The Bruins can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and that light is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Their 6-2 win over the Sabres on Saturday combined with the Rangers’ 3-0 loss to the Islanders later in the day means the Bruins are now just one point away from clinching a playoff spot.
They're playing well, they're getting healthy, and with just six games and 10 days left in a regular season that has been more challenging than most, they're finally in a position to look ahead just a little bit and get excited about what's to come.
While this regular season is only 56 games, it has been more taxing than the average regular season in many ways. There’s the physical challenge of playing such a compact schedule, with games every other day and more frequent back-to-backs than usual. The Bruins have not had more than one day off between games since returning from their COVID-19 outbreak on March 25.
But there’s also the mental challenge, which many players will tell you has been even tougher. The monotony of home to rink to plane to hotel on repeat, with no opportunity to get together with teammates or friends of any kind away from the rink. These last 14 months have been monotonous and challenging for all of us, and professional athletes aren’t immune to it.
They get paid very well and no one’s asking anyone to feel sorry for them, but they’re still human beings. Players on the Bruins and around the league have opened up about mental health this season. There have been days they’ve struggled to get up for a game or practice. Moving past a bad game or a slump has been harder than normal when you have so much time alone in an apartment or hotel room to stew over it. Injury rehab has been a lonelier process than usual, and going into COVID quarantine -- as several Bruins have had to do this season -- has been even worse.
“Things can be hard,” said Brandon Carlo, who is on the verge of returning from his second significant injury of the season. “This year hasn’t exactly been positive with COVID. You feel those depressive days and the anxiety can come in. We’re all dealing with it. The best thing that we can do is rally around each other and work through it together, recognizing that you’re not the only one in that situation.”
The reward that was going to make grinding through this season worth it was the playoffs, and the Bruins are now on the verge of locking themselves in as one of the 16 teams that will get to experience that payoff.
They’re starting to get excited about that, and they’re starting to get excited about the way things are coming together ahead of it.
They’re now 9-2-0 since the trade deadline. They’ve responded to their two-game losing streak with three straight wins in which they’ve played very well. Their new-look second line of Taylor Hall, David Krejci and Craig Smith continues to dominate, with Smith registering a hat trick on Saturday and Krejci three assists.
For the first time since early February, they’re on the verge of being completely healthy on defense, with Carlo’s expected return in the next few days the last piece of a puzzle that now includes deadline acquisition Mike Reilly as well. Tuukka Rask and Jeremy Swayman both continue to be stellar in net.
Heck, there have even been encouraging signs from the third and fourth lines the last couple games. The third line of Nick Ritchie, Sean Kuraly and Charlie Coyle has scored three goals -- one from each of them -- the last two games. An interesting new fourth line of Jake DeBrusk (back in after two straight healthy scratches), Curtis Lazar and Karson Kuhlman didn’t score Saturday, but did have a lot of jump and chances, with Kuhlman leading the team with six shots on goal and the Bruins outshooting the Sabres 11-4 with those three on the ice.
There’s more work to do. The Bruins are just about in the clear in terms of not having to worry about whether they’ll make the playoffs, but they still want to finish strong and make sure they’re playing as well going into the playoffs as they are right now.
But things are looking up, the good vibes are flowing more than they have been all season, and the Bruins are starting to feel that playoff excitement.
“We know what our ultimate goal is here,” Kuraly said Saturday. “…You’re just trying to play your best hockey at the right time, and I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve got some work to do, but I think we’ve got a locker room that’s starting to get pretty excited.”