- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- After winning the Stanley Cup last spring, the Boston Bruins knew they would be the hunted during the entire 2011-12 season.
The Bruins set the bar extremely high and every opponent wants a piece of defending Cup champs. Boston tried to prepare accordingly, but struggled en route to a 3-7 start against some quality teams.
As bad as they were last month, the Bruins have turned it around to play some solid hockey. Boston extended its season-high winning streak to six games with a 4-3 victory Tuesday over the New Jersey Devils Tuesday at TD Garden.
It was a seesaw battle all night until Benoit Pouliot, the newest member of the Bruins, collected the game-winning goal at 16:59 of the third period as Boston held off the Devils.
Given everything that the Bruins have been involved in since last March, some may believe that the Bruins are actually the devils of the NHL.
On Tuesday morning all 30 NHL general managers met in Toronto to discuss a number of issues, including the one involving the Bruins' Milan Lucic and the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller. During the first period of Boston's 6-2 win Saturday, Lucic collided with the Buffalo goaltender and the Bruins forward received a two-minute minor for charging.
Miller remained in the game until he was removed at the start of the third period, and later the team announced he suffered a concussion. The NHL held a disciplinary hearing with Lucic on Monday and it ruled that he would not be suspended for the incident.
The Bruins were satisfied by the decision. The Sabres were not.
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli attended the meetings Tuesday in Toronto, where the majority of his fellow GMs thought Lucic should have been suspended for the play. Chiarelli was back in time for Tuesday's game and he met with the media beforehand to explain the extent of the discussions.
"There's a lot of discretion, there's a lot of judgment that goes into reviewing accidental contact and we had a pretty frank discussion," Chiarelli said. "The Bruins have been part of accidental contact cases, so to a certain degree, we were front and center in reviewing stuff that's been reviewed."
Along with Lucic's situation, the Bruins were involved in two cases last season that included disciplinary hearings, and both rulings went in Boston's favor.
Then, in the first round of the playoffs against the Canadiens, Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference collided with the Habs' Jeff Halpern in Game 7. Again, the league held a hearing and Ference was not suspended.
The Bruins finished 2010-11 as Stanley Cup champions and they're wearing a major target on their back this season. It probably doesn't help that they've been involved in those recent hard contact situations.
"I do think that if you win the Stanley Cup, you become a focal point anyways, in some shape or form," Chiarelli said. "We're a physical team. We have a strong defensive foundation. To have a strong defensive foundation, you have to have a physical side; one comes with the other. Our fans like physical play. Physical play doesn't mean fighting. Physical play means finishing your checks and closing guys off and strong pursuit, strong checking, and from that flows offense. Whether we're a focal point -- maybe I was a little sensitive (Tuesday) morning, but for accidental contact, there's three good examples of us."
Even though the Bruins were a topic of discussion at the GM meetings, Chiarelli didn't think the other organizations were calling his team dishonest in any way.
"No, no, not at all," he said. "When you have a physical team, when you have a bigger team, these things come along with it. That's part of the package and I accept that. ... Anyone that I've talked to has told us we're an honest, straight-line, hard team."
Due to the recent incident involving Lucic, the Sabres have been outspoken about their displeasure in the league's ruling not to suspend the Bruins forward. After Boston's victory over New Jersey on Tuesday night, the discussion continued in the Bruins' locker room on whether or not the players think the team is being targeted.
"I think the refs are doing a pretty good job," said Bruins pugilist Shawn Thornton. "We can't really complain. We're obviously a team that is built with some pretty big guys that play pretty physical and that's the style of play we like to play. Every once in a while you're going to have to take a couple of penalties playing that way. That's the way it is but we play better when we have some emotion, as long as we're keeping those emotions in check."
Pouliot, who scored the game-winning goal to help Boston beat the Devils, played for the Canadiens in the previous two seasons and knows first-hand how bad opponents want to beat the Bruins, especially this season.
"The Stanley Cup champions last year and obviously it's intimidating," Pouliot said. "When I played for Montreal, it was tough coming in here. It was always a battle and now we're the biggest target in the league and everyone wants to take us down, everyone wants to beat us. We've got six in a row right now and things are going pretty well."
The Bruins close out their current five-game homestand when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday at the Garden. After that, Boston heads out on the road for games against the Islanders, Canadiens and Sabres.
Yes, those Sabres, and if the Bruins haven't felt like the hunted this season, they will on Nov. 23 in Buffalo.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
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