On Hockey

Bruins set up nicely for stretch run

Bruins coach Claude Julien said the Olympic break will help not just his team, but the entire league.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
Bruins coach Claude Julien said the Olympic break will help not just his team, but the entire league.

Tuukka Rask will be Finland’s starting goalie. Zdeno Chara will play 30 minutes a game for Slovakia. David Krejci will be the Czech Republic’s No. 1 center. Loui Eriksson will be a top-six forward for Sweden. Canada will tab Patrice Bergeron for grinding, tiring moments: penalty kill, late-game faceoffs.

These Olympic scenarios have a better chance of taking place than not.

Following his Bruins’ 7-2 laugher over Ottawa Saturday at TD Garden, coach Claude Julien noted the Olympic break will help not just his team, but the entire league.


“I know the game of hockey will benefit from it a lot upon everybody’s return,” Julien said. “You’re going to see what two weeks can do to an athlete who’s been going hard for these last few months with the compressed schedule.”

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That may be so. But Julien’s lead dogs will be wiped out from Olympic competition and travel to and from Sochi. It’s why the Bruins’ pre-break march was critical in how they’ll approach the remainder of the regular season.

The Bruins spun off an 8-1-2 record in their 11 games before the break. Their only stinker was a 4-1 dog Jan. 30 against Montreal, a team they do not want to see in the playoffs. The result of their run: a 7-point lead in the Atlantic Division over second-place Tampa Bay. Their quest before the break was to bank as many points as possible to prepare for March’s meat grinder.

Job done.

“We are,” Julien said when asked if he was happy about his team’s pre-break spot in the East, 5 points behind Pittsburgh. “There’s only one team in our conference that’s ahead of us. There’s still lots of hockey to be played. For me, during the regular season, I always look more for consistency vs. whether a team gets really, really hot, then when the playoffs start, you drop a little bit. I just want consistency. My goal is always to have the team playing its best at the right time of the year.”


March will be punishing. There are 17 games stuffed into a 30-day stretch. There are six sets of back-to-back games. All of them require travel between the games.

The Olympic gold-medal game will be Feb. 23. Some of the Bruins will be eliminated before then. They will have some downtime before play resumes in Buffalo Feb. 26.

Even so, the big boys will be running closer to empty than full in March. It’s why the Bruins will have to pace their star players in March and the beginning of April before the postseason begins.

In each of those six back-to-back sets it’s possible, if not prudent, for Rask and Chad Johnson to split the starts. Chara must play less than 25 minutes per game if the Bruins want him fresh for the playoffs without the injured Dennis Seidenberg, his usual postseason partner. Krejci leads all team forwards in ice time per game. Bergeron and Eriksson play in all situations.

The coaches will monitor their minutes. In turn, the Bruins’ complementary players will have to assume bigger workloads. General manager Peter Chiarelli, who also will be worn out because of his Olympic duties for Team Canada, must acquire help before the March 5 trade deadline.


All three things should take place.

The most important player to spell is Rask. The No. 1 goalie’s career high for regular-season starts is 45 in 2009-10. Rask is only two games off that mark already. It’s challenging to balance an ace’s workload. Coaches try to figure out the line between giving him enough action to give him a rhythm vs. burning him out.

Because of the Bruins’ 7-point division lead, they can be more cautious than aggressive when considering Rask’s playing time. Also, Johnson has been good (11-3-0, 2.13 goals-against average, .924 save percentage). The 27-year-old Johnson is also auditioning for his next contract. He will be unrestricted after this season, and most likely will cede his backup job in Boston to Niklas Svedberg.

“It’s been important all year to manage Tuukka,” Chiarelli said. “Chad’s helped us with that with the way he’s been playing. It will continue to be important. [Rask] may carry the mail over there for Finland, so it might be even more important. He’s played a lot of games before in the past. He’s not a thick or heavy guy. A little more durability comes from that. But he knows how to play all those games.”

The Bruins proved against Ottawa and St. Louis that they can manage without Chara. They gave up three goals to the Blues and two to the Senators. Their defensemen are playing well enough to assume some of Chara’s minutes in March and April.

Up front, the Bruins have hit on something with Carl Soderberg. For most of the season, Soderberg was the No. 3 left wing. Even after Chris Kelly’s injury, Soderberg stayed on the left side. Ryan Spooner replaced Kelly as the third-line pivot.

But since Kelly’s return Jan. 28, he’s skated mostly on the left side, and Soderberg has been in the middle. It’s where he’s looked the best.

Soderberg has three goals and four assists in his last seven games. He’s always been willing to muck in the corners and drive to the net. But now that he’s at center, Soderberg is freewheeling more than stopping and starting on the wing. His high-end speed, creativity, and size are making him a handful in the offensive zone. Soderberg’s ready to take on first- and second-line shifts if Krejci and Bergeron need breathers.

“I feel a little bit better there,” Soderberg said of playing center. “But I can play wing as well.”

The Bruins are in a good spot. They can’t wait for the playoffs to begin.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.