By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins interim coach Bruce Cassidy has not confiscated the stats packs that get distributed in the locker room every day, nor has he ordered the standings board be removed from the wall. The NHL Network is not blacked out and they won’t be turning off the out-of-town scoreboard at TD Garden any time soon.
Cassidy’s putting the responsibility on his players to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted by what’s happening with teams that are challenging the Bruins for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And after two straight years of failing to qualify for the postseason, after holding late-season leads in the race, the Bruins may have learned their lesson about losing sight of the goal and the way to achieve it.
“I think a lot of it to be honest with you was scoreboard watching,” defenseman Kevan Miller said when asked about the Bruins’ past two late-season collapses after practice at TD Garden on Friday. “Because it does … when you’re looking at the standings every night, when you see like last night, teams winning, then you focus on that, then you kind of get away from what worked. So I think a lot of that had to do with that and I think this year maybe we’re getting away from that, we’re trying to really focus on us and how we perform down the stretch.”
The Bruins missed the postseason by two points in 2015. They followed that up by missing by one point last season despite controlling their own fate on the last day of the season. They got smoked 6-1 by Ottawa at home and they lost all of the five-point lead they had 12 games remaining.
The Bruins host Philadelphia in a matinee Saturday with 15 games left and a two-point lead on Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division; the Maple Leafs have one game in hand. Toronto beat Philadelphia on Thursday, and Ottawa, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders also earned wins. There’s no margin for error.
From 2008 to 2014 the Bruins not only made the playoffs but were rarely challenged for their spot. Despite the tight races they were in the past two seasons, they might’ve taken for granted that they’d be in when all was said and done. And they were in new territory in terms of fighting for the right to play beyond the regular season rather than tuning up for the playoffs. A stretch of bad play, like the five-game losing streak that started with a winless three games in California toward the end of last season, put the heat on the Bruins instead of serving as a wakeup call.
“I know we obviously were watching the standings and when you’re losing more games than [you’re winning], you’re looking at everything and questioning everything,” defenseman Adam McQuaid said. “But I think this year, hopefully having gone through that, you realize we can only control our own fate and do our best and not worry about what other teams are doing.”
The Bruins should benefit from their improved home record. They’ve won six of seven home games since Cassidy took over and they finish the season with six of their last seven games at the Garden. Of more immediate concern is the Flyers game and then a road trip to face the teams from Western Canada, a trip that was once a cakewalk but now includes two playoff-bound teams (Edmonton and Calgary) and a third team that just won’t go away (Vancouver).
Once a perennial fixture in the playoffs, the Bruins should embrace the low expectations created by missing the postseason for two seasons. Although they’re currently in the playoffs structure, they’re not the team that everyone wants to knock off its perch as much as they’re just another team fighting for a spot. They don’t want to be considered underdogs, but they’re clearly not favorites either.
“We certainly don’t take making the playoffs for granted. It’s not easy to do and it really is a yearlong process to get yourself there,” said McQuaid. “So I guess it’s believing in one another in the room and … I guess we know that there’s a lot of work left to be done.”
Some teams with a history of collapsing late might be haunted by those failures forever. But the Bruins got a fresh start with the switch from Claude Julien to Cassidy. Off the ice, the core of this team knows what it’s like to have certain storylines thrown in its face every day. After the Bruins blew their 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in 2010, they were asked about that defeat every time they had a series lead for years. After missing the 2015 playoffs, they had to deal with inquiries during their struggles in 2016.
The best players and teams take negative experiences and use them as tools to avoid a similar fate repeating. That’s the Bruins’ biggest challenge in attempting to end their playoff drought.
“We want to make the playoffs and we need to make sure we take the lessons that we learned the past two years and put them into effect here,” Miller said. “We’ve kind of pushed that on some of the guys that weren’t around, that urgency. But I think it comes down to how we play and we’re trying to focus on us right now.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.