The week ahead includes the Pacific Division’s best club, a team welcoming back its Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, and the most ferocious opponent the Bruins have played this season.
Welcome to California.
“I think this will definitely be our toughest challenge coming up, playing those three Western teams,” Daniel Paille said after the Bruins’ one-sided 4-1 win Saturday over Winnipeg. “I don’t think they have many losses at home. It’s definitely going to be a tough road trip. But I think we’re looking forward to that challenge with the best of that conference or division, and being able to match up to their intensity and their physical play.”
Anaheim, the Bruins’ first opponent on Tuesday, has yet to suffer a regulation loss at the Honda Center. The Ducks have one of the NHL’s best scoring partnerships in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
San Jose, Saturday’s bookend to the West Coast swing, has just one regulation loss in 19 home games. On Oct. 24 at TD Garden, the Sharks stunned the Bruins with a 16-3 shot advantage in the first period. Only a bail-out performance by Tuukka Rask steadied the Bruins’ legs and allowed them to swipe a 2-1 win.
Days later, the Boston coaches were still buzzing about San Jose’s speed and strength. In goal, Antti Niemi is Rask’s chief rival for Finland’s net in the Sochi Olympics.
Relatively, the soft spot of the trip is Thursday’s game against the Kings, who are 14-5-2 at the Staples Center.
But Jonathan Quick, out for nearly two months because of an injured groin, returned to LA’s lineup on Saturday against Vancouver. Quick stopped 27 shots in LA’s 3-1 win. Quick, named to the American Olympic team Wednesday, is hungry to regain his form and claim the starting job. Anze Kopitar is LA’s version of Patrice Bergeron — a do-it-all center who excels in all situations.
So no leg of this three-stop swing will be easy.
“They have a combined six regulation losses between those three teams,” noted coach Claude Julien. “It goes to show you how hard it is to go there and win some hockey games. It’s a challenge that I and the rest of the team are really looking forward to, because that’s the kind of challenge we need right now.”
The Bruins need a test. Their last nine games have all been against teams currently out of the playoff mix. They went 6-3-0, including their most recent laugher over the JV Jets. They played two games against the last-place Sabres. They played Ottawa in a back-to-back set. They posted two wins over the Predators, who are 7 points out of a playoff spot.
The last playoff team they played was Vancouver on Dec. 14. They concluded their four-game Canadian road trip with a 6-2 loss to the Canucks.
The Bruins did not play poorly in their nine-game set against the league’s lesser clubs. Because of injuries, they dipped repeatedly into their prospect pool.
Six players from Providence got good looks, including goalie Niklas Svedberg, who turned back 33 shots in his NHL debut against Nashville Thursday. Justin Florek was the most recent promotion. Florek screened Ondrej Pavelec on Torey Krug’s game-winning goal Saturday.
But it’s time for the Bruins to play against the iron of the league. The power is in the Western Conference. Entering Sunday’s games, the West was 139-72-31 in games against the East.
Of the Eastern teams, only the Penguins and Bruins play the similar kind of heavy, mean, musclebound hockey like four of the five best teams in the West: Anaheim, LA, San Jose, and St. Louis. The Bruins prefer these kinds of opponents. The smaller, faster, skilled teams — Chicago, Montreal, Detroit — are the ones that give the Bruins matchup problems.
The road trip kicks off an important month. On Tuesday against the Ducks, the Bruins start a 15-game stretch in 33 days before the Olympic break. There are only two back-to-back sets. Later this month, the Bruins will have four days off between games against LA and Philadelphia.
It is the longest pause they’ll have for the remainder of the season.
There will be little time to rest when they reconvene following the Olympics. They’ll do so with Rask and Zdeno Chara, their two most important players, most likely tapped from their Olympic duties. Svedberg and Chad Johnson will have to take some of Rask’s post-Olympic starts. The Bruins will monitor Chara’s workload and tell him to stay off the ice for some practices and morning skates.
It’s why the Bruins have to stockpile points, starting with this road trip. Rask should be in net for all three games. Loui Eriksson, who’ll join the team on the trip, will continue to practice and regain his touch for his yet-to-be-determined return. Against the Sharks, they’ll welcome back Shawn Thornton following his 15-game suspension.
The Bruins will be happy to relocate to warmer weather. But this is a business trip. Points are the priority.