Bruins feature March 29

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Boston Bruins took the expected first step when they clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday.

Their focus now will turn to utilizing their final eight regular-season games, beginning against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MNMT, NESN), to sharpen their game for the start of the playoffs.

"To be honest, we knew we were going to be in the playoffs for a while, probably since [the] All-Star break," Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. "For us, it's more about battling for positioning right now, and getting into the playoffs most importantly playing the right way."

The Bruins (42-17-15) watched from their hotel in Washington when they qualified for the playoffs for the eighth straight season following the Philadelphia Flyers' loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. Boston leads the Florida Panthers by two points for first place in the Atlantic Division and is three points behind the New York Rangers for first in the Eastern Conference and in the race for Presidents' Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL team with the most points in the regular season.

So the Bruins still have plenty to play for before playoffs begin, but they are in a different situation from last season, when they set NHL records for wins (65) and points (135) during the regular season before losing to the Panthers in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Being upset by the Panthers last season looms in the back of their minds, so they want to ramp up their game and make sure they're playing their best in time for their playoff opener.

"We thrive when we play a certain way, and when we get away from that we're a team that can be beaten," Bruins captain Brad Marchand said. "And I think the next eight games our biggest challenge and what we need to fine tune is making sure we put that game on the ice every single night. And regardless of how tired we are or the travel or who we're playing, it's about preparing the same way each night."

The Bruins haven't been doing that consistently the past two months. They are 11-8-6 in 25 games since returning from their break for the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend, including losses in three of their past four games (1-3-0).

Montgomery tried to get the players' attention with a punishment skate during their practice Monday, following losses to the Rangers (5-2 on March 21) and the Flyers (3-2 on Saturday). Boston responded with a 4-3 win at Florida on Tuesday before a 3-1 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.

"Sometimes the schedule doesn't help you out, but we didn't particularly like our battle level despite the fact that we were tired [against Tampa Bay]," Montgomery said. "That's where you've got to dig in and reach and find another level and those are the type of things that we're looking for, for more growth before we start [the playoffs]. Overall we're pretty happy with where our team game is at."

In his first season as captain, Marchand noted that qualifying for the playoffs is significant, particularly after the Bruins lost their top two centers when Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retired after last season.

"It's tough because you don't want to get caught up in it, but it is something to be proud about because there's so much parity in the League now that every team is good," he said. "You see it every night. Anybody can win and it's not easy to win consistently in this league. With the adversity that we went through and the amount of changeover that we had and the players that we lost, I thought we did a great job coming together and accomplishing what we needed to to get to the playoffs.

"So, yeah, we do need to be proud of it. It is a big deal. But, again, once the playoffs start, it all starts again and there's much bigger things at stake."

The Bruins can become the fifth team in seven seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Final the season after winning the Presidents' Trophy, following the Capitals (2018 Stanley Cup winners), Lightning (2020 Cup winners), Colorado Avalanche (2022 Cup winners) and Panthers (reached 2023 Cup Final). But they also need to remember the lessons they learned last season.

"Come playoff time you can't just flip a switch," Marchand said. "You need to be ready and there's a lot of teams that are fighting for their lives right now and playing really well. If you don't have that same mindset, you can get caught off-guard come playoff time. So it's about making sure that each night you come prepared to play and you don't get complacent at all."