- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- After the Boston Bruins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 Tuesday night at TD Garden, Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas stood in the locker room wearing a black-and-gold T-shirt. Along with his No. 30 on the back, the shirt featured three words: "Prove. People. Wrong."
The defending Stanley Cup champions have been trying to do just that all season. The team's goal from the start of the season was to repeat as champion, and there have been times when it looked as though that was a real possibility. But there also have been moments when that prospect has looked bleak.
Now, with only six games remaining in the regular season and the Bruins riding a three-game winning streak, it appears they're focused and ready for what could be another deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After Tuesday's win, the Bruins have 93 points and a five-point cushion in the Northeast Division while remaining second in the Eastern Conference.
Boston appears to be a confident bunch again.
"I think so. I hope so," Thomas said. "We're putting together some points at a very important time. Heading down the stretch here gives us a little cushion and that's a good thing."
Bruins coach Claude Julien believes the team's approach is much better of late. The coach also sees a group that is skating, competing and battling a lot more, traits that helped the Bruins be so successful last spring.
"It seems like that energy that we were trying to find for the longest of times seems to have come back," Julien said. "I guess the midseason blues every once in a while will catch up differently to every team.
"For us it's been a long run and I think the guys are starting to sense what's up ahead and we still have a lot of work to do. Not just to improve our hockey club, but to finish where we want to finish. So there are a lot of things happening here. I sense the excitement in our dressing room again and guys are excited about coming to the rink and playing games."
After the Bruins played a total of 25 playoff games that culminated with them hoisting the Stanley Cup on June 15 in Vancouver, the celebration continued throughout the summer and the players' offseason routines were disrupted.
It was a short summer before training camp began in early September. Well before the players arrived at the team's practice facility in Wilmington, Mass., general manager Peter Chiarelli, along with Julien, spoke with other GMs and coaches who have won the Cup in the past and asked for their advice about the championship hangover.
The common theme was that such a lag is real and that the Bruins needed to plan accordingly to avoid those negative effects.
Julien planned to have more days off during the season. The team also changed its travel schedule. For longer trips, the team would stay overnight in the city where they were playing instead of flying out after the game and arriving at their next destination in the wee hours of the morning.
With the playoffs on the horizon, the Bruins feel that preseason blueprint has helped tremendously, and Julien can see the positive effects.
"That's not to say there's no fatigue," Julien said. "Every team at this time of year is tired. I mean, 22 games in 40 days -- doesn't matter whether you were done in April or June, you're still going to feel it."
The Bruins wanted to manage that fatigue, while trying to maintain some sort of normal schedule. They seem to have accomplished both.
"They really put an effort in to give us as much rest as possible," said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who along with blue-line partner Zdeno Chara, usually leads the team in ice time. "Even if we didn't play well, they would still give us a day off if it was scheduled, so it's something they've stuck with and it's smart on their part.
"You don't want to burn out and they didn't want us to. For the most part, it's been good this season. We've had our ups and downs, but it's been good and I feel good. I think most of the guys got over the little hump we went through the last few weeks and we're on our way up and ready to go."
The results are showing on the ice at an important time and the players appreciate the way management and the coaching staffs have treated them this season. The research and philosophy have worked.
"Definitely," forward Brad Marchand said. "They gave us plenty of time off at the beginning of the year to regroup and it's definitely paying off right now, especially lately because we've had a really tough schedule, and even now they're giving us a lot of time off to recover. The only thing they ask is that we're prepared each and every game when we come to the rink. I think we're doing a good job of responding to that, as well."
The Bruins seem emotionally, physically and mentally ready for the playoffs. Sure, there will be plenty of challenges for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs, but the season-long preparation for moments like these is paying dividends.
"Everybody feels it come February or March," Seidenberg said of the normal signs of fatigue. "The season is long and sometimes you get drained a little bit. It wears on you and you have to fight your way through it somehow.
"I think all the guys know, or feel, that it's the last few games left and we have to really prepare ourselves and get ready and rolling into the playoffs. We just can't get to the playoffs struggling and turn on that switch, because that's not how it works. You want to go into the playoffs playing well and being confident. That's what we'll try to do the next few games."
When the Bruins reacquired Brian Rolston at the trade deadline, the club was looking for a veteran presence in the room and someone who would take advantage of a special opportunity. That's exactly what Rolston has done. He had an assist in Tuesday's win and has three goals and nine assists in the past seven games.
Rolston knows there could be something special brewing once again in Boston. The players' confidence has shown on the ice. In fact, the Bruins' three-game winning streak is their longest since late December.
"When you win, you get confidence," Rolston said. "This team is so good structurally, it's just a matter of time before you put it together. But this is a good time to put it together, for sure. It's a good team in here, a great team."
The Bruins are trying to prove people wrong -- again.