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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bruins Have A Carrot To Chase

The Bruins are trying to regain that magic touch.

You know the one. Remember November and December when the denizens of the Spoked B left tire tracks over the rest of the league en route to one of the greatest starts in franchise history?

That was a team that had something to prove. They were motivated to prove that not only were they better than the team that squeaked into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the eighth seed, but also much improved from the previous post-lockout teams, which were utterly horrendous.

They played with spunk and pluck, a chip on their shoulders. No deficit was safe, there was no amount of goals they could not make up (not that they had to, with Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez dominating all comers).

Then the new year turned and these Bruins got complacent. The young guns hit a bit of a wall and the veterans went into auto-drive. It did not come back to bite them at first, given their 8-3-2 January, but the signs were there. Example: Losing a two goal lead to the lowly St. Louis Blues in the final five minutes before eventually dropping the game in a shootout at home on January 19th.

The Blues game turned out to be a precursor for two months of droll, uninspired effort and sometimes outright boring hockey. The schedule turned against them as well, as they faced a stretch at the end of January and the first half of February which brought them contests against every single Eastern Conference foe who held the five spots directly beneath them in the standings.

They handled it well enough, but after the two-week grind that culminated in the much-anticipated match-up against the West leading San Jose Sharks, the Bruins have gone into hibernation.

The trade deadline has brought a little life to this team and it seems that once again they have something to play for, as head coach Claude Julien has dangled a new carrot in front of his players: The Presidents’ Trophy which goes to the team with the most points in the NHL at the end of the regular season.

“We had a good talk about it. Claude told us ‘guys, this Presidents’ trophy is a special thing, it’s something you always remember if you win it,’” center Marc Savard said after Thursday’s 5-3 win against the Ottawa Senators. “We know we’re only a point behind the West division and we had a chance to jump back ahead and we did that tonight.”

“I just think we’ve got to give ourselves something to motivate us and to aim for, and I told them, why not us?” Julien said. Why shouldn’t we be giving ourselves a goal, and maybe that’ll help us focus on those games coming up and not allow us to get in a comfort zone, and say, well, it doesn’t matter if we play .500, we’re going to be in a playoff position. We want to be the best we can, and that’s one way of motivating ourselves.”

The players were not happy with the Ottawa win. They came out hot, scored three quick (if quirky) first period goals then added another in the first minutes of the third. Then they made some mental mistakes that allowed Ottawa back with two quick tap-in goals to make the game more tense than it needed to be in the final minutes before Phil Kessel broke away on an empty net in the final minute.

Sloppy, careless play that almost cost them a win that should have been a blowout.

“Keep in mind that we can play better than that,” goalie Tim Thomas said. “That is a team that’s not going to make the playoffs and we just skidded by.”

It was almost like the Blues all over again.

To get the chip back on their shoulder Julien has challenged them to reach for the trophy, it is theirs for the taking.

It just might work. As they have shown over and over this season, angry Bruins are the best Bruins. Just ask the Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks or Montreal Canadiens, all who have lit a fire under the Bruins at one point this season, only to get trounced (physically and score-wise) each time. These guys might get motivated to think of themselves as not just one of the best, but THE best and it would be affront for anybody else to hoist the regular season trophy.

The veterans are preaching a steady approach as they espouse the game-by-game approach, getting the entire teams’ heads screwed on for playoff success.

“Obviously (the Presidents’ Trophy) is important, but even more important is going into the playoffs on a positive note, playing good hockey. I think tonight was a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do,” P.J. Axelsson said.

Aaron Ward echoed those sentiments.

“I mean I know it’s something to shoot for, but I think that maintaining absolute home ice is goal enough for us. I think it should be where we set our sights and that’s exactly our focus,” he said. “Presidents’ trophy is great, but we as a team need to remedy our problems and going in on an upswing into the playoffs. Those are the things we have to worry about right now.”

Presidents’ Trophy, home ice, getting back on track. The Bruins can say what they will. Carrot or no, the boys need to get back in their game, or it could be a much shorter spring than they were hoping for.

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