BOSTON — The Bruins know there will be bigger games ahead. They hope they will be playing for much higher stakes in a few months.
But wins like the one they gutted out on Thursday are important stepping stones along the way to those bigger goals.
The Bruins entered Thursday dead even with Tampa Bay with identical 37-19-7 records for 81 points. At stake was sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference. But there was more than that on the line.
The Bruins were seeking validation. Proof that they belong among the elite. A team worthy of being in the conversation as a legitimate Cup contender.
They achieved a bit of that with their perfect 6-0-0 road trip, particularly with last Saturday's 3-1 win over Vancouver, the team with the most points in the NHL. But they needed to do it again against an Eastern Conference power like the high-flying Lightning, a squad modeled after the skilled Red Wings team that swept the Bruins in a home-and-home last month.
The Lightning aren't quite as good as the original model, but Tampa general manager and former Detroit captain Steve Yzerman has done a fair job replicating the style. It's a system that usually frustrates the Bruins, who prefer to play a more physical brand of hockey and wear opponents down.
On Thursday, they found the happy medium. They slowed down the Lightning with some timely physical play that had the Tampa players losing their composure as well. They forced the visitors into battles they usually avoid, whether it was Johnny Boychuk laying out onrushing forwards with hip checks, Milan Lucic pounding out a one-sided win in a fight with Eric Brewer or Shawn Thornton simply embarrassing the likes of Pavel Kubina when he begged out of a bout with the Bruins' tough guy.
But the Bruins also showed they could shut down skilled superstars like Hart Trophy candidate Steven Stamkos and the dazzling Martin St. Louis. They showed they could come up with the clutch goals when they needed them. And most of all, they took the two points as Lucic scored with 3:42 left for a 2-1 victory.
"It was definitely a big game for sole possession of second place in the conference," Lucic said. "Coming off a six-game road trip usually the first game back is a tough one, but we didn't want to use that as an excuse. We wanted to ride the good feeling [from the trip] and I think we did that."
The good feelings are definitely flowing in the Bruins' locker room, but there's no sense of accomplishment. Rather, there's a sentiment that these victories are just building toward far bigger things.
"I don't think we're looking at the seven-game win streak or whatnot," forward Greg Campbell said. "We're just trying to be playing the best hockey that we can and really be firing on all cylinders going into April. And then we'll see what happens. It's still three or four weeks away, but really this is the time of year when teams start to kick into another gear and that's what we have to do."
Campbell didn't discount the importance of moving ahead of the Lightning for second place or even the possibility of catching the first-place Flyers, who are just three points ahead of the Bruins after losing 3-2 to Toronto on Thursday. But he also acknowledged that winning in the second season in the spring means a lot more than regular-season seedings.
"There's a lot on the line, we're fighting for position here and it's really up in the air," Campbell said. "We have to have that mentality that every game is important and we can take something out of every game. Tonight it was to move ahead of Tampa Bay in points and move closer to Philadelphia. It's not really the goal here to be in first. The goal is to be playing our best hockey and the results will be there."
The Bruins will still have doubters no matter what they do in the regular season. The memories of finishing first in the East two years ago and failing to make it out of the second round are too fresh. The nightmares of last year's squandering of a 3-0 lead to the Flyers are even fresher.
The real proof that this Bruins squad is any better than those failed models will have to come in the playoffs. But there is reason for optimism this time around. That 2008-09 squad peaked midway through the season, its best hockey coming in December and January. This team appears to be timing its rise perfectly for when it matters most.
"I'm excited right now," Campbell said. "We have 18 games left in the season and this is where you really have to turn it up and our team is doing that right now. We have a goal. We have a focus. We're not looking too far ahead, but we definitely want to be playing this style of hockey going into the playoffs."
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