If the Boston Bruins repeat their 2011 Stanley Cup run again this spring, then St. Patrick's Day may be remembered as their turning point.
This has nothing to do with Boston's unofficial title as the Irish capital of North America, and the attendant thousands of green-clad revelers all over the city on Saturday, and everything to do with the Bruins finally rediscovering their game. For the last two months, the Bruins frittered away first their NHL Eastern Conference lead and then the Northeast Division lead because their once-solid defensive game fell apart.
Then, when injuries to the likes of winger Nathan Horton started eating away at their scoring, the Bruins machine developed a nasty ping. From Feb. 1 until Saturday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins had an 8-13-1 record. The low point came last week with a four-game losing streak, the Bruins' longest one in more than two years.
Head coach Claude Julien felt the Bruins would not get better until they fixed the way they played in front of their own net. In winning last year's Stanley Cup, the Bruins created a wall in front of Tim Thomas and relied on timely rather than plentiful scoring to get them enough goals to win.
"We had to get better in that area that every team calls 'the house,' and that's the front-of-the-net area," Julien said. "We were getting caught on the outside quite a bit and opening up that slot area."
Then, Julien added, when one of the Bruins defencemen would spot an opposing player open in the slot he would move toward him, creating an opening at the net. This allowed teams to get the puck to a forward who would slip into the open area from behind the net."
The result was a drop in Thomas's play, as the goaltender found himself contending with a lot more than his controversial right-wing political views. Too many hockey right wingers found it easy pickings around the net when the Bruins' defence was running around looking too much like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who face the Bruins here Monday night.
Julien ordered his defencemen to worry about the front of the net first. He also told the wingers that if the centre was on their side of the ice they still had to play toward the middle rather than along the boards.
"One of the biggest adjustments was probably our strong-side winger getting caught along the boards a lot of the time when the other team had full control," Julien said. "So we brought him back in."
In Saturday's 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers, the changes worked well. The Flyers, a good net-crashing team, did not cause Thomas any undue distress. Both of their goals came on deflections and Thomas made a big save on Daniel Brière in the shootout to give the Bruins the win, which also restored their lead in the Northeast Division over the Ottawa Senators.
"I think we know that time's running out here," Julien said. "With 10 games left, it's important that we bring that kind of an effort, that kind of a game, night in, night out right now because, as we all know, first of all, we want to be part of the playoff scene.
"Second of all, we want to be in the best position possible, and thirdly, you want to make sure you play your best hockey once the playoffs start. You have to build towards that, and we've got a lot of building to do."
CHARA, SEIDENBERG TOGETHER AGAIN
One reason the Boston Bruins defence tightened up considerably was that head coach Claude Julien reunited the pair of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
They were put together three games into the first round of last year's playoffs after the Montreal Canadiens won the first two games. That sparked a turnaround, as Chara and Seidenberg became the best shutdown pair of the postseason as the Bruins became champions.
But for most of this season, Chara played with Johnny Boychuk and Seidenberg was with Joe Corvo. It worked well for the most part, with Chara once again a leading candidate for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the best defenceman.
However, as the Bruins' two-month funk continued, Julien decided to reunite the pair. Chara and Seidenberg were assigned to the Flyers' top line of centre Claude Giroux and wingers Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, who failed to register a point.
There is no doubt Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, who never plays well in Boston against his former team, will get his fill of Chara and Seidenberg during the Leafs' visit Monday night. However, neither Chara nor Seidenberg sees their reunion as a big deal.
"Honestly, we used to play everybody with everybody," Chara said. "It's just the way it is right now. We got together and we played together the whole playoffs last year and so we're used to each other and, just like with anybody else, we're just used to each other."
The most Julien was willing to say is that maybe they will stay together for the rest of the season.
"That'll depend on the teams we're playing against," he said. "It depends on who's in the lineup, and what players they're playing, who they are, etc. etc. Those are decisions you make almost on a game-to-game basis. But at the same time, you're not going to hide the fact that you like that pairing, especially if both of them are at their best."
BERGERON BUILDING A GOOD SEASON
Patrice Bergeron is not the flashiest player in the NHL but he is the most reliable.
The Bruins centre has 56 points in 71 games this season, which ranks him 45th in the NHL points race. However, he leads the league in plus-minus with a plus-31 and he is plus-51 over the last two seasons, which is the best mark among forwards. He has also won more faceoffs than anyone else in the NHL this season at 848, which gives him a 58.5-per-cent success rate, good for third in the league.
In Saturday's important 3-2 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Bergeron had an assist and scored the winning goal in the shootout. "I know as a leader you need to step up in those occasions," Bergeron said.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien says Bergeron's contributions go beyond what he can do on the ice: "He's a real good team player, good person. He demands a lot, and he expects a lot out of himself. Not only is he a good player, but I don't know that there's that may players that take as good of care of themselves off the ice as he does. He wants to be the hardest-working guy, and those guys end up getting rewarded for that."
THOMAS IS BACK
Tim Thomas started feeling the heat in January when he skipped the Boston Bruins' visit to the White House but he was squarely on the hot seat through February when his play deteriorated along with that of his team.
But the Bruins goaltender served notice he still is a force to be reckoned with in stopping 27 shots in a 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers on Saturday. His key save came late in the first period when he stopped Jaromir Jagr on a breakaway, one that came into play in the shootout when Thomas blanked Flyers centre Danny Brière for the win.
"I wasn't feeling unconfident going into [the shootout]" Thomas said. "But the save on Jagr, it did help to boost my confidence more than it already was.
"I think [the win]was very important. We needed that immensely. Things haven't been going our way lately, and that's a polite way of saying it."
Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara on his team turning things around: "We know what we have. We know the leaders and character we have on this team and it's been a tough few games. We all know that. But there's nothing we can do about them. We just have to look ahead of us and finish really strong, really establish our game again going into the playoffs."
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Maple Leafs at Bruins
Boston broke a four-game losing streak on the weekend by getting back to its tight defence. This game should see if the Bruins are consistent, although they have consistently beaten up Toronto this season. Monday, 7 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario.
Devils at Rangers
New York has a two-game losing streak going and is 4-5-1 in its last 10, as the Pittsburgh Penguins moved within a point of the Eastern Conference leaders with Sidney Crosby back. The Rangers need a win over the Devils to snap out of it. Monday, 7:30 p.m., TSN 2.
Flames at Avalanche
This game is important in the fight for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Colorado was seventh before Sunday's games, while the Flames were three behind them and two behind eighth-place San Jose. Tuesday, 9 p.m., Sportsnet West.
Red Wings at Rangers
This is a tough test for New York, although Detroit has been stumbling lately. The Red Wings have a four-game losing streak and are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., TSN 2.
Jets at Capitals