Claude Julien tries to keep Bruins loose

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien gave his players a giant Xanax on Sunday morning in the form of a good game of shinny.

The players were split into two teams and enjoyed a stress-free, good ol' fashioned game of pond hockey with boards. The loser of the 25-minute scrimmage had to buy lunch.

"We just didn't play a full 25 minutes," losing goaltender Tim Thomas said jokingly.

Following the Bruins' division-clinching victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden, Julien said he would try to make the last week of the regular season (four games) enjoyable for his players, while also trying to prepare them for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It's a fine line, but Julien trusts his players to be able to adjust.

During the scrimmage that changed from 5-on-5 to 4-on-4 and ended with a shootout, it was evident the players were having fun as a decent crowd watched at Ristuccia Arena.

"The season is a bit of a grind. We have a week until playoffs, so it was perfect timing," Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. "A little fun like that sometimes breathes some life back into the boys. I think everyone had fun. It can get a little monotonous if you're doing the same thing every day, so it's nice to switch it up."

Thornton won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, so he knows firsthand what it takes to play until June. The Bruins have reached the playoffs in each of Julien's four seasons at the helm, but have yet to advance past the second round.

"It takes a lot of luck," Thornton said. "You have to rely on some guys that you don't necessarily usually rely on, and your best players still have to be your best players. There're a lot of things. It's a grind, a real grind. We've been through it the last couple of years, so at least we know what to expect."

Julien waited until just before practice to inform the team of his plan for the day, and during the scrimmage, the players were skating hard and competing.

More importantly, they were having fun.

"It's been a long, hard season and we've worked very hard. I think the coaches wanted to reward us for that," forward Brad Marchand said. "We all enjoyed it out there."

At one point, defenseman Johnny Boychuk had a breakaway, but was skating with his head down when Thomas came charging out of his crease. Boychuk had no idea Thomas had him lined up, but peeled off at the last second.

"If they didn't have that new head shot rule …" Thomas said with a laugh. "It's good to have those practices where you don't have to put a lot of thought into it. You can just go play and have fun. That's what we did today.

"As soon as the playoffs start, pressure sets in. There's been pressure all season long, it's just the nature of the game. So every once in a while, it's a good thing to step back and kind of relieve some of that pressure and enjoy yourself. The game of hockey is supposed to be fun. We're all playing a game we love for our living, but you have a tendency to forget that sometimes and focus on the other stuff too much."

The Bruins know this could be a special spring for the team. They're hoping for a long playoff run that could bring the Stanley Cup to Boston for the first time since 1972.

So, for at least one day, Julien decided to forget the X's and O's and allowed the boys to have some fun.

"It's about getting a feel for the group and I know since that bit of a slide we've pushed ourselves to start winning more hockey games," Julien said. "Sometimes you feel the pressure in the dressing room of guys knowing how important it is to win, and how much weight they put on their shoulders. Every once in a while you do something like this unexpectedly. They come in and all of a sudden you spring that on them and it's a bit of a relief. Hopefully it re-energized them.

"Pressure can be pretty heavy at times, and when you're able to take some off, it kind of re-energizes your team a little bit. Hopefully that's going to happen."

The Bruins can't solely focus on the playoffs because Monday's opponent, the New York Rangers, could end up being Boston's first-round foe. The teams played last week in Boston with the Rangers skating away with a 1-0 victory.

"We're very proud of our accomplishments, but we're still a very long ways away where we want to be," Marchand said. "We know it's a whole new season coming up."

Maybe that season will end with the Bruins drinking from the Cup.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.