By Andy Merritt
BOSTON – The first six weeks of the Bruins’ season were kind of a jagged mess, schedule-wise.
As the NHL sprung to life for an abbreviated 2013 season, the Bruins started their 48-game slate with an irregular pattern of games that included some acrobatic travel itineraries and, in mid-February, a single week with two three-day breaks from game action.
As President Jed Bartlet would say, “break’s over.”
The Bruins will play 17 games in March, and if you include Thursday night’s 2-1 win over Ottawa, it’s an 18-game-in-32 day run that should certainly clear up where the Bruins stand this year. Entering Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay (1 p.m., NESN/98.5 FM), Boston has played two fewer games than any other Eastern Conference team, and has three games in hand on first-place Montreal, who comes to town Sunday night.
The Bruins aren’t looking at the grueling month of March as 17 big games, however. It’s all about the next one.
“For me, you address it once and you give the message that you want to give and then you move on,” coach Claude Julien told reporters on Thursday morning. “We’re a team, as I’ve said publicly, that we’re better when we live in the moment. That’s what we’re going to try to do through this whole process here, is stay in the moment and not look further ahead than the day of the game and deal with that situation.”
The start of the gauntlet wasn’t exactly the prettiest effort on the Bruins’ part, but the 2-1 result is something they’ll take and move on. The only man who had more trouble handling Nathan Horton’s shot 5:48 into the second period than Horton himself was Ottawa goaltender Robin Lehner, who got caught off-balance by Horton’s misfire and gave up the first goal of the night. The Bruins were solid, but not exactly great throughout the rest of the game, and gave up a rare power play goal later in the second, before Patrice Bergeron’s shot trickled through Lehner and just over the line in overtime.
It was a hard fought win. But it was also ugly, and probably not the ideal way to start a busy stretch of the season.
“We know we’re a better team, we know we can play better,” Julien said. “We know we didn’t have our A-game, so you turn the page and say well done, as far as battling through it. … We didn’t have our legs, so it’s not because they didn’t want to, but certainly Saturday’s game, I’m looking for our team to be better and hopefully we’ll have gotten into our groove at home.”
The Bruins can be forgiven for “not having their legs,” after a long road trip that took them away from Boston for 15 days, and yielded a 4-1-0 record. But they won’t be able to get those legs back with rest anytime soon. That’s why preparation, the players said, will be key moving forward.
“Recovery and nutrition is huge, whether it’s individual players or team by team,” defenseman Andrew Ference said. “By the end of the season, you’ll definitely see who’s doing it the right way and who’s not, so there’s a lot of little edges that you can give yourself, whether it’s through rest and food and some of the recovery devices.”
The lack of downtime – March only has one set of back-to-back off days for the Bruins – also means less time to refine the technical stuff on-ice.
“Everybody knew that our last road trip was our last real time to have a day to get a breather and really get a couple of really good practices,” Ference said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing is you lose that ability to have long practices and really work on your technical stuff in your game, so I think that’s going to be a challenge obviously where you have to stay on top of that, and it’ll be short but the quality has to be high in the practices through this part of the stretch.”
On the bright side, Julien said he’s happy with where the Bruins are at in that respect. With most of last year’s roster back this season, the players know the system, so the only corrections that should be necessary will be minor.
“A lot of that stuff because our team is very familiar with our system we can do through video,” Julien said. “If we need to rest, we can show guys clips, and it’s been done in the past, and you show them and get their attention, and next game it’s corrected without even having to go on the ice and doing it.”
Julien will also have a little bit more to do in managing his goaltenders. Tuukka Rask has been outstanding in net thus far, with a goals against average (1.82) and save percentage (.933) that have him among the league leaders. He’s also played 14 games to backup Anton Khudobin’s three. It seems unlikely that he’ll play 14 out of the next 17 games, but Julien said the goalie gameplan will continue to be considered on a day-to-day basis.
“That’s what I’ve said a million times. It’s one of those things where I’m going to go almost – I say game by game,” Julien said. “I’m going to look at the week, and I kind of plan, but I always keep it as a game-to-game situation. There could be injuries, there could be a goaltender really having a tough night, and you change your mind.
“Certainly, I’ve looked at the schedule, and have things in mind, but it’s really a game-to-game situation when the decision is made.”
March’s schedule actually isn’t all that different from last year’s. In March 2012, the Bruins also had 17 games on the schedule, with only one back-to-back pair of off days. Of course, last March was followed by just four regular-season games in April, whereas this April features 14 games in 27 days.
But that’s April. First comes March. First comes Saturday against the Lightning. Then we’ll see what comes next.