WILMINGTON — Every one of the Bruins players and coaches has a slightly different version of the team mantra, but the message is the same: Put your head down and keep doing what you’re doing. With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Bruins have clinched a playoff spot, are a point shy of St. Louis for the overall NHL lead, and they have won 13 of their last 14 games. They are heading into the stretch run to the playoffs at a full gallop.
With a game in Washington Saturday and one in Philadelphia Sunday, the Bruins had a spirited practice at Ristuccia Arena Friday, pushing themselves to keep improving. During small game battle drills, the competition was sharp. One misstep and a player was liable to be down on the ice, doing pushups.
“The [phrase] team chemistry always comes up,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “It just goes to show you that guys enjoy being together and when they come here to have practice, they work hard but they also have fun. They’re not afraid to enjoy the practice.’’
Julien said the last weeks of the regular season can be a difficult time to keep going full tilt.
“This time of year, a lot of times you’re trying to find ways to motivate yourself,’’ Julien said. “There’s a lot to be motivated for here — the teams that we’re going to play against, the situation that we’re in right now — there’s no reason for us to slack down or get lackadaisical or complacent. It’s just about staying on top of your game.”
Washington and Philadelphia represent possible playoff opponents, and the Capitals were the last team to hand the Bruins a regulation loss, March 1.
“There’s still a lot of games left so we’ve got a lot of things to work on,’’ said Dougie Hamilton. “We’ve got some big teams coming up, potential teams that we could play in the playoffs, so we have to make statements to them.”
For Gregory Campbell, it’s not difficult to keep the energy level high.
“Every game is important,’’ said Campbell, “but as the games go on, they get more important.’’
Campbell said facing teams the Bruins might meet in the postseason is a good way to challenge the team to keep working hard.
“It’s good to keep us on our toes and keep us sharp,’’ he said.
Getting on track
While Patrice Bergeron continues to score at a ferocious clip, with six goals in the last five games, including two in the Bruins’ 3-0 victory over the Blackhawks Thursday, linemate Reilly Smith continues to struggle. Smith has but one goal in the last 21 games.
Smith, still fifth on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 47 points on the strength of his hot hand in the first half of the season, is trying to narrow his focus to get back on the scoresheet.
“You just make sure you’re doing the little things correctly, try not to be too fancy, just stick to things that got me success,’’ he said. “I’m just not getting the same chances. You know you go hot, you go cold, it just happens.”
Meanwhile, Smith can learn from his center. Bergeron, third on the team, has 25 goals and 53 points.
“It’s unbelievable, you learn something new from him every day so it’s tough to pinpoint one thing,’’ said Smith. “He’s a great player, he’s great mentor, he’s a great teammate. To play with the guy on an everyday basis, it’s honestly been awesome.”
Julien said he was not worried about Smith’s slump.
“I thought Reilly played well [Thursday] night,’’ said Julien. “I liked his game; he was on the puck more, he was creating things. I think the pace of his game was better. To me, Reilly took a step in the right direction last night. Again, we’ve got a few weeks to go and if he finds his stride like he starting finding it last night, he’ll be OK.’’
Julien reminded that Smith was a young player.
“This is a first-year player, his first year in the NHL,’’ Julien said. “He’s been put on the top line or playing against the top line and he’s hit a bit of a rut along the way. For us it’s a matter of letting him fight through it a little bit and it’s only going to help him in the long run. We’re not sensing fatigue, more than it’s the grind of the schedule and being able to get that intensity he had at the beginning. That’s what young players go through in their first year.”
Julien said he does not yet have a scheme for resting any of his players prior to the playoffs.
“It’s a plan that we’ll probably going to put in very soon,’’ Julien said, “but if we give them a rest right now, by the time the playoffs start, that rest might not mean very much. I don’t want to leave it to the last minute but probably a little closer to the end versus right now.”
Julien also said that defenseman Adam McQuaid, who has been out since Jan. 20 with a quad injury, is being “ramped up” with his off-ice workouts. “I don’t know exactly when you’re going to see him on the ice but right now things are going well,’’ said Julien.