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Monday, April 22, 2013
Bruins still have work to do

By Joe McDonald
ESPNBoston.com

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- After losing four of their past five games, the Boston Bruins have only four games remaining in the lockout-shortened regular season before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week.

Despite the team's recent struggles, coach Claude Julien and the players believe they are in the process of fixing their problems in hopes of rediscovering their winning style of play before the postseason puck drops.

Julien used the term "fine-tune" last weekend when asked what the Bruins need to do in the final week of the regular season. They were able to snap a four-game losing skid on Sunday with a 3-0 win over the last-place Florida Panthers. Still, Julien sees areas where the team needs to improve before next week.
Claude Julien
Claude Julien says his team is headed in the right direction, but still needs to get better.

"We need to find our game and hold on to it," Julien said. "Right now our game is coming back, and not only do we have to hold on to it, we have to work on making it better."

How do they do that?

The Bruins need consistency throughout the lineup, every shift of every game. They need to capitalize on their quality scoring opportunities. The special teams need to be better, along with their defensive play and goaltending.

That basically equals their entire game.

"That's what we had when we won a championship and we know how important that is going in, and feeling good about ourselves before the playoffs start," forward Milan Lucic said. "As of right now, we're not too worried about the matchups and who we're going to play. We're more worried about our game and what we need to do to get it to where it needs to be in order to be successful in the playoffs. That's the right mindset to have and we want to do everything we can to finish in that second spot and win the division."

Entering Monday's action, the Bruins had a 27-12-5 record for 59 points in 44 games and were in sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference and the top spot in the Northeast Division. The Montreal Canadiens also are struggling right now with a 4-6-0 record in their past 10 games. Overall, they have 59 points with a 27-13-5 record in 45 games.

Because conference standings remain tight, it's still too early to know what the first-round matchups will be. Of the Bruins' four remaining games, only two opponents -- the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators -- have earned postseason berths, while the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning will miss Lord Stanley this season. But those nonplayoff teams can be tough to handle at this point of the season.

"Every year we talk about that because at this time of the year you end playing against teams fighting for a playoff spot or teams that are definitely out and you get the same answer every year," Julien said. "There are a lot of players playing for their jobs and that obviously gives those players some extra motivation to finish strong for teams that are eliminated."

Having already secured a playoff spot, the Bruins are trying to balance rest with preparation.

"That's been the big challenge and that's going to be a challenge," Julien said. "Your goal is to finish as high as you can, but at the same time you want to rest your players. Again, a lot of this stuff we'll see as the schedule progresses. It's not just us, there are other teams playing and wherever those teams end up as far as wins and losses, it may help us make some decisions. It depends on a lot of different things."

The Bruins received a bit of unwanted rest last week when two of their games were postponed due to the bombings on April 15. As a result, they have four games in six days to end the regular season, which won't help.

This stretch of games also will give Julien a better feel for his goaltending. Following a limited practice Monday at Ristuccia Arena, Julien said he hasn't decided exactly how he'll work in Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin this week, but both will play.

"I just don't know exactly which game it's going to be," Julien said. "We're going to study the situation, the standings and everything else before we make those goaltending decisions."

At times Julien has called out Rask for his lack of timely saves, and the coach did so again Saturday after the team's No. 1 goalie allowed a pair of power-play goals in the third period as Pittsburgh skated to a 3-2 win. Julien challenged Rask publicly, and to the coach's credit, he came right back with Rask on Sunday, and Rask posted a 28-save shutout, albeit against the Panthers.

Rask was happy starting back-to-back games in order to find that winning routine before the playoffs. He won't play all of the remaining games, but he's feeling good about his play of late.

"As I've said all along, I'd like to play every game, but it doesn't really matter," Rask said. "Whenever you play, you try to play good and keep that confidence up."

For the season, Rask is 18-9-4 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage, while Khudobin is 9-3-1 with a 2.20 GAA and a .925 save percentage. The Stanley Cup playoffs are completely different for goaltenders, and the team with the best goaltending usually enjoys a deep run. The Bruins understand that well since former goalie Tim Thomas led them to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship.

Rask's playoff résumé is not as extensive as Thomas'. In 2010, Rask helped the Bruins to a quarterfinal win over the Buffalo Sabres and goaltender Ryan Miller in six games. In the semifinals, however, Rask and the Bruins imploded after holding a 3-0 series lead and lost to the Flyers in seven games.

If Rask gets the nod this season, which all indications are he will, he has to be at the top of his game.

"I try not to change anything," he said. "For me, no matter if it's the biggest game of the season or a game that doesn't mean a thing, it's the same game out there and I try to approach it the same way. I find that I get the best results if I just keep my head straight and not change anything."

When asked if he would consider using both goalies in the playoffs, as opposed to sticking with one guy, Julien said he's in wait-and-see mode.

"We're not there yet," Julien said. "It's hard for me to answer those questions. A lot of it has to do if a goalie is playing extremely well, you ride your goaltender, but if you need to make a change for whatever reason, you make that change."

Another big issue for the Bruins this week is the play of Lucic. He has struggled for the majority of the season and needs to turn it around before the playoffs. He needs to be a major factor and he needs to play physical.

While sitting on the ninth floor during Saturday's game as a healthy scratch, the veteran forward explained he had time to think about the aspects of his game that have made him successful as he searches to resolve his struggles.

"If that mindset is there and you focus on the little things, everything tends to take care of itself," Lucic said. "You want to be a contributor to this hockey club and I've shown that I can be a big part of this hockey club, so right now you're just trying to find something to build off and get you going."

Lucic said he has no health issues.

"I feel good. I feel fine," he said. "There are a lot of games coming up and you want to try to feel your best before the postseason starts. I feel pretty good right now and you hope you feel at your best when it matters the most."

He has been forced to talk a lot about his struggles -- only six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 42 games -- but he realizes that the team doesn't solely revolve around him.

"We're trying to build something here to get ourselves moving in the right direction, heading into the playoffs," Lucic said. "Even though we lost the games to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, I thought we did a good job creating a lot of scoring chances and playing with that edge and playing with that emotion. You've got to start thinking positively here and start building your game to moving in the right direction."

Tick. Tock.