TAMPA — It was going to be an exhausting stretch. Starting on March 5, the Bruins would be playing 11 games in 18 days, ending with a back-to-back set at Florida and Tampa Bay, a span that would go a long way toward determining their place in the playoffs.
In the end, that place might not exist.
After going 5-3-3 over the 11-game span, ending with a demoralizing 0-3-2 week, the Bruins are no longer in control of their destiny.
With a 5-2 win over San Jose Monday, Ottawa — the hottest team in hockey — moved 1 point ahead of the Bruins with one game in hand.
This could be the Bruins’ first year out of the postseason in the Claude Julien era, which possibly might spell the end of that same Claude Julien era.
For now, the Bruins are eager to take three days off between games, to rest wearied bodies, and recover the mental focus and preparation that has all but disappeared in a flurry of losses. They know they need to come out differently, desperately, against the Ducks Thursday.
“We can still do it,” Brad Marchand said. “We still have nine games left. We can make this work. We’ve just got to make sure we regroup in the next few days. We haven’t had that in a while. Time to rest up and recover.”
And if they don’t regroup and play better, if there’s a reprise of Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Lightning, then it will be a very, very long summer for a team built to be far better than this.
“A lot of mental mistakes,” Julien said after Sunday’s game. “You can sense the fatigue in our group right now. Not only has it been a lot of games, but a lot of travel in there.
“I know for a fact — I’m in that dressing room every day — I know there’s guys that really care. They want to do well. It’s not happening.
“It’s disappointing for the people who are fans of ours. At the same time, we’ve got three days here to get some rest, get back on our horses here, and finish strong.”
That’s the only choice the Bruins have at this point. The alternative is not something they want to think about.
“We have a few days before a game now, it’s about regrouping,” Patrice Bergeron said. “We’re a team that showed character in the past. We need to show some right now.”
Said Marchand, “Right now, it’s a matter of being committed to the game and the system. We need to all be better at that. And if we’re not, it’s going to cost us our season. We’ve got to really buckle down and smarten up. If we don’t, it’s going to cost us.”
Of course, while Julien offered exhaustion as an excuse, others were quick to shoot that down. As Bergeron said when asked about fatigue, “No. I don’t think it should be an excuse.”
Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter how fatigued the Bruins are. It doesn’t matter that they have played back-to-back games every weekend of March, with a game every Thursday as well. It doesn’t matter that they have traveled a lot in that span.
They still have to win. They still have to play defensively responsible hockey. They have to stop falling down — literally and figuratively — when their opponents gain possession. For that matter, they have to gain possession themselves. They have to finish on their offensive chances.
They have two more days to figure out how to win before the Ducks come to town, followed by the Rangers — the second-hottest team in hockey — on Saturday. Those will be two tremendous challenges for a team that has lost points against Buffalo and Florida in the last week.
Not that the Bruins are counting themselves out.
Asked if the team felt defeated, Chris Kelly said, “Defeated? No. We lost some big games, but I still think we control our destiny. We have nine games left. If we go out and play well for these nine games, then good things will happen.
“We’ve got a good group here. I feel confident in our group.”
He might be the only one left.