Boston closes out the regular season Saturday against Buffalo at the Garden. The game with have no impact on the standings with the Sabres eliminated from playoff contention after losing to Philadelphia on Thursday and the Bruins locked into the second seed in the East since beating the Rangers in New York on Sunday.
But will the fact that nothing is on the line for Buffalo give the Sabres an opportunity to try to exact some revenge on the Bruins? There's certainly been no love lost in the season series between the Northeast Division rivalries, whose long-simmering hatred hit full boil back in November when Milan Lucic leveled Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller with a controversial hit.
The Sabres were roundly criticized for their lack of response in failing to stick up for Miller that night. And having Paul Gaustad beaten down in a bout with Lucic in the following game may not be enough for the Sabres, who saw their season spiral down the tubes after that incident before a late rally came up just short of reaching the playoffs.
Gaustad has since been traded to Nashville and Buffalo doesn't have a lot of traditional toughness, but things could still get nasty on Saturday. The Bruins don't anticipate that kind of exclamation point to the regular season though.
"I don't really think so," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after Friday's practice at the Garden. "They're going to play it strong and physical. They always do. They always play pretty hard against us, but with regards to taking runs at guys and cheap shots, I don't think they'll play that kind of game. There's always the fear of getting suspended for next year, so it should just be a strong, physical game."
Bruins coach Claude Julien agreed, noting that Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff doesn't have a reputation for employing such tactics.
"I don't think so," Julien said. "You've got to give them credit. Their organization, their coaching staff, they're classy enough that I don't believe they look at sending messages. If you're eliminated, what, you go after a team to try to take away their chances? I don't think that's so. It's going to be a game played the way it should be played. I don't anticipate that anyways. I trust that my knowledge of Lindy and his crew is pretty accurate."
What Julien does anticipate is a strong test from an opponent that played very well down the stretch in its quest for a postseason berth. Buffalo didn't make it, but the Sabres were one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season after shaking off the effects of the fallout from the Lucic-Miller incident.
Buffalo was 10-5-0 coming into that game on Nov. 12, but went just 9-19-5 over its next 33 games. Its last 33 games, however, produced a 20-8-5 record, including 6-0 and 2-1 wins over the Bruins in Buffalo. Things also stayed relatively calm in the most recent clashes. The last two games between the clubs, including Boston's 3-1 win on March 8, did not feature a single fight, after five bouts in the first three meetings.
"I expect a good game," Julien said. "When teams like that get eliminated you think they're throwing in the towel, but the one thing you have an opportunity to do as a team that's been eliminated is play that last game and at least leave with a win. … And that's great for us too because I want good competition heading into the playoffs. I don't want any of those games that are easy and create bad habits because of reasons that are out of our control. But they always play us strong and I expect it to be a good game."
After leaving Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas back in Boston for Thursday's game in Ottawa to give the veterans some extra rest before the playoffs, Julien isn't planning to sit out many regulars on Saturday. He wants a lineup close to what he'll deploy in the playoffs to get a final tune-up for the postseason in what he hopes will be a competitive but clean contest.
"I don't really anticipate giving guys [Saturday off]," Julien said. "The guys that didn't play in Ottawa are going to play. That's one thing that's going to happen. Other than that, I might change my mind [Saturday], but I think it's important now that we get closer to our team than worrying about rest."