April 18, 2014

Three keys for the B's as the playoffs beckon

By Jesse Connolly

Second-year NHLer Carl Soderberg, centering Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson, has solidified the Bruins’ third line. (Photo/Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the middle of a longwinded answer about getting a much-needed rest during the Olympic break, Milan Lucic uttered seven words he likely regretted saying before the final syllable even rolled off his tongue.

“I hope we’re not peaking right now,” the Bruins winger proclaimed, following Boston’s all-too-easy, 5-1 victory over the helpless Hurricanes on March 14.

Unable to snatch those words back out of the air before they reached the crowd of scribes gathered around his stall in the B’s TD Garden dressing room, Lucic surely knew his statement would be brought up at coach Claude Julien’s ensuing press conference.

While the Bruins’ bench boss wasn’t totally taken aback — a la former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora’s infamous, high-pitched “Playoffs?!” rant in 2001 — no one expected Julien to give the possibility that the B’s were indeed peaking a ringing endorsement.

“Well if he thinks we’re peaking too soon, I can show him a lot of areas where we can get better,” the coach said. “That’s not hard for me to find.”

While that might be true, it’d be hard to argue the Bruins could have been playing any better with the playoffs just around the corner.

Boston nailed down its eighth consecutive win that afternoon and made it nine straight with a 4-1 victory over the Wild in its next outing, upping its record over the last 22 games to 17-2-3. That dominant stretch catapulted the Bruins to the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference above Pittsburgh, and put them within striking distance of the Blues for the best record in the National Hockey League.

Nevertheless, the B’s still have a few key questions to answer as the postseason begins.

Determining the D

On the day of the NHL’s trade deadline, GM Peter Chiarelli claimed Corey Potter off waivers from Edmonton and acquired Andrej Meszaros from Philadelphia in exchange for a draft pick. While the former likely won’t see much action down the stretch, the latter quickly asserted himself as a contender to snag a lineup spot from one of the B’s regulars on the back end.

Often a healthy scratch for the Flyers this season, Meszaros hit the ground running in Boston, scoring in his Black-and-Gold debut. Through his first four games as a Bruin, the 28-year-old Slovak had two points, was plus-3, looked impressive on the point on the power play and played well alongside countryman and former Senators teammate Zdeno Chara.

Ex-Flyer Andrej Meszaros bolstered the blue line for the red-hot Bruins in the absence of Dennis Seidenberg. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

“It’s great,” Meszaros said of the competition for ice time among the Bruins’ blueliners. “You know, you have to be on top of the game every night and you have to play your best, but I think it’s good. You never know what’s going to happen down the stretch, and so far it’s been great, but we’ll see what happens.”

In his first two games as a Bruin, Meszaros bumped NHL sophomore Dougie Hamilton out of the lineup, following a tough outing down in Tampa for the 19-year-old rearguard.

“I think it’s obviously a different game from up there,” Hamilton said of his two-game stint in the press box. “It’s a lot easier and everything is slower and stuff like that, so you can see things, but I think just trying to add different things to my game. The coaches talked to me and told me certain things to add and I think there’s been things all year that I’ve been working on and trying to improve. And I think I just have to keep adding more and keep getting ready so I can play in the playoffs.”

Upon returning to action, Hamilton sported a plus-5 rating over the next three games. During that stretch, he was more physical in his own end and had back-to-back games with multiple blocked shots for the first time all season.

Hamilton went through a similar scenario last spring, with veteran Wade Redden supplanting him in the lineup come playoff time.

“I think I’m more used to it now and obviously it’s not fun not playing, but I think I got to learn a lot last year through that whole playoff run and know more what to expect and what’s expected of me,” the second-year pro said. “So (I’m) just trying to get my game to a trustworthy playoff game in this last month or so, and hopefully I can do that and earn a spot.”

Like Hamilton, Torey Krug received a spark after being the odd man out for one night, scoring for the second time in three games after going five straight contests without a point.

“Yeah, exactly,” the rookie Krug, who had 36 points through 67 games, said of his third-period goal against Carolina giving him a boost going forward. “Last minute; heading into next game, I’ll play with a little bit more confidence.”

With a month left in the regular season, every member of Boston’s defensive corps was riding high, from Chara and Johnny Boychuk — the two mortal locks for lineup spots come playoff time — to the ever-steady Matt Bartkowski and the hard-hitting anchor of the B’s bottom pairing, UVM product Kevan Miller.

Julien sees no downside to having seven great candidates for the six spots on the blue line.

“We mentioned it after we made those deals, that there’s some depth, but there’s also some competition now,” the coach said. “(If) there’s nobody pushing from behind, no matter who you are, you have a tendency to get comfortable. So we try to keep that competitive edge within our hockey team, and right now it’s there with our defensemen.”

Secondary scoring

It’s a certainty on par with the all-too-inevitable death and taxes: David Krejci will be dynamite in the postseason. Throughout his NHL career, the Czech center has never failed to deliver the goods for Boston, turning in Conn Smythe-worthy performances during their runs to the finals in 2011 and 2013.

Julien has little to worry about when it comes to production from his top line, which features Krejci and two wingers built for playoff hockey in Lucic and Jarome Iginla. The trio has been Boston’s most consistent line all season and there’s no reason to expect that to change at any juncture in 2014.

Boston’s second line, however, has been running hot and cold throughout most of the campaign. Outside of a stretch in which he scored 12 goals in 20 games during December and January, Brad Marchand had just nine goals in Boston’s other 48 contests. He had just one goal and three assists in Boston’s first 10 games in March. Marchand’s struggles paled in comparison to the other winger flanking Patrice Bergeron, as Reilly Smith endured a 15-game goal drought, which he mercifully put to bed March 17 against Minnesota.

“That definitely helps a lot (that) our team was playing such good hockey,” Smith said of the team’s success during his slump. “It definitely kept a more positive atmosphere around the rink, and the guys and coaching staff were great in trying to help me through it.”

One of the main reasons Boston was able to rack up victories during that stretch was the play of the third line, especially Carl Soderberg. The Swedish forward really took off after being moved to the center position. From Jan. 27 to March 17, the skilled 28-year-old had 16 points in 18 games.

“The way Carl is playing, everyone to that extent, is playing all three zones and coming back hard and preventing goals,” linemate Chris Kelly said. “When you do that, I think good things happen.”

While his production hasn’t been on par with Soderberg, Boston’s other Swedish third-liner, Loui Eriksson, appeared to be hitting his stride in March, as he racked up five points during a four-game stretch sandwiched around a mysterious heel infection that kept him out of the lineup on the eve of the trade deadline.

Boston’s captain discussed how Eriksson, a silver medalist in Sochi for Sweden in February, has been coming around.

“I think he’s getting better and better,” Chara said of Eriksson, who had 26 points through 47 games in a season that’s seen him suffer a pair of concussions. “It’s been, for sure, not an easy year for him with injuries. But when you’re kind of coming and going out of the lineup, it’s tough to get that feeling and your game back. I think the Olympics probably helped him to gain his confidence and playmaking capabilities. Now he’s getting better and better, so for sure it’s something that we like to see. I’m sure he’s going to be getting better and better.”

Foes to fear

With the new playoff format, odds have increased exponentially that Boston will run into historic rival Montreal at some point prior to the conference finals. Given the Habs’ success against the Black and Gold over the last few seasons — oh, and throughout most of the B’s 90 years of existence — that’s certainly a cause for concern.

Boston ended a five-game losing streak to the Canadiens in March with a 4-1 victory at the Bell Centre. Montreal had newcomer and perennial Bruins-killer Thomas Vanek in the lineup, but they were without their No. 1 netminder, Carey Price, who returned shortly afterward from a lower-body injury.

“I think a lot of people have put a lot of weight into that Montreal game,” Julien said. “I know we hadn’t won in a while (against the Canadiens), but for me it was more about we need to just play our game and when you do that — we did for the most part — it doesn’t matter who we play. So it wasn’t Montreal versus Boston, that was, I guess, alarming for us that we hadn’t played well against that team. So we just had to go out there and play our game, and that’s what we did.”

If Boston makes it beyond the second round, many presume it will be in for a clash in the conference finals with Pittsburgh for the second year in a row. The Bruins swept the Pens in that series and won two of their three regular-season matchups in 2013-14, but all three battles were one-goal games, and the Penguins were plagued by a number of injuries throughout the campaign.

Should the Black and Gold advance to the Stanley Cup Final, they’ll be in for a tough test, regardless of who represents the West. The Bruins sat at 15-4-4 through their first 23 games against opponents from the Western Conference, but did have their struggles against the cream of the crop from the Central and Pacific divisions, losing on the road in Chicago, Anaheim, L.A. and St. Louis.

To the B’s credit, they played well against the Blues — who, after acquiring goaltender Ryan Miller from Buffalo, were in the driver’s seat to capture the Presidents’ Trophy as the season wound down — earning a point in each matchup.

“That was a good game; they are a heavy team,” Chiarelli said of the last Bruins-Blues clash in February. “I think we’ve outplayed them both times we’ve played them, but we haven’t won. But I’ve been happy with the way we played them both times, so it’s a good measuring-stick game. So it’s nice to say we have a measuring stick game instead of us being the measuring stick all the time.”

While Chiarelli appreciated the role reversal, the B’s ridiculous run leading up to the final weeks of the season surely made them a measuring stick for just about every foe they were slated to take on prior to the postseason, as Boston looks to be in line to represent the East for the third time in four years in the finals. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, sometimes all the regular-season success in the world means squat come playoff time.

The Bruins might have the least question marks, holes or whichever other buzzword you’d prefer, but no NHL team is without flaws and none is immune to having things unravel at a moment’s notice.

A 17-2-3 run is something to marvel at, but the Bruins won’t be patting themselves on the back any time soon.

“I think you just go out on a nightly basis, you’re trying to fine-tune your game,” Krug said when asked if the team was peaking too soon. “I’m not worried about it because we have leaders in here that will take care of that when the time comes. We’re playing good hockey. We’re still fine-tuning some things. Defensively, we’re playing well right now. Our goalies are unbelievable, as usual. We’re scoring goals, everything’s coming together well, and like Looch said, hopefully it’s not too early.”

If Boston’s able to save the best for last, another Stanley Cup likely will be waiting for them when they reach the peak of the NHL mountain.

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