Rested Bruins face challenges ahead

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins have been on a roll of late, earning 10 of a possible 12 points in the past six games. With the team's success and a congested schedule of games since Dec. 1, coach Claude Julien gave his players a few days off.

The Bruins were back on the practice ice at Ristuccia Arena on Tuesday morning in preparation for a pair of tough divisional road games against the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday and Thursday.

"They look like they have lots of energy, and sometimes a couple of days off is good for you," Julien said.

The Bruins players were freed of their hockey duties the past couple of days as the team participated in its annual Christmas gift-buying spree for children in area hospitals.

"It's been a pretty heavy schedule for a lot of teams around the league, and this was an opportunity to keep them off the ice for a little bit," Julien said. "Even though they didn't skate, it doesn't mean they didn't work out. They were able to clear their heads a little bit and get ready for a big week. It was a move that we felt we needed to make with this team."

Julien also was quick to point out that playing a lot of games in a short period of time can help a team, especially one that's winning.

"If you get on a bit of a roll, you like playing games," Julien said. "It keeps your team going [in the right direction], and at the same time you have to make sure to take care of yourself, get your rest and eat properly."

Boston is eight points ahead of the Sabres and trails the Canadiens by two in the Northeast, so a pair of wins by the Bruins will be key. In the conference, the Bruins sit at seventh place entering Tuesday's games.

"It is a big week for us," Julien said. "We've approached the last couple of weeks the same way, and what can happen out of it is pretty amazing when you look at the fact that you've got 10 out of 12 points in the last two weeks, and you're still battling for fifth, sixth or seventh. It just goes to show you how tight the standings are.

"We're looking at this week as a big week. Although we're trying to catch up with Montreal, you've got to get through Buffalo before you give yourself a good chance of doing that."

The Bruins have won the first two meetings with the Sabres. In the first game, Buffalo was without goaltender Ryan Miller as Boston won 5-2. Miller returned for the second game on Dec. 7, but the Bruins pulled off a 3-2 win in overtime.

"Their goaltender is back to being himself and being a strong goaltender and difference-maker," Julien said. "At the same time, they've gained some confidence offensively and they're becoming a bigger threat."

During the Bruins' recent success, Nathan Horton has five points in the past five games, including three goals. Overall, he has 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 28 games for Boston.

The six-year veteran is enjoying his first season with the Bruins, and as the season progresses, he's getting more comfortable.

"It's gotten a lot better. I'm having fun and I'm enjoying it. It's a great place to be," Horton said.

"Some days it was hard. I had never been through it before, but that's what it's like when you've been traded. You try to get used to it, and the biggest thing is getting used to the guys. I'm comfortable with the guys, and that has made it a lot better."

At the time Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli acquired Horton in a trade with the Florida Panthers, Boston knew it was getting a pure goal scorer. Even though he's playing well, Horton hasn't reached his full potential yet.

"Any time you can add a scorer it's going to help your hockey club, and he has," teammate Marc Savard said. "I'm getting a chance to play with him on the power play. He's a great guy to play with and he has a great shot. He positions his body so well, and that's his biggest attribute."

When Horton became a Bruin, there was a lot of talk regarding the possible synergy between Horton and Savard. But with Savard sidelined at the start of the season because of post-concussion syndrome, Julien decided Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic could be a successful line.

It has.

"I'm playing with two great players," Horton said. "It's been good so far. I've always said when you get on a roll, things start going your way and it becomes habit. Hopefully it continues to go well."

Boston will need more than just its top line continuing to play well to have success against a pair of division rivals this week.

"We just have to be focused every game," Savard said. "This is a big trip for us."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.