In some ways, the Bruins' rare late-season trip out West could be coming at a good time. They finally have a little confidence again after back-to-back wins, including an impressive 8-0 throttling of Toronto on Monday.
And some time on the road to bond, especially with a handful of new players acquired in the past month still adjusting to their new teammates and systems, is often helpful.
But trekking across the country this late in the season in the midst of a tight race for the Northeast Division title and home ice in the playoffs also presents its share of challenges, particularly with the three teams waiting for them in California all having plenty to play for themselves.
"I think it's just maintaining what we've done here for the last couple games," Bruins coach Claude Julien said before departing for the three-game trip. "Our last road trip wasn't a very good one so we certainly have to make sure we get a better one out of this one. If you look at the teams we're playing right now, to me the team that's playing the best out of them is Anaheim, who's out of the playoffs. The other two are right there knocking on the door. So I think we're going into a territory where there's a lot of desperation. We're going to have some good challenges."
The Bruins have been a solid road team overall this season, going 20-14-1 away from the Garden. They've even won four of six games on the road against Western Conference teams. But they've also lost four of their last five road games, with last week's trip to take on Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Florida being especially troublesome with the Bruins losing all three games by a combined 17-5 count.
Now they have to face a desperate San Jose club on Thursday, followed by the Kings and Ducks in back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday. The Sharks and Kings are among four Pacific Division teams battling for the division title. Dallas currently leads with 85 points, with Los Angeles and Phoenix one point back and San Jose trailing by three points. Those four teams, plus Colorado and Calgary, are also vying for the final two playoff spots in the conference.
Anaheim isn't likely to catch up to that pack after a brutal first half of the season saw them at just 10-22-6 on Jan. 4. They remain 11 points out of the final playoff spot, but they are among the hottest teams in the league in the second half of the season, going 21-10-5 over their last 36 games, including a 5-3 win over the Sharks on Monday.
"San Jose's really a desperate team right now," Bruins defenseman Mike Mottau said. "We're going to get everyone's best game. It's a good challenge for us going into the playoffs, making sure we take care of what we need to in this room to be prepared for the playoffs.”
The Bruins have two goals on both this trip and the final 10 games of the regular season as a whole. They need to set themselves up with the best position possible for the playoffs, which means winning the division and securing the No. 2 seed in the conference to ensure home ice through at least the divisional final if they can advance. They also need to clean up their game after scuffling through much of the second half of the season, and build some momentum heading into the postseason.
"It's about bringing it every night, and every night should be the same challenge," Julien said. "Moving forward here, we've got 10 games left and basically what you have to do is keep playing the way you have and continue to try to improve because we all know once that puck drops in the playoffs you want to be in the best position possible in the standings, but you also want to be playing some of your best hockey. We can't just expect to struggle for two months and two games later think everything's OK."
There have been signs of the Bruins finally snapping out of their funk with their last two wins, but they still need to show they can play that way consistently once again. Mottau was scratched for those last two games, but from his vantage point in the press box he saw some encouraging signs in the team's improved play.
"I think it's been being a little more crisp," Mottau said. "The compete level has been up. You see us winning puck battles. It's easy to see it from up top. When you see guys competing and winning loose puck races, that adds to more extended zone time and more chances. [Monday] night the neutral zone play was very good, both offensively and defensively. We moved the puck well through the neutral zone and defensively didn't let them have much speed generated or tape-to-tape passes, and that limits the [opposing] team's momentum as well.”
Mottau joined the team at the trade deadline along with Brian Rolston and Greg Zanon. Goalie Marty Turco was later brought aboard after Tuukka Rask was injured, and the chance to get away on an extended road trip should help the new arrivals bond with their new teammates.
"It's been a pretty easy transition for me," Mottau said. "I knew a few of the guys prior to coming into the room, and with the group we have there's a lot of good character, quality people, so it didn't take long to be a part of the team. They're very welcoming. But any time you go on the road it allows you the opportunity to go out to dinner with the guys and spend some time in the hotel and on the plane, so I'm looking forward to it, spending some time with the guys."
While the newcomers get to know their teammates better, all the Bruins will also need a crash course on their upcoming opponents, as Boston doesn't face these Pacific Division clubs often.
"You're familiar with some of the players, but as far as what we need to do with our systems and our game plan it doesn't change much," Mottau said. "You don’t play them much throughout the season, but what can lean on is what you need to do. The attention to details and trying to tighten up what you need to tighten up. It's actually a good way to approach it, you don't really worry about them as much as you worry about yourself."
And the Bruins have enough to worry about there as they try to maintain their lead in the Northeast while venturing out West.