- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The grueling and arduous 82-game schedule during the NHL's regular season can wreak havoc on a player's focus. But when a team is eight wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, players are locked in on the ultimate prize.
The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are the final two teams remaining in the Eastern Conference. Both swept through the semifinal round last week and the NHL waited until Tuesday morning to announce when the conference finals would start.
Game 1 is 8 p.m. Saturday at TD Garden. (For the full schedule, click here.)
That means each team will have more than a week off between games; the Bruins finished off the Philadelphia Flyers on May 6, the Lightning eliminated the Washington Capitals on May 4. The scenario could be looked at two ways: (1) It gives players time to rest and recover. (2) The long layoff could hamper a team's momentum.
Fortunately, both teams are in the same boat.
After clinching their series against the Flyers, Bruins coach Claude Julien gave his players the weekend off. The team was back on the practice ice Monday at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, Mass., and returned to the Garden for practice on Tuesday.
Julien said he would give the team Wednesday off after finally learning when the series will start.
"At least it gives you some clarity on what you want to do here with the team for the rest of the week," Julien said. "Sitting there waiting to see what was going to happen wasn't easy for anybody. I think everyone was anxious to find out what was going on, so it's nice to have it confirmed."
In Tampa, Lightning coach Guy Boucher echoed his counterpart.
"At some point it's time to get on with the show and that's how we feel right now," Boucher said.
Julien said it's always a challenge for a coach to help his players adjust to the time off, depending on the length between series.
"The one thing you have to understand as a coach is that with all the intensity and everything that has been going on, guys need their reset," Julien said. "What has to happen, though, through all of it is they can't lose their focus. You have to try to balance that."
A lot of the onus, however, is on the players. They have to use this time between series to get healthy, get plenty of rest and remain focus on the task at hand. It's not like these guys are playing for a varsity letter in high school and the coach is holding their hand.
The past two days, Julien has conducted short but intense practices. He's giving the players one last day of rest on Wednesday before getting back at it on Thursday and Friday before Saturday's game.
There's also been a lot of behind-the-scenes work, including meetings and video. The players didn't expect such a long layoff during the postseason.
"It's different, but both teams have to go through it," forward Shawn Thornton said. "There's nothing you can do about it, you just deal with it."
Each player seems to have a different view on which is preferable: starting right away or having a break.
"I don't care," Thornton said. "Either way you've got to show up when the game is and play. If you're strong mentally it shouldn't matter, right? Obviously people say you can get into a rhythm, but both teams are in the same boat. We'll show up [on Saturday] and be ready."
There are advantages to both. Even for a team with momentum and playing with confidence, some time off can be a benefit.
"Your legs are used to playing playoff hockey and that's one good thing about having less time between series," defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "If you have more time, you get to heal your whole body up. You can look at it either way."
After the Bruins swept the Montreal Canadiens in 2009, Boston had 10 days off before starting its next round against the Carolina Hurricanes. Current Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg played for the Canes that season, when Carolina took a 3-1 lead before clinching the series in seven games with an overtime win at the Garden.
"Personally, I think it's always been better if you come fresh off another game," Seidenberg said. "But they're in the same boat as us and we know who we are playing and we can prepare for them, so I think it really doesn't matter."
Julien will admit the long layoff had a negative effect on the Bruins in '09. The coach learned from that and has tweaked his schedule this time around.
"It's important for us to make sure that practices are good practices, that guys are kept sharp and that the intensity is kept up," Julien said. "You have to get the message across, but you also have to make sure you're pushing those guys hard and make sure they keep that edge that they've had since the start of the playoffs."
Once the puck drops for Game 1 on Saturday, don't be surprised if both teams are a bit lackadaisical at the start, going through a bit of a feeling-out process. But once the teams settle in, it should be an intense and entertaining series.
"Once that first game starts, their team and our team will try to find that game mode as fast as we can," Boucher said.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.