BOSTON -- Being perennial Stanley Cup contenders, the Boston Bruins always expect to get their opponent's best game, taking it as a compliment that other teams respect their abilities.
Whatever the Bruins have accomplished in the past means absolutely nothing right now.
Prior to the recent Olympic break, the Bruins were 8-1-2 and playing their best stretch of hockey this season. Since returning, Boston is 0-1-1 and showing the rust that comes with a two-week hiatus.
After dropping a 4-2 decision to the Washington Capitals on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden, the Bruins can take solace in the fact they have 23 games remaining in the regulation season to fine-tune their play before the Stanley Cup playoffs arrive.
Before Saturday's game, Capitals coach Adam Oates held a meeting and told his team not to be in awe of the Bruins, especially not in this building. He told his players the Bruins are a team that can be defeated on their home ice, and Washington took advantage of Boston's miscues en route to victory.
After the game, Bruins players were disappointed in their effort and were saying all the right things, knowing their game needs to be better, especially against a team like the Capitals, who are fighting for a playoff spot.
"I know this team well enough, and they're not going to hang their heads and say, 'Well, it's because of this or because of that.' We've always taken responsibility for our actions, and that's not going to change," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "They all know in there that we have to work and compete a little harder. The emotion of our game has to be a little bit better."
During the first intermission, Julien sat in his office and reviewed the game sheet. He wasn't pleased that his team had only five hits in the opening period.
"That's not good enough for us," he said after the game. "A lot of that is putting more emotion into your game, and we need to pick it up and get better." Boston needs to bring a physical presence that frightens its opponents. The Bruins showed a little bit of bite on Saturday, erasing a three-goal deficit to cut Washington's lead to one goal in the second period, but it wasn't enough.
Reputation goes a long way in this game. The Bruins are one of the toughest teams in the league and one of the more difficult teams to play at home. It simply wasn't there on Saturday. At least the Bruins know that level exists, because they've reached it consistently in the past, which is something they take pride in.
"It's the level we expect of ourselves, the standard that's expected of us," Bruins forward Gregory Campbell said. "It's not really hard and that's what's expected when you play on this team -- to compete like that every night. Before the break, we were playing some pretty good hockey, so now it's up to us to find our game again."
The Bruins have uncharacteristically allowed nine goals in the past two games. A team built on defense needs to be better.
"It's got to be better. It's going to get better every day," Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask said. "It doesn't matter if we keep talking about it. Today was pretty crappy again, just mental mistakes. You talk about certain things in their power play, you just give them those opportunities and breakaways and stuff like that. It's just not our style. So we just have to be better."
Due to the condensed schedule this month, the Bruins have a total of 17 games in March, including six pairs of back-to-backs. For the Bruins to be successful in this demanding stretch, it's critical for Julien to be able to roll four lines each game.
"We should know that these last 20-plus games are going to be very intense," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "Every opponent is going to play their best, so we should definitely be up for these games and be better. We need contributions from every line. You can't be relying on one line or two lines every time. You've just got to be able to get production from other guys."
Since the Bruins are atop the Atlantic Division, sit second in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and have reached the Stanley Cup finals in two of the past three seasons, opponents are motivated to knock Boston off its pedestal. And when the Bruins feel that pressure, they need to fight back.
"We know how good we can be, and this definitely is not that," Rask said of the team's past two games. "It doesn't matter if we get players [at the trade deadline] or don't get players. We still play a certain system, and this -- you saw today the mental errors cost us again. That's all. We just have to be better mentally."