BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins don't have an identity crisis, they're simply trying to find and deliver that nasty style of hockey that makes them a successful team.
With the Stanley Cup playoffs less than a week away, the Bruins have only two regular-season games remaining after Thursday's 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins' play has been inconsistent, but if they can build off the effort they gave against the Lightning the rest of the way, the Bruins could still find themselves as the team to beat in the postseason.
The Bruins are at their best when they play with an edge. The Bruins know it. Their opponents know it. But for the better part of a month and half, that edge has been missing.
"It's not where it should be," coach Claude Julien said prior to Thursday's win. "But there's an opportunity to get there because we've shown it on different occasions; not much in the last half, but we've shown that it's still there. We've just got to grab it and hold onto it."
They had it Thursday night against the Lightning.
"I thought our guys played hard tonight," Julien said. "I'm not looking for perfection; I'm looking for reaction. Overall, we played hard. We moved the puck quickly, and when there was a breakdown Tuukka [Rask] was there to make the big saves. I was pretty happy with the game. I know if we keep playing that way, it'll only get better."
Julien is looking for his team to play the way that has resulted in past success.
"To play with some emotion," he said. "To play with some grit, desire, determination. And I saw all those things tonight and the identity of our team is as such. We're a team that prides itself on being a physical team, a team that's hard to play against, and we have to create that."
For the first time in a long time, the Bruins did provide a full 60-minute effort. Boston received goals from defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and forward Daniel Paille, while Rask earned his fifth shutout (and 16th of his career) with a 30-save performance.
From the other side of the ice, Tampa is out of the playoff race and its offseason will begin Sunday. The Lightning and the Bruins have created some intense battles in the past, including a memorable Eastern Conference finals during the 2011 playoffs. Boston won that series in seven games en route to a Stanley Cup win over the Vancouver Canucks.
"I look at [the Bruins] as kind of a fine-oiled machine," Tampa Bay forward and former Bruin Nate Thompson said. "They play the same way and they have guys who can put the puck in the net. They have guys that are role players. They just keep pushing. They play the same way and they're predictable, and that's why they're one of the best teams in the league.
"They're not much different [than 2011]. They still have good goaltending, even though it's not Timmy Thomas. Tuukka's a very good goaltender. They have a little bit of different personnel, but they still have the core group of guys that's been there and have won. They're a team that plays the game the right way and that's why they get results."
With Thursday's win, the Bruins improved to 28-13-5 for 61 points in 46 games, while the Montreal Canadiens also won and have a 28-14-5 record for 61 points in 47 games. In order to win the Northeast Division, Boston needs another strong push this weekend in its two remaining games. Either way, they've secured home-ice advantage for the first round and will finish either second or fourth in the Eastern Conference.
"We've learned in the past that we have to build off of it," Bruins forward David Krejci said. "We can't let up. We have to put the gas pedal to the metal and we have to continue to play the way we did today. We felt good about ourselves."
Prior to the 2010-2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Bruins finished the regular season 3-2-1 in their past six games. It wasn't the way the team wanted to play entering the playoffs, but the Bruins finished with their first Stanley Cup title in 39 years.
Last season, the Bruins played great down the stretch, posting a 9-2-1 record in the final 12 games, including a 4-1-1 mark over the final six games. That stretch didn't matter much since the Bruins lost in the first round to the Washington Capitals in seven games.
This spring, the Bruins can't find any consistency in their game, but the players believe they still have the same mentality as they have the past couple of seasons.
"I don't think it's different, it's just not there right now," Krejci said. "We want to have the same team identity as we did a couple of years ago. We have the same identity, it's just not there right now and we have to find it. We know what it is, we just have to go out there and establish ourselves as we did a couple of years ago."
How can a team do that?
"Bring emotions in the game and play our game," Krejci added. "We all know what our game is, but we also know what we've showed and that's not who we are. We have to play as a team. We have to play together and support each other out there."
Supporting each other on the ice needs to include better second efforts, playing with more emotion, pride, purpose and passion, Krejci explained.
From an individual perspective, the Bruins need better performances from some of their top players, and that includes Krejci. Entering Thursday's game, he had only two points (one goal and one assist) in the previous 10 games. He has always been a player who excels in big games, especially in the playoffs. In 25 games during the 2011 playoffs, he had 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points. In 2012, however, he contributed only one goal and two assists for three points in seven games against the Capitals and goaltender Braden Holtby.
"Obviously, I want to be the guy everyone can count on," Krejci said. "I wouldn't separate myself from other guys. We're a team here and if the team is doing well, that means as individuals we're doing well."
His linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton haven't been producing, either. Until Horton's recent upper-body injury that he suffered in a first-period fight with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jarome Iginla last Saturday at the Garden, Horton was in the midst of a five-game pointless drought. He has missed the past three games, and despite skating on his own, his status for this weekend remains in question.
Lucic has had a disappointing season. His production from an offensive and physical standpoint has not been there, which led to his being a healthy scratch last weekend against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That one game watching from media level seemed to have done some good.
He was a dominating physical presence Thursday night and even though he did drop the gloves with the Lightning's Keith Akulie, Lucic's bite was back.
"He's become a good player again for us," Julien said. "Tonight, he did exactly what ignites our team, ignites our fans and when he's like that he's at his best. I certainly like the direction he's taking, and if he keeps going that way, we can't ask for better timing."
From a goaltending standpoint, Rask was strong between the pipes. He made timely saves and flashed the pads as a true No. 1 goalie in this league can do. He's in contention for the Vezina Trophy, and the Bruins will need that type of performance from their netminder once the puck drops on the playoffs.
"You need a guy to stand tall and be good. You need a guy to go into the playoffs with confidence, and hopefully that's what Tuukka's creating here," Julien said.
The goal every season is to sprint into the playoffs and have a strong, confident feeling about the team's play. Julien is not about to compare his team's mindset this season to what it was like in the 2010-11 season.
"I don't know, to be honest with you," Julien said. "The feeling around the team and the room two years ago, I'm not sure I even remember that as much. We were focused on what we had to do, but you hate making comparisons because that's like saying, 'We went through that two years ago, so we should win the Cup this year.' Every year is a different year, a different challenge. You take the situation that you have in front of you and you try to deal with it the best you can."
In Julien's mind, despite the recent inconsistencies, this season hasn't been as bad as it may appear. When the regular season ends, the Bruins will either finish first or second in the Northeast Division, and either second or fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Prior to Thursday's win, in the early evening hours, the Garden was empty and the building was dark when Jackson Brown's "Running on Empty" played over the PA system. It was fitting given how the Bruins have played of late. But the Bruins showed up and played like they should, and when they do that they're one of the toughest teams to play against.
"When you play a good team like that, sometimes it feels like the ice is tilted," Thompson said.