NEW YORK -- Game No. 82 of the 2014-15 season should serve as a reminder for the Boston Bruins as they prepare for the final stretch run.
Last spring, the Bruins' playoff hopes ended on the final day of the season when the Pittsburgh Penguins won to mathematically eliminate Boston. Even with 96 points, it was the first time in eight seasons the Bruins did not earn a postseason berth. They finished 5-5-4, including losing their last three.
This season, the Bruins have lost five of their past six games with eight games remaining. They are third in the Atlantic Division with 86 points, but the Detroit Red Wings (83 points) are trying to push them down in the standings, where they would compete with the New York Islanders (87 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (83 points) for two wild-card spots.
"They should get in, but won't do a lot of damage in the playoffs," a Western Conference scout said.
So, this is a crucial stretch for the Bruins and they don't want a repeat performance from a season ago.
"We have to realize that we don't want to be in a position like that year where we go into the last game banking on another team to lose," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "The big thing to do is really bear down, give it our all and leave it all out there. ... And if we do that, put ourselves in a good spot, then we'll be happy."
With all the offseason changes and tweaks to the roster, many believed the Bruins were in the midst of a rebuild and had no chance of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs, but opposing teams aren't surprised by Boston's success.
"If you had listened to the experts at the beginning of the year, they were a team that was supposed to struggle, and they haven't struggled," New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "For me it's not surprising. You look at that team -- goaltending, the experience they have on defense and guys that have won before -- it's no surprise. There was a little bit of tweaking that probably had to be done and now they're back to being in that group of top teams that has a chance to win."
After failing to reach the playoffs last season, upper management decided to make a change, firing general manager Peter Chiarelli and replacing him with Don Sweeney. It took the organization nearly two months to decide to keep coach Claude Julien. Out of the gate, Sweeney traded veteran forward Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings and defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames. Forward Reilly Smith was also traded to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jimmy Hayes.
The Bruins had a vision, and even though it didn't seem clear to most, Julien and the players have responded and are on the verge of earning a postseason berth.
But Sweeney is not ready to evaluate his first season as GM and the team's overall play.
"I'm not ready to recap the whole season," he said. "We've got a difficult stretch we're going through, as far as opponents, but that's what you should expect down the stretch and hopefully getting ready for the playoffs."
Julien should be considered for the Jack Adams Award this season for the performance he has gotten out of his team.
"Teams that have success, by the end of the year [they] peak at the right time," Julien said. "I don't think our team has peaked yet and I really feel there's still more to come from our group. Hopefully we're trending in the right direction."
Losing 5-2 to the New York Rangers on Wednesday didn't get them started in the right direction. It also didn't help that the Bruins went 0-3 against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Kings on a recent California road trip, but Julien doesn't think the team played poorly.
"It's overstated," Julien said. "When you look at the games, I don't think we were dominated at all, even the 4-0 game [against Anaheim], the goaltending was the difference in that game and their goaltender was just outstanding. Nonetheless, we had a chance in every one of those games and the only negative out of that was we didn't come up with a win. I don't think we played badly but we needed to play better, so I don't think it's about self-evaluation at this point. Right now it's about being ready to bounce back."
The schedule doesn't get easier for the Bruins. On Thursday night, coming off their loss to the Rangers, they go back out and face the Florida Panthers, a team they could face in the first round. If they get in. So when game No. 82 arrives on April 9, the Bruins want to already know their playoff fate.
"We've got guys that want to be good for this team and they're preparing the right way," Marchand said. "They're playing hard and working hard every night and that's all you can ask for. As long as guys bring their game and come and battle for the team and play for the team and sacrifice their bodies, then you can't complain. That's what we have guys doing this year and it's been good. As long as we keep doing that, then we'll be in a really good spot."