BOSTON — It has become an almost unspoken truth within the Boston Bruins dressing room: Changes are coming and they’re coming soon.
One of the NHL’s least altered rosters in recent years is due for a mini-makeover this summer because of a shrinking salary cap and a group of free agents looking for raises.
And with the season down to just two or three games against the Chicago Blackhawks, there is a feeling that it might be now or never for this tight-knit group.
“We’ve been together for a few years now and we’ve grown so close and really become a family,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said Thursday at TD Garden. “We know that this could be our last opportunity at winning a Cup so we really want to try and take advantage of that.
“We’ll never all be in the same dressing room again together and we just want to try and make the most of it.”
The changes were minimal immediately after the 2011 championship. Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle left in free agency while Mark Recchi retired. The only other significant departure since then came last summer when Tim Thomas took a hiatus from the sport.
Whether the Bruins win or lose against Chicago this time around, general manager Peter Chiarelli will face some tough choices.
Consider this: Boston could theoretically win the Stanley Cup in Game 7 next Wednesday, hold a championship parade on Friday and be making roster moves 24 hours later at the draft weekend in Newark, N.J.
That’s an even tighter window than Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman faced after his team’s Stanley Cup victory in 2010, although Chiarelli won’t need to dismantle his squad to the level Chicago did back then.
His biggest priority will be signing goaltender Tuukka Rask — a restricted free agent who could command a salary equal to that of the $7-millon annual deal Pekka Rinne received from Nashville last year.
Assuming he gets it, Boston would be left with less than $3 million in cap space to split among unrestricted free agents Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr, Andrew Ference and backup goalie Anton Khudobin for next season.
All four could potentially walk on July 5.
With a deep blue-line that includes youngsters Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski — only Krug is currently playing in the Stanley Cup final — a veteran such as Johnny Boychuk could be traded to provide further financial relief.
The same goes for one of the team’s heart-and-soul depth forwards.
It was tough to imagine any of those possibilities while the Bruins walked comfortably around their dressing room on Thursday afternoon and spoke about regrouping from the 6-5 overtime loss a night earlier that evened the Stanley Cup series 2-2.
The scene was as ordinary as apple pie, but it won’t be repeated many more times with this exact group of characters.
As for the mood, it was what you would expect on an off day from a team as experienced as this one. They don’t anticipate having any trouble bouncing back from the unexpected goal-fest in Game 4.
“We’ve been together for a while and we’ve seen our ups and downs,” said defenceman Adam McQuaid. “We’ve been able to persevere through some situations. I think it’s a group (where) we’ve built strong friendships here and we all care about each other.
“We’re pretty lucky that way.”
In some ways, they are already on borrowed time. The season could very well have ended more than a month ago.
Milan Lucic even acknowledged thinking about the off-season changes to come while sitting on the bench in Game 7 of the opening round after Toronto built a three-goal lead in the third period.
“When you’re looking at the clock wind down with half a period left at 4-1 you start thinking to yourself: `Is this the end of this group here?”‘ Lucic said then. “Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game.”
The changes will likely be less drastic after a trip to the final than they would have been with a loss back then, but there’s still no telling how they’ll affect the core of this squad moving forward.
Boston is currently the envy of the Eastern Conference — “the team that went on after (beating us) has been exceptional,” Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said this week — but who knows how long that will last in the parity-filled NHL?
It makes the opportunity before the Bruins all the more important.
“It’s been a Jekyll and Hyde season,” said veteran forward Chris Kelly. “I think everyone would admit to that. We’ve had our ups and we’ve had our downs, and for the most part the group’s stayed pretty positive. There’s been a little adversity at times — we played through a lot of things this year — and we’re a close group I think because of things like that.
“We’ve been together for a few years now. It’s winding down, but everyone in here is happy we can be together as long as we have been.”
There would be no better way to commemorate the end of an era than getting their names inscribed together on the Stanley Cup once again.