The Bruins enjoyed a day off Monday. It was a reward well-earned for completing a punishing March that produced magical results.
The Bruins played 17 games jammed into a 31-day month. They played six sets of back-to-backs, all involving travel. They reeled off a 15-1-1 run that plopped them 9 points ahead of second-place Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference.
“When you play 17 games in 31 days and you lose one shootout game, that’s pretty impressive for this group,” said coach Claude Julien. “They’ve stayed focused. They’ve stayed humble. They’ve stayed determined. So I’m pretty proud of the way we handled this month.”
They will now reap the benefits of that run. Starting Wednesday against the Red Wings, they will begin the process of resting their lead dogs. It’s possible that some players may not make the two-game swing to Detroit and Toronto. It’s just as likely the big boys will stay home for the two-game trip the following week to Minnesota and Winnipeg.
The Bruins can make three more recalls from Providence before the conclusion of the regular season. They will exercise all or part of that option.
The Bruins will probably play one final game at full tilt with their expected roster for Game 1 of the playoffs. That could be in the regular-season home finale against Buffalo April 12. They will need at least one tuneup with their varsity to make sure all systems are go.
But they have other priorities before the real games start later in April.
■ Resting their best players.
This process starts with Zdeno Chara. The captain is expected to remain in Boston for at least one of the three remaining road trips: Detroit-Toronto this week, Minnesota-Winnipeg next week, or Game No. 82 in Newark April 13.
Chara is pushing for his second Norris Trophy, but rest is more important. There’s a balance between giving Chara the repetitions he needs to stay sharp and the time away from the rink he requires.
Other players deserving of a breather: Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Jarome Iginla, Brad Marchand, and Johnny Boychuk. It may be hard to take Bergeron out. On Monday, the NHL named Bergeron its Second Star of the Week. Bergeron scored five goals in four games last week, including the game-winner against Chicago Thursday. He stretched his goal-scoring streak to seven games against Philadelphia Sunday.
The Bruins are carrying one extra forward and two spare defensemen. They will use their reserve players as well as some AHL call-ups to spell their important guys.
■ Determining the defensive lineup.
There are three locks to dress on defense for Game 1 of the playoffs: Chara, Boychuk, and Kevan Miller. The latter has elevated himself from AHLer to big-league stalwart. Miller is a hard-nosed, straightforward, defensive defenseman. The Bruins needed such a right-shot force to replace the injured Adam McQuaid (quad). Miller has been all that and more. He will be the right-side man on the third pairing and regular penalty killer.
The three other slots remain up for grabs. Dougie Hamilton has the inside line at starting alongside Chara on the top pairing. Hamilton was out of the mix last year because he was a right-shot defenseman behind Dennis Seidenberg, Boychuk, and McQuaid on the depth chart.
But the second-year pro should be ready for the challenge. Hamilton has been playing with more bite during the 16-game point streak. At the same time, he is moving the puck efficiently and supporting the attack. Hamilton should also be the point man on the No. 2 power-play unit.
Torey Krug is favored to keep his job on the left side of the No. 3 pairing. Krug has a history of having big games in the playoffs. He scored four goals against the Rangers in the second round last year, including three on the power play.
Krug’s difference-making ability in one-up situations should give him the nod. He retrieves the puck with pace, hammers it from the point, and opens up opportunities for his teammates.
That pits Matt Bartkowski against Andrej Meszaros for the final spot: the left-side position on the second pairing next to Boychuk. Both have their assets. Bartkowski is a better pace pusher. Bartkowski can be a one-man breakout, especially when he wheels around the net. Bartkowski is stronger and quicker than Meszaros.
But Meszaros has experience, a heavy shot, and he can play both sides. He can work the point on both power-play units. Right now, the race between the two is very tight. The bet here is that Bartkowski opens the playoffs in the lineup.
■ Give Loui Eriksson a game with Marchand and Bergeron.
Reilly Smith is picking up his game. He scored the shootout winner against the Flyers Sunday. The day before, he ripped off a would-be goal from the slot that Capitals goalie Braden Holtby snatched with his glove. Smith is getting better offensive sniffs.
But Smith is entering his first postseason. The Bruins might have to switch him and Eriksson if the former flickers offensively. If so, that will help Marchand, Bergeron, and Eriksson to get a feel for each other in a regular-season game.
■ Play meaningful hockey.
Detroit will be pushing for a playoff spot. As unlikely as their chances may be, the Maple Leafs could still have some hope of making the playoffs. Both teams, then, will be fighting for their lives.
This will be good for the Bruins. They need high-intensity preparation for the playoffs. This is no time to develop bad habits in games without meaning. The best games of the year are less than three weeks away. They can’t get here soon enough.