WILMINGTON - Sometimes what a team does off the ice can be as important as the practice drills on the ice.
Sliding along smoothly in a winning groove, with six victories in their last seven games and an overall record of 8-3-0-3, the Bruins have climbed to an early-season perch on top of the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference. They are playing well together on the ice, and sticking together in their off time.
"We had a gathering of players and we all got together Saturday night," veteran defenseman Aaron Ward said yesterday after practice at Ristuccia Arena. "That's the first good sign, when players away from the rink want to be together.
"We had a majority of our team together, hanging out, and that sparked conversation about how things are going. Guys started talking about the best indication of how your team is going is when winning just happens. You don't go into games hoping you're going to win it, you just go in and play, because you know your system and your effort will take you through it.
"If the other team is better, then the other team's better, but you're really in a position where you feel a quiet confidence."
Every player needs to find his own approach to winning, because it can be harder to keep winning than to start winning.
"The thing to keep in mind is what it took to get that success going," said goalie Tim Thomas, "and how hard you had to work. It wasn't easy.
"The tendency when things are going well is to think that it's just going to continue to go easily. Every individual game, you've got to remind yourself as a team before the game: 'It's not going to be easy.' You've got to be ready to go to work."
Even those playing a limited role have kept an upbeat attitude.
"You don't want to sit out," said forward Petteri Nokelainen, who was playing well alongside Shawn Thornton and Stephane Yelle before he lost his spot to Chuck Kobasew, who returned from a broken leg two games ago. "It's never fun. But I just have to keep going and keep going and try to work hard and whenever I get a new chance, I'm ready to play.
"At least coach told me I'm playing pretty good and I knew that I was playing pretty good. Obviously I can do better, but I don't want to let myself down. I try to stay positive and practice well and be ready when my chance comes."
Defenseman Matt Hunwick, who played in his second game Saturday night after watching from the press box for nine games, got a little more comfortable on the ice with more playing time. But he said he knew he had to wait his turn.
"We were playing so well with the lineup we had," said Hunwick, who stepped in for Shane Hnidy, sidelined with a lower body injury. "You've got to figure they're not going to make changes."
Hunwick spent time with the Bruins last season, too, and he said this year's team is deeper.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence," he said, "and there's great energy to this team right now."
Michael Ryder, acquired in the offseason to add scoring, has only two goals and six assists, but because the team has been getting points from four lines, he can work through his slump.
"If we're losing and I'm not scoring, then it might be more of a problem," he said. "Right now I can just concentrate on getting the puck to the net and trying to bear down a little more."
Coach Claude Julien said it's nice to be on top of the division, but staying there is another thing.
"I just hope we keep working as hard as we have been," he said. "The key is don't take the foot off the pedal. You don't make practices easier because things are going well."
Through the first 14 games, things have gone well for the Bruins.
"I think you go back to the word 'attitude,' " said Ward. "We're sticking up for each other. We're working for each other on the ice. Guys are getting in position, guys are seeing a possible mistake being made and making a great attempt to cover up or help that guy out. I've seen my forwards come back at an unbelievable pace.
"Winning breeds excitement in a locker room. When things are going well, even the same action seems a little more effortless."
The team plays in Chicago tomorrow night. Like the Bruins, the Blackhawks (7-3-0-3) have been on a roll, winning four in a row. "I think it's going to be a good matchup and I'm looking forward to it," said Julien . . . Three players were missing from practice. Yelle has a mild injury situation, according to Julien, and is expected to practice tomorrow. Thornton, whose grandmother died Saturday, returned home to Ontario and will join the team in Chicago. Hnidy remains day to day.
Barbara Matson can be reached at email@example.com.