Thursday night is going to be a big test for the Bruins, but when it comes to all the obstacles the B's will face with the Habs in town, there me be none greater than the challenge of keeping focused.
The distractions are obvious, and they all point either to the past or the future. First, there's the fact that Thursday's bout will be the first meeting between Boston and Montreal since Zdeno Chara was tossed in a 4-1 Canadiens win on March 8. With all the Max Pacioretty storylines from the Montreal media and the Boston fans' suggestion that Montreal fans call the wahhhhmbulance, it's pretty easy for the Bruins to see that people are still thinking about that game earlier this month.
If people aren't talking about early March, they're talking about mid-April. The B's are currently No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, while the Habs are sixth in the standings. A playoff matchup looks more likely with each passing day, and as a result, many watching Thursday's game will view it as a potential preview of the first round of the playoffs.
Lost in the shuffle of all the post-Pacioretty, pre-playoff hoopla is the fact that the B's need a victory to both establish momentum down the stretch run and keep their distance in the standings. A Bruins win would further the likelihood that the two teams would meet in the playoffs, as putting the Habs five points behind the B's with seven games left for Montreal would make it tough for the B's to be overtaken for the division lead.
Furthermore, regardless of whether they meet in the playoffs, the Bruins are focused on a strong finish to the regular-season series with their biggest rival. After all, the Bruins are just 1-3-1 in their first five meetings with the Habs this season. Too often have the Canadiens been able to dictate their own style of play from the get-go, causing a physical Bruins team to struggle with a Montreal club that is more about finnesse.
"It's really imporant that we have a good start," Milan Lucic said after Wednesday's practice. "The one game that we did beat them, we had that start. The other games, we kind of waited to see what they were going to do and what they were going to bring to us. By the time they figured it out, it was too late. We had some pushes and we got ourselves back in the game, but we still weren't able to recover enough. Having a good start is key for us, and dictating the play is probably the most important thing we're looking for to start off tomorrow."
Given the scary scene of a concussed Pacioretty following the hit into a stanchion from Chara and the lack of punishment, some have wondered whether the Canadiens might look to settle the score in some manner. Despite how much it's been talked about, the Bruins aren't worried about revenge.
"I haven't even thought about that word, except when people bring it up," Shawn Thornton said. "It's a rivalry. It's been like that for many, many years, so there's a little bit of juice when you play these guys all the time. But these are exciting games to play in, too."
Lucic agreed. After all, no team can truly have an answer for the biggest player in the league. If they try, Lucic isn't worried for his captain.
"I mean, Zee can take care of himself," Milan Lucic said, "so if they want to go after him, good luck. He's not going to need my help, I know that's for sure.
"We're a tough team, and everybody's got each other's back, so we're going to play physical, and I don't think anyone's going to be looking over their shoulders at all. We're just going to go out there and play, and whatever happens, happens."
As far as the chances of potentially seeing the Habs down the road, the Bruins are aware of the standings, and know that there's a good chance they could be seeing their first-round opponent on Thursday. Given that the B's were on a 1-3-3 skid prior to Tuesday night's win, they aren't getting caught up in the playoff picuture just yet. They have only 10 games to get things right for the postseason, so their season's best player is preaching they focus on the here and now.
"It's the way it seems to work out. It's rare that we play anyone else other than them in the first round," Tim Thomas said with a grin. "But we'll see. There's still 10 games left. You can't look forward. We've got to keep our mind on the small picture, which is playing day-to-day, and doing our jobs on a night-to-night basis. That's all we have to look at tomorrow.
"We don't have to look at it as 'Oh, this might be a playoff matchup and we have to win this game.' No, we want to win this game because we want to win every game we play."
The Bruins know they have the advatnage in the standings, but they also know they haven't had the advantage on the ice. Thursday night is big enough without the added flair, and whether or not the B's can block out the distractions could be the difference between getting a rare win vs. the Habs this season and suffering yet another late-season defeat.