Bruins recharged for defense of Cup
BOSTON -- As much as the Boston Bruins are trying to cope with the challenges of being the defending Stanley Cup champions, there's no real blueprint on how to balance the grind of the 82-game schedule and the proper rest needed to be successful again.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien last summer spoke to many of their counterparts from around the league who had won the Cup and struggled the following season. Boston felt that too, opening the 2011-12 season with a 3-7-0 record and looking nothing like the team that hoisted the Stanley Cup last June 15 in Vancouver.
The Bruins quickly turned it around and went on an incredible run, posting a 28-7-2 record since Nov. 1. However, in the couple of weeks prior to the recent five-day break for the All-Star Game, Boston was playing sloppy hockey and it was clear the players needed some time away.
They took advantage of the brief hiatus.
"It was good," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand, who spent his time at Disney World. "It was nice to have a little bit of time to relax and get our minds away from hockey. It was a bit of a long stretch [in January] and we weren't playing our best, so it was good to get away and relax for a bit."
As the team prepares to host Ottawa on Tuesday at TD Garden, Boston is 7-5 this month, and once the puck drops against the Senators, only 35 regular-season games will remain for the Bruins.
On the day the Bruins visited the White House and were honored by President Barack Obama for the team's Cup victory, Chiarelli stood in the diplomatic room on the lower level of the historic building and talked about the team's ability to remain focused on the stretch run because of the experiences of last season.
At least he hopes that's the case.
During Julien's tenure behind the bench in Boston, the Bruins have reached the playoffs each season. The majority of the roster remains intact from each of those seasons and that veteran presence will be beneficial in the quest to repeat at Cup champions.
"You get an almost better respect the more times you make it to the playoffs," Bruins assistant captain Andrew Ference said. "It's a goal just to make the playoffs and respecting the difficulty that it is to maintain that spot in the top eight."
Playing with that mindset helps players and teams maintain consistency. It's easy to think too far ahead, especially when you're a team like the Bruins that has a legitimate chance to become the first since the Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions (1997, '98).
But how does a team that played 82 games during the regular season and followed that up with another 25 en route to a championship come back after a short offseason and accomplish that goal?
It won't be easy, but the Bruins think their experiences will help.
"A lot of it becomes automatic," Julien said. "When you're down to the last 35 games, it picks up for everybody in the league and the intensity really goes up another notch."
The Bruins are second in the Eastern Conference with 64 points, trailing the New York Rangers by only two. As usual, it's a tight race and only 11 points separate the Rangers and the No. 8 spot in the conference.
It may seem like there's a lot of hockey remaining, but while some teams are fighting for playoff spots and position, others are basically already out of contention but hoping to play the spoiler role.
"Everybody, for some reason, has a reason to really want to finish strong," Julien said.
When the Bruins came out of the break last season, they went 10-4-0. That string included a 6-0-0 road trip in February. The trade deadline occured during the trip, so with newcomers Tomas Kaberle, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley coming on board, it was a good time for the Bruins to enjoy success. That winning streak was a major springboard for the remainder of the season.
"I thought we did a great job going out there," Julien said. "It was a good time for us to be on that kind of trip, so hopefully the same thing happens this year where we've got this long trip at the right time and our guys can prepare themselves for that long stretch in March and hopefully many months to follow that."
This February also presents a few scheduling challenges for the Bruins, who play eight of their 13 games on the road.
"I don't think we should look at it as pressure," assistant captain Patrice Bergeron said. "We always want to be at our best and we want to be back on track. Hopefully the five days off have been good for us and we can start right at it [Tuesday] night, especially at home because we're not going to be at home a lot this month. We need to make sure we do the job."
The trade deadline is a little later this season, as it lands on Feb. 27. Chiarelli has said he will try to improve the team if needed. Once March rolls around, it won't get any easier, as the Bruins play 17 games in the month.
"Last year we learned that we need to stay consistent," Bergeron said. "By doing that, we can't look back or too far ahead. We have to make sure we stay in the present and we need to do the job at hand."
With more than half the schedule in the books, the intensity league-wide will increase in the closing months of the season.
"It makes for really interesting hockey from here on out," Julien said. "It sets the stage for great playoffs because by the time it's done most teams that are in the playoffs are at their best."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
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