Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has seen signs that his team is reconnecting with its identity just in time for the playoffs.
He acknowledges there are improvements that need to be made, and quickly, including scoring. But there is plenty of optimism as the Bruins prepare to host Toronto in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series that begins Wednesday at TD Garden.
“I’ve liked the physicality in these last three games,’’ Chiarelli said on a conference call Monday afternoon. “I’ve liked the effort, it’s been consistent.
“We are starting to generate more chances. We are not finishing those chances and we have to improve on that, but we are generating more chances. So the level of activity and intensity has picked up.
“That I like, and as a message, I would want that to continue. Eventually we will find our game. Our execution, our skill level, we will find it if this other stuff is in place.’’
Although Boston beat Toronto in three of four meetings this season, the Maple Leafs present a number of challenges.
“The last month I’d say our confidence level is average,’’ said Chiarelli. “We haven’t had a lot of success. Playing the Maple Leafs, you go into the last week and you’re trying to figure out who you are going to play and you’re trying to figure out who you want to play.
“They’re a good team. They’re fifth in the conference. They’re fast, They’re a faster team than us. So we’re going to have to play them heavy.’’
Chiarelli said everyone who has watched the Bruins and everyone in the organization knows the team isn’t firing on all cylinders. When asked about Zdeno Chara, Chiarelli said the defenseman is a microcosm of their recent play.
“Like the rest of them, he’s got to get his game back,’’ said the GM. “With him, it’s about a strong defensive game, nothing fancy, a big shot, a lot of straight lines. He is obviously important to the team, and what he does, a lot of guys follow. He’s got a lot of experience and we expect him to get his game where it has to be.’’
Chiarelli said the team has faith in Tuukka Rask.
“I think Tuukka has had a good season,’’ he said. “It’s been an abbreviated season but a busy season. He’s had some playoff experience and I think the team and him now feel comfortable and compatible.
“I would expect him to have success. He’s a competitive kid and he’s got some experience under his belt and you can say the same about our team as a whole, so I would expect there to be some success.’’
In this shortened season, the Bruins played 48 games in a 100-day period. There wasn’t much rest or practice time.
“It just seemed to be the longest shortened season that I’ve been part of,’’ said Chiarelli. “It just felt that we just kept playing and playing and playing. In that sense, it’s unique.
“From our team’s performance, we came off with a decent finish [in the standings]. But I don’t think anyone was ever satisfied with our game, myself included, the players included.
“It was different assessing it, because normally, you’re used to assessing a team’s play and their trends. You can watch how they practice and see what’s happening in their practice and that translates into games. There is more rest and Everything is more predictable.
“It was a hard season to assess for me. We saw some players emerging, we saw some players drop off a bit. It became magnified because of the abbreviated season and now we’re at playoffs.’’
Chiarelli acknowledged that the last two months of play were not great.
“I’m not going to offer any excuses,” he said. “We didn’t perform to the way we are capable of performing on a number of different fronts. It was good that we had a strong start and we were able to finish where we finished.
“If I’m going to judge our team on the latter half of the year, I’m going to have to say that we are going to have to really step up our performance to have success in the playoffs.’’
Chiarelli is hoping the team’s experience will enable it to shift into a higher gear.
“I would hope that there is an element to their character with the experience that they have that they’re going to step up their play,’’ said Chiarelli. “I think it’s happening a little bit. But you can’t turn on and off a switch and just expect to have success after not performing at the proper level. The last three games I’ve seen snippets here, mainly from the emotional and physical viewpoint.’’ , so we’ll see.’’
The Bruins have scored just 18 goals in the last nine games, which is certainly troubling. The only contest in which they scored more than two was against Florida April 21.
“You’re not going to win a heck of a lot of games just scoring two goals a game,’’ said Chiarelli. “The finishing off, you’ve got to get to those traffic areas and get those dirty goals and you’ve got to hit the net. We haven’t been doing that with the frequency I would like.”
Boston is the No. 4 seed and Toronto is No. 5, but Chiarelli said the Bruins are taking nothing for granted.
One key element is forward Milan Lucic, who has looked a lot like his old self in the last two games.
“His last two games have been very good,’’ said Chiarelli. “He’s moving his feet, he’s strong on the puck, good shooting, physical. He has really picked up his game.”
Chiarelli is pleased with the job coach Claude Julien has done, given the schedule, the injuries, and the new faces that joined the team late.
“There just seem to be more issues because it’s condensed,’’ said Chiarelli. “It’s like a dam with holes in it and you have to plug the holes. Whenever you can plug one hole, there seems to be another. There just seems to be more holes this year.”
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.