WILMINGTON, Mass. — NHL teams aren't supposed to play must-win games in December, not with an 82-game regular-season slate that stretches into April before the playoffs even begin.
But don't tell the Bruins that.
Mired in a slump that has seen the club win just one of its last five games and fresh off a pair of intense practices, the Bruins are viewing Thursday's clash with Atlanta at the Garden as an absolutely crucial contest.
"It is very important," said captain Zdeno Chara after Wednesday's practice at Ristuccia Arena. "We know that we didn't play our best the last game. We've had a few days to work on things, so now we want to come back and have a strong performance. … It's almost like a must-win."
The Bruins were far from their best in a listless 3-0 loss to the Ducks on Monday. That led to a spirited workout on Tuesday when tempers flared a bit and some of the emotion missing in recent games finally surfaced. Wednesday's workout focused more on correcting some of the tactical issues that have crept into Boston's game of late.
"It was actually nice to get a couple days of practices," said coach Claude Julien. "I thought we had a couple of good practices, worked on things I thought we needed to work on, so hopefully it pays off.
"The two things were felt we really needed to get better at are our battle and putting more emotion into our game, and at the same time today was about our transition game and trying to get some speed and a better attack," added Julien. "Hopefully those two combined together if we can do it well will give us the results we want."
The only acceptable result for the Bruins will be to take two points out of their final game before Christmas, and their last home game before a five-game road trip over the next two weeks.
"It will be nice just before Christmas and before heading out on the road trip to feel good about ourselves again," said Julien. "I think that's the main thing, and winning always seems to cure those kind of situations. A good effort, it would be nice to see that and get rewarded against a pretty good team that's been playing good hockey lately."
The Thrashers come in having gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and handily beat the Bruins 4-1 in Atlanta on Nov. 28. Beating them won't be easy, but that level of competition would make a victory even more rewarding.
"It's big because we've had a few days off and the last thing you want to do is have a bad game and let that fester," said forward Blake Wheeler. "That eats at you. The best thing to do is have a really good game and go into the holiday with a win so you can relax and enjoy it a bit more. But if you play bad, then it kinds of spoils Christmas."
Wheeler plans to enjoy the holiday, as he believes the past two days of practices have put the Bruins back on track.
"I think we've had two really good days," said Wheeler. "We've worked really hard and we've kind of gotten our heads out of it hopefully. It only matters with what we bring tomorrow, but it was two good stepping stones for us these last two days."
Chara was more noncommittal when asked if the team got what it needed out of these workouts. He'll serve judgment until he gets a look at how the team responds when it really counts on Thursday night.
"We're about to see," said Chara.