BOSTON -- Just because the Boston Bruins clinched the Northeast Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference with an impressive 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, don't think for one moment that the defending Stanley Cup champions are about to cruise through the remaining three games of the regular season.
The Bruins posted a 13-11-2 record during the months of January and February and struggled with playing consistent hockey. But Boston has found its game of late with a 7-1-1 mark in the last nine games and clearly has its sights focused on the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.
Bruins coach Claude Julien said on Monday that he's happy with the way his team is playing.
"Absolutely," Julien said. "If you look at the way we played for two months prior to these last couple of weeks, it's a big improvement and I think our guys are really doing a good job gearing up for the playoffs."
With the Bruins having clinched their fifth straight playoff appearance under Julien, the coach will attempt to balance rest and playoff preparation in the remainder of the regular season.
"One game at a time," Julien said. "We'll manage it that way and look at what's going on. It's a lot of things we have to think about in the next day or so. We're going to try to manage ice time and get some guys some rest. There are still some important games to be played."
Before they get to the postseason, the Bruins will face three tough opponents. They host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday at TD Garden. Then they'll travel to face the Ottawa Senators on Thursday in what could be a preview of a first-round matchup. The Bruins then host the Buffalo Sabres in the season finale on Saturday.
"We've got Pittsburgh the next game and then we go to Ottawa, which could be our first-round opponents, and Buffalo is trying to get into the playoffs and battling for their lives," Julien said. "We have to take care of our business, but at the same time you have to think it through before you make those kinds of decisions."
Pittsburgh is going to be all fired up after a 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday in a game that featured the opposing coaches screaming at each other, knowing it's all but certain these teams will be first-round foes. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant Tony Granato were fined $10,000 and $2,500, respectively, for their actions late in the game.
The Penguins come to Boston with a 2-1 season-series advantage. Pittsburgh last defeated Boston, 5-2, on March 11 at Consol Energy Center. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma knows the Bruins are playing better now than they were then.
"When we played them last time, we played a team that was hovering around .500 for 10 games and playing one good one, one bad one, and they had some starts where they didn't start well and had to fight their way back," Bylsma said.
"We had one of our better games against them last time, so we're going to see a team now that's winning some hockey games and we're going to see one of the better teams in our conference. And they're the defending Stanley Cup champions, who we want to make a statement against. It should be a pretty hard-fought game, a pretty good matchup."
It will be the first game the Penguins' Sidney Crosby has played against the Bruins since he suffered concussion-like symptoms following a collision with Boston's David Krejci during a game in early December.
"They're playing well," the Penguins' Matt Cooke said of the Bruins' recent success. "They're probably one of the hottest teams right now. We had a good game against them here a couple of weeks back. It was a physical game and I expect it to be the same.
"They're trying to prepare for the playoffs and in your last three games, you're trying to cue your game up for Game 1 of the playoffs. They obviously have a goaltender who makes a lot of saves and they've got guys who score goals as well, so it should be a good game."