedule, as the NHL will have squeezed 48 games into, in Boston’s case, 100 days.
There were injuries, and then, at the trade deadline, there was the addition of new faces, all of whom had to be worked into the fold with next to no practice time.
The regular season now comes down to two games: Saturday at Washington and Sunday with a rescheduled contest against Ottawa at TD Garden.
The Bruins have a chance to win the Northeast Division and claim the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. With a game in hand, they are tied with Montreal at 61 points. The Canadiens finish up Saturday night with a game in Toronto.
“We’re battling for first in our division and that’s something that it’s in our hands and we’ve just got to go out there and do it,’’ said center Patrice Bergeron. “[Saturday] is a big game. Washington has been playing well. It’s those types of games that get you ready for the playoffs.’’
Had the Bruins played better consistently, they could have already clinched their playoff position and opted to rest key players this weekend. But Bergeron said the added intensity they are bringing into these games could turn out to be a positive.
“We’ve put ourselves in that situation where it comes down to the last two games for the first spot, second seed in the conference,’’ said Bergeron. “It’s a good way to finish the season, to be on our toes.’’
If Thursday’s shutout win over Tampa Bay was any indication, Boston’s lines and defensive pairings appear to be stabilizing.
“A lot of it was about trying to deal with the injuries also but trying to have a feel of certain combinations and different lines,’’ said Bergeron. “I think it’s nice to have some chemistry with your wingers and keep it that way. I think right now we have a really good mix, actually.”
When the Bruins were slumping, Bergeron took it upon himself to try to lead his teammates out of it, but everyone had to assume a role.
“It is a challenge,’’ said Bergeron. “It’s a different season also with so many games [in a shorter time]. It’s not just about us as a leader, it’s about everyone being accountable for yourself, make sure you’re ready for every game. I think it’s something we’ve talked about and have a better approach heading into games.’’
When you are playing 48 games in 100 days, players prepare differently, trying to conserve energy where necessary.
“We had to not get too high and not get too low, and it’s hard to do sometimes,’’ said Bergeron. “We play 82 games but we have a little bit more time in between games usually. This time around, there were [fewer] games in a shorter period of time. That was a little tougher on the body, but we’re no different. There are 30 teams, so no one feels sorry for ourselves.’’
When the new players joined the Bruins, said Bergeron, it took some time to jell.
“Just getting used to one another on and off the ice, because it is something where we need to get to know the guys,’’ said Bergeron. “Also, systems-wise, when you don’t practice, maybe you hesitate a little bit more with the new system.
“But that being said, I think it was about just getting back to basics and playing our game. I think we’ve done that, and [Thursday] was a good example.’’
Coach Claude Julien said there is a renewed optimism.
“There’s no doubt there’s a better feeling all around in the dressing room,’’ he said. “Obviously, we’re hoping our fans liked our game a lot better [Thursday]. That’s what you need and you need to build on that.’’
Jagr takes a sick day
Right wing Jaromir Jagr was given the day off because of flulike symptoms. Julien said he might play Saturday, depending on how he feels . . . Milan Lucic played much more like himself Thursday, which everyone interpreted as a good sign. “Every time he uses his body, he creates a lot of room on the ice for his winger but also for himself,’’ said Bergeron. “I’m sure he gets himself going for the rest of the game also. He does a lot of good when he’s playing like that.’’ . . . Julien said the Bruins’ toughness is a necessary ingredient going forward. “We want to be able to score on our opportunities a little bit more,’’ he said. “But at the same time, we want to continue to defend well and have some great goaltending like we did [Thursday]. The physicality and the grit of our team is what defines us on a lot of nights and that’s why it’s important to have that. But you can’t just go out and hit and bang people and not do the rest of the stuff because it’s not going to help you win.’’
Cautious on Horton
Nathan Horton (upper-body injury) was back on the ice but didn’t make the trip to Washington. “Nathan is doing fine, he’s skating every day,’’ said Julien. “He’s getting better. We’re just, again, maybe extra cautious, but we’re going to make sure that we get him ready when the time comes.’’ . . . Julien didn’t say whether he would give some players a game off this weekend but he didn’t rule it out. “We’ve cut down on ice time and stuff like that,’’ he said. “What we’d like to do and what we have to do are two different things. We’ve still got to look at it day by day. Had we controlled our destiny a little bit better, we might have been in a better position, but that’s what ends up happening.’’ . . . Defenseman Matt Bartkowski was sent to Providence to get some ice time. “We need him to play,’’ said Julien. “He’s been a real good addition to us, and if we need him, I’d rather have him having played. You may see him back Sunday. We’ll see how everything goes. He was sent there for the purpose of helping him out but also to keep playing.’’