By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
After showing both sides of their split personality during a brief two game home stand, the Bruins will face their biggest challenge in what has been a bit of a choppy season this week. Caught sleepwalking through an overtime 3-2 overtime loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night at TD Garden, the B’s bounced back with a strong showing, shutting down a very good New York Islanders 3-1 on Saturday afternoon.
Headed to California to face three of the toughest teams in the Western Conference – the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings – all of whom have had their way with the Bruins in their previous match ups this season, the B’s role as road warriors will certainly be put to the test.
Plainly stated, it is nut cutting time for the boys in Black and Gold.
How the Bruins fare – not just in wins and losses, but the ability to compete at the same level – against some of the heaviest line ups in the league in their buildings, will go a long way in finding out just how legitimate their hopes of having a lengthy run in the playoffs actually are.
Having made their way into first place in the Atlantic Division – although the Panthers trail by just a point and the Lightning by two, both with two games in hand – and fifth overall in the NHL, the Bruins are a bit of a paper tiger. While there is no denying the record – especially following the league’s trade deadline – the B’s, at times, continue to flunk the eye test.
It is hardly breaking new ground to point out that the team’s biggest deficiency has been its defense. Once again, captain Zdeno Chara struggled on Saturday, his turnover in the second period ultimately resulted in the Isles only goal. Even with the addition of John-Michael Liles – who is a bottom three defenseman on a true Cup contending team – the B’s lack a real shutdown pairing, and will be at the mercy of Tuukka Rask’s ability to carry them for stretches if they are to make any kind of run in the post-season.
However, it is the presence of the veteran core – Chara, Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Krejci – that gives the team its best chance to raise their level of play to the point it will need to be to in order to make some noise in the East, once the NHL’s second season starts for real in April.
Head coach Claude Julien was asked about his team’s bounce back after a poor showing against the ‘Canes following the impressive win over the Islanders. The B’s bench boss said, “I think there is a lot that has to do with the veteran core but also as a team we haven’t gone on these big winning streaks like a lot of teams have, whether it’s the Tampa’s or Florida’s or others that have won nine or ten in a row, but we haven’t lost eight or nine in a row either so we have been pretty consistent.”
The true test of just how high the team can elevate their game will likely come this week in California, as they enter the cauldron that is the Western Conference playoff push the three clubs they will face are in. Separated by only three points in the standings, the race is on for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, so, needless to say; points will be at a premium and their opponents will certainly be prepared to play.
It is very likely that this trip out West could either coalesce the Bruins into a force to be reckoned with in the early rounds of the post season, or expose them as the incomplete team most of the league believes them to be. The way the B’s perform in the closest thing they will get to playoff hockey before they actually begin in April, might just justify general manager Don Sweeney’s decision to add to his team when most of those covering them thought it best that he sell the likes of free agent to be Loui Eriksson, while playing the kids down the stretch and, perhaps, into the playoffs.
Nevertheless, it is test time this week for the Bruins. How they fare will likely be a preview of what can be expected from them when the games begin for real in the playoffs.