Despite a somewhat disheartening loss to their 2011 Finals opponent, the Boston Bruins are still riding a run of twenty-three wins in twenty-eight games. Will this in mind, will the B’s be able to maintain their torrid winning ways or will they fall back to Earth, well shy of the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Bruins Opponents’ Records
Because 133 games this season have gone to the extra period, the “average” NHL team has a point percentage of .553 (the closest team to that is 21-17-2, the Washington Capitals).
Even after taking on one of the best teams in the NHL (by record), their average opponent hasn’t been too solid thus far. Through 39 games this season, the Bruins’ opponents have a combined record (weighted by times played) of 774-674-194 (or a .530 point percentage). This figure is heavily ‘damaged’ by the two times the B’s played the Blue Jackets in the first half. Regardless, the Bruins have played substandard competition so far.
In the second half, things get a lot tougher. Their future opponents combined record is 889-691-208 (.555 point percentage). They play the NHL’s best team (again, by point percentage), the New York Rangers for the first time later this month and three more times afterward. Additionally, the B’s have three games against the Penguins and their first games against several good Western Conference squads (Nashville, Minnesota, and St. Louis notably).
Now, some might argue that the newly-minted-juggernaut B’s will be just as successful against solid squads as mediocre. Well, as others might expect, the Bruins have done much better versus poor teams than against quality squads: Teams that beat them have a weighted average point percentage of .544, whereas teams they’ve beat have a .524 Of course, the one thing that many of the Bruins’ future opponents have going from them is that they haven’t played the Bruins… yet.
Scoring Depth … Sustainability?
We often talk about forwards scoring “at a first line rate”. There are varying definitions, but one that’s easily definable is scoring at a top-90 rate for the season (30 teams x 3 first-liners = 90 first-line scorers). Since teams have varying levels of games played, we’ll use points per game as the defining number (minimum 20 games).
What we get as a result is remarkable. As of Tuesday night, the Bruins had seven forwards among the top-90 forward scorers (per game): Tyler Seguin (14th), Patrice Bergeron (30th), Brad Marchand (42nd), David Krejci (48th), Rich Peverley (51st), Milan Lucic (53rd), Nathan Horton (86th). That’s seven guys whose numbers fit our definition of “first line”.
Not to be forgotten are Chris Kelly (115th) and Benoit Pouliot (196th) and the fourth-liners whose production has exceeded expectations. As detailed in a previous article, “Roll Four Lines: The Bruins’ Forward-Thinking Success,” the Bruins have benefited greatly from contributions from top to bottom.
A look at the Bruins’ scoring since November is equally astounding: Those seven ‘first-liners’ each have at least 23 points in that span and four (Marchand, Seguin, Bergeron and Krejci) have been at or above a point-per-game. When they add to that some outstanding numbers from the blue line since November, the remarkably productive depth comes fully into light: Zdeno Chara (21 points), Joe Corvo (14 points), Dennis Seidenberg (13 points), Andrew Ference (12 points).
That’s part of the issue with projecting their second half: The Bruins seemed to all get hot simultaneously – and, realistically, it’s difficult to imagine that continuing indefinitely.
One of the factors we have to consider is the Bruins’ outstanding shooting percentage. The general consensus in the hockey analytics community is that unlike possession, it’s hard to individually drive shooting rates. Long story short, luck is a very significant factor in shooting rates and high shooting percentages will usually regress back toward the mean as the season progresses.
Since November 1, the B’s have a remarkable nine players shooting above 15% – in a season where the average forward is firing at a 10.7% clip – and four have S% above 20: Lucic (22.9%), Kelly (22.9%), Marchand (21.9%), and Paille (20.7%). Of their forwards, only one, Rich Peverley (8.0%) is shooting worse than his career average – and he’s grabbing assists at well above his career rate. Up and down the B’s lineup are players who, even when including the Black and Gold’s abysmal October, are having career years.
Even the team’s shooting this season has been otherworldly. The team is first in the NHL with an 11.2% shooting rate (compared to the 9.1% League average), and their forwards have a NHL-best 15.3% shooting percentage.
The simple truth is that it’s far more likely that the B’s snap back to ‘reality’ than maintain these lofty totals and averages. It might not be a precipitous drop-off but a solid regression to their expected career rates could be in the cards.
Defensive and Goaltending Successes
So aside from allowing a League-best 1.92 goals against per game, having two Vezina-caliber goaltending performances from Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas, a smothering defensive system, the one of the top Norris candidates in Chara and Selke-candidates in Bergeron; what so good about the Bruins, defensively?
The defending Conn Smythe and Vezina winner, Tim Thomas has been excellent during the Bruins’ outstanding post-October run: Owning a 1.92 GAA, a .942 Sv% and four shutouts in that span he’s put himself very much in contention for consideration as the NHL’s top goalie this June.
Almost overshadowing Thomas’ performance has been nearly flawless ‘tending of Boston’s backup, Tuukka Rask. Since November 1, Rask has ten wins in eleven starts, three shutouts, a .955 save percentage and a 1.31 goals against average.
Now, Thomas has shown he can maintain those levels over a season and while it’s not entirely certain he’ll do so, a significant drop-off isn’t necessarily in the cards. However, Tuukka’s performance (even if he remained in a back-up role) would be one for the ages and even though he boasts the best career save percentage among active players with at least 90 games – there’s virtually no way he sustains these levels over the course of a season.
Aside from goaltending, it’s not expected that the Bruins defense will significantly regress unless injuries become an issue. If they do, the Bruins don’t have adequate depth at the position to persevere (after 7th man Steven Kampfer the pickings are incredibly slim … and young) despite the excellent system and coaching of Claude Julien. In that event, a deal will have to be made or they will see a noticeable decline in defensive performance.
Much like 2010-11, these Bruins have been one of the best squads in five-on-five play (actually, they’ve been an unbelievable team at even strength, scoring more than two goals for every one they allow). However, unlike the last iterations of the Black and Gold this one has been very solid on the special teams.
While their 0-for-7 on Saturday dropped them down on the powerplay (to eighth), the Bruins have been successful in gaining momentum on the man advantage with an 19.0% success rate. Until recently, the Bruins had a top-three penalty kill as well. It has leveled off to 86.3%, which still ranks seventh.
On the powerplay, the Bruins are getting more chances (they’re on pace for 300 man-advantage opportunities – 35 more than 2010-11) and are finding the back of the net with increased regularity. If they keep up their current rate of success, the B’s would score an additional 13 goals via the powerplay in 2011-12.
Part of that success comes from the additional chances but part of it comes from an elevated shooting percentage on the powerplay. The B’s are currently shooting 15.4% with the man advantage (compare that to a League-wide average of just above 12% and last year’s disappointing 11.0%). Only three teams have higher PP shooting rates than the Black and Gold (Edmonton, Nashville and Toronto). That shooting percentage may – come down and unless the B’s create more shots with the extra skater (at 169 – they have the third lowest total in the NHL) – their rate success could drop.
In terms of close-games, some might point to the Bruins’ three shootout wins as an example of luck. However, the Bruins outshot their opponent in all but one of their overtime games (including their lone shootout loss to Detroit). In fact, the B’s have been just middle-of-the-road when it comes to winning one-goal games. With just a 7-6-1 record in these matches, the Bruins’ aren’t getting an extraordinary amount of fortune.
Indeed, this is one of the areas that makes the Bruins run seem all the more magical: In what the Copper and Blue Blog call their ‘Clear Victory Standings’, the Bruins are running away with the lead. Clear Victories are wins (or losses) where the difference is at least two goals – not counting any number of empty-netters. So overtime/shootout wins are out as are any one-goal regulation games.
As you can see, the Bruins are absolutely dominating. They have nineteen wins and only one ‘clear’ loss (one that came in an October game against Carolina which was far closer until two 5-on-3 goals late for the ‘Canes extended the lead to 3). Only the Red Wings have as many‘clear’ wins, but they also have three more clear losses.
This stat fairly accurately reflects the Bruins team we’ve seen so far. They’re capable of absolutely running over and through opponents. The B’s have fifteen wins this season by three or more goals, nine by four-plus, and five by six or more (including consecutive 8-0 and 9-0 shellackings of opponents at home).
So nearly as much as the Bruins have benefited from fortunate ‘bounces’ in their elevated shooting rates and power-play success, the B’s have so frequently blown the doors off of teams some might consider it ‘evening out’.
So where do they stand? The B’s had a lot going for them in the season’s first half. They faced relatively weak competition, had abnormally high shooting rates and received excellent defense with superlative-worthy goaltending. All of these elements came together on a run where they took 49 of 58 points to move from the Eastern Conference cellar to second place.
Still, Boston is a team capable of domination with several players who are ‘white-hot’ right now. Barring an unexpected collapse, the Bruins shouldn’t have trouble winning the Northeast Division and will probably still contend for the Eastern Conference’s top spot.
Even a modest “normalization” in their stats would lead to a pretty hefty market correction for the B’s. While it’s doubtful many thought the B’s could finish the season maintaining that .845 point percentage (139-point full season) pace, the drop-off could still be greater than anticipated.